Friday, July 18, 2014

The American paradox

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 16.)

I have to smile when I think of my one visit to New York City.

My wife and I arrived late on a Saturday night in October 2002. I remember it well because on the drive in from Kennedy Airport our cab driver told us of the terrorist bombings that had just killed 202 people in Bali.
But that’s incidental. What amuses me is the recollection of how apprehensive I was – quite unnecessarily, as it turned out – when we ventured out into the city the following morning.

It being early on a Sunday, the streets around our Greenwich Village hotel were virtually deserted. I’m not a timid person but I admit feeling uneasy as we descended the steps of the nearest subway station to catch a train to Battery Park, from where we intended to take a ferry to the Statue of Liberty.
I’m not sure what I expected, but for the previous few decades I had been conditioned by Hollywood movies to believe that New York – and the subway especially – was infested with armed muggers and crazed drug addicts.

Of course we didn’t encounter any; not even a beggar, though they’re usually everywhere in urban America. As the day progressed and we roamed the city, we gradually relaxed. There were no drive-by shootings, no car chases, no police with loudhailers telling holed-up serial killers to come out with their hands up. I was almost disappointed.
By the time we left New York several days later, we felt entirely at ease moving around. And contrary to legend, we found New Yorkers friendly and approachable.

Since then we’ve been back to America several times. We’ve driven through 20 states, including some that most Americans admit they wouldn’t dream of visiting. We’ve stayed in big, glamorous cities and forgotten towns in the middle in nowhere. And we’ve grown to like the country so much that we almost suffer withdrawal symptoms if we stay away too long.
Almost everywhere we’ve been, people have been gracious, welcoming and interested in where we come from and what we’re doing. And although we’ve seen countless movies about terrible things happening to people on lonely American highways or in sinister small towns, at no time have we felt remotely at risk.

All this makes it doubly hard to comprehend the hideous events that regularly cause America to convulse.
Hardly a week seems to pass without a report of someone running amok with a gun. Some of these incidents happen in incongruously pleasant settings, such as the affluent, laid-back Californian town of Isla Vista, where young Elliott Rodger recently recorded a chilling video before coolly killing six people because he was resentful at not being able to get a girlfriend.

More recently there was an even more quintessentially American killing spree in Las Vegas by a strange young couple who shot dead two policemen before turning their guns on themselves. It seemed they had a grudge against the government – a recurring theme in such crimes.
How does one account for such bizarre acts? It’s not enough to say that a country of more than 300 million people is bound to produce extremes of good and bad. While that’s certainly true, there’s more to it than that.

Some of America’s weirdness is built in; hard-wired, as it were. There seems to be a rogue gene in the country’s DNA that periodically manifests itself in outbursts of homicidal craziness on a scale that New Zealanders can’t comprehend.
Among a tiny, cranky minority of Americans there’s a seething, irrational, inarticulate rage that, when combined with the availability of guns, can have lethal consequences. Religious fundamentalism, right-wing extremism, anti-government paranoia and the constitutional right to bear firearms (which some Americans regard as if it were ordained by God) make a toxic brew.

All countries have their own weirdness, some more than others. Japan and India impress me as being wonderfully weird, albeit in different ways. But on the international weirdness scale, it’s hard to imagine any country topping the USA.
It’s hard to explain, for example, how a country that’s so overtly Christian – a country where the biggest and most opulent buildings in many poor rural towns are churches – can also be the Western world’s most enthusiastic executioner. It doesn’t seem to occur to many Americans that putting people to death, often in the most cold-blooded way, might be contrary to God’s will.

But there remains that perplexing paradox. On the one hand there’s the friendly, charming America that my wife and I experience in our travels; on the other, a society where grotesquely strange and evil things happen.
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I wonder what he made of America, which seems a far more bewildering mess of contradictions.


Brendan McNeill said...


Like you have I spent a lot of time in the USA over the last 30 years, both on business and on holiday.

I have concluded that America is an enigma, largely because the high density costal areas represent a city living, urbane, secular population, and that big ‘chunk in the middle’ represents the conservative, rural, diminishing ‘old America’ that embraced Christianity, neighborliness, and hospitality as second nature.

I may be wrong, but the feedback I get is the school-room mass killers are usually kids that are dysfunctional on many levels, are on prescription anti-depressants, and have access to their parents guns.

From where we live, the gun culture seems crazy, but you have to understand the history of the USA, and appreciate the healthy distrust the average citizen has for central Government, and dare I say it, for good reason.

Just this week in America, a women was charged with leaving her 11 year old daughter alone in a car while she went into a store (hello!) and another women was arrested for allowing her 9 year old daughter to go to a park alone.

When you have a Government that is this involved in regulating the affairs of regular family life, it might well be time to get armed and get ready!

American people are great. It’s their politicians, the over zealous bureaucrats and their conflicted foreign policy that’s the problem.

Jigsaw said...

I walked many places at night in the States and only felt unsafe on a couple of occasions. I lived in Canada and found that in many ways that was worse. Canada often felt suffocating- a very regulated society. The USA is so big that its very hard to say anything that will apply to all areas. As Brendan points out the coasts are different than the interior in all sorts of ways.