Road Trippin’ in the USA

Recently I’ve begun to think I’m incapable of forming opinions. Just when I think I’ve hit upon the perfect worldview, some infinitely smug and annoying person comes along and shatters it with a tidbit of trivia they’ve just heard on the radio or somewhere equally pedestrian, while somehow I remain uninformed. Surely there’s just too much information in the world for anyone to be able to make up their mind. Forget the hurdles posed by spin, statistics and that ubiquitous phrase ‘classified’: I can’t even escape the limits of my own faculties. I wouldn’t know anthrax from amoxicillin, so what could I realistically bring to a debate on WMD? Some might say I’m not even fit for the erstwhile Kilroy. While I may sound defeatist, I’m talking about pathological ignorance on a grand scale here. So why should anyone believe a word I’m about to write?

Although my mother is American, my impression of the USA has mainly been formed by the media, and until this summer, I didn’t really feel I had anything to add to the debate. The USA clearly deserved the negative perceptions of the rest of the world due to its aggressive economic and foreign policies, its people were naïve and corpulent, and that part of my heritage might as well not have existed. But after 4500 miles, driving across 11 states in three weeks, meeting over 40 of my mother’s friends and relatives, I was forced to acknowledge a more three dimensional USA.

One of my favourite things about America is its quirky optimism. Not only is this the country that stubbornly and successfully markets aerosol cheese, it is also the nation that once endorsed the foot-bellow-operated air conditioned suit, and still supports the Vegas Drive Thru wedding chapel initiative (free chips an incentive). I even discovered this trait in my own ancestry. Apparently my grandmother, raised in Mid-Western Nebraska, ended up in LA by flipping a coin to decide which big city to head for. Then she and my grandfather got married on a whim in Las Vegas because they wanted to go on holiday together to see (of all things) the Hoover Dam. And I always thought our gene pool was rather staid.

There’s quirky and then there’s just plain bizarre. There was the steak restaurant in Texas whose employees wore t-shirts proudly emblazoned with the dubious aphorism ‘BBQ makes everybody somebody.’ Beating this only slightly was the orange San Francisco sports car whose owners had splashed out on a generous sprinkling of fake bullet holes in the bodywork, complete with painted ricochet marks. But the clear winner for out and out nuttiness came from a phonebook in Arizona in which one of the local handymen had entered the following advertisement: ‘Jesus is coming: drilling and plumbing’.

Evangelism, it seems, is just one of the many aspects of American society that we simply do not understand. But while in Europe we tend to focus on the heinous nature of the major religious output from the US – televangelism – we tend not to understand the related phenomenon: that middle America is deeply religious; possibly more so than anywhere in Europe. When I visited Ground Zero I was impressed by the number of messages scrawled on the walls calling for peace and forgiveness. This wasn’t the irrational and vengeful America that the Bush administration purports to represent, and I found myself having to re-evaluate my simplistic assumptions.

This isn’t to say that I completely reversed my opinions during the trip. In fact I saw many troubling things that substantiated the dim view taken by the international community. Guns on sale in WalMart and myriad strip malls blighting the landscape evoke the dysfunction portrayed in recent works such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Particularly noticeable are the social divisions in the first world country with the biggest gap between its richest and poorest citizens. Increasingly, the rich hide away from the resulting social problems by locking themselves in gated communities, often resulting in de facto segregation.

Particularly salient is the example set by the capital city, Washington DC. The city is not part of any state, and consequently it is not represented by voting members in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. Its predominantly black population only obtained the right to vote in general elections in 1960; and that was under intense international pressure. Most states’ car license plates have slogans extolling the American Way or America’s natural beauty: New Hampshire’s ‘Live Free or Die’ and New Jersey’s ‘The Garden State’ spring to mind. Pointedly, Washington DC has chosen ‘Taxation without Representation.’

But it is not only the citizens of DC who are under- and mis-represented. Within the international community the American’s ideology is automatically equated with that of a president whom no-one is sure actually got elected, while the fat, stupid American stereotype is gleefully expounded. Now especially, people may ask why this should change. With the threat of terrorism still at the forefront of every American’s mind, and the decision to introduce more stringent visa regulations even for the citizens of the nation’s ‘closest ally’, it seems that the distance between ordinary Americans and the rest of the world is only set to increase, and by their own choosing. However, in true Hollywood style, if I learned anything from my trip, it’s that many of the generalisations I had accepted started to ring false. But if we must satirise the Americans (as it is almost our patriotic duty to do), we can take heart from the fact that ceasing to generalise gives us many more ways in which to do it. Oh, and I also learned that after the sixth service station hamburger you reach some kind of Nirvana and start to crave lettuce.

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