Wednesday, January 14, 2004

What is it with America? No, that's not quite right. What is it with ME and America? Why is it that on a multitude of subjects ranging from Islay malts through even the Blades to the relative merits of divergent brands of cigarette papers, I can remain coherent, well-balanced and rational and yet the merest whiff of Stateside carries within it the ability to reduce me to such a state that all right thinking individuals would raise little objection were I to be assisted into one of those long-sleeved shirts with no buttons down the front?

I've never even been there unless, that is, you count the transit lounge at Puerto Rico airport and even that was dominated by more Star Spangled Banners than you could shake a stick at.

But even though I have yet to visit it, it visits me on an almost daily basis. I can go through whole days, weeks, months even without ever being exposed to anything vaguely French, German or even Austrian which is strange considering I'm typing this not 100 kms from the Austro-Hungarian border. But open a newspaper, watch a film, turn on the TV, walk into a supermarket, drive under the yellow M and it's there. In your face, up close and personal. I guess that's part of it. I never get to hear of examples of Kan bait produced by other governments and cultures as often as I do those which are so very kindly provided by the good old US of A.

What makes it all the stranger is my personal experience of Americans. I have received nothing but kindness, generosity and friendship from every single one it has ever been my pleasure to meet, either virtually or in the flesh and they have proved to be intelligent conversationalists, good company and, even if one or two of them were rather too Creationist to fit neatly against my pagan edges, incredibly well-rounded individuals.

So my problem is not with individual Americans, then. I guess what causes me the most apoplexy can be lumped under the twin headings of Government and culture.

I realise that any discussion of US government will include points that are just as valid for most of our soi-disant western democracies but it appears to me that in the case of the States, everything is so much more so...we have to multiply everything by the A factor as it were. Examples of political chicanery and skullduggery abound internationally, but you wanna bigger and better one? Look no further.

Maybe it's the romantic in me but there must have been a time when politics was a noble calling, when governments actually led and attempted to form public opinion. The abolition of slavery, prohibition, the New Deal...even Kennedy's man on the moon within a decade, all these had the touch of the radical about them, a fearlessness that is so absent from politics today. Were all the above just catching the wave, tuning in to the Zeitgeist? I think not. But could you find me a politician today who dares open their mouth without consulting the latest opinion polls, the results of which will then quite coincidentally turn out to accord with their own long held beliefs? Government by the people? God help us. Capital punishment was abolished in Germany at a time when 78% of the German people were in favour of it. The same poll today would show that the percentages have reversed.

When I said I have had no problem with any American I have met, I meant exactly that but Americans en masse are a biscuit of an entirely different texture. When considering any mass of people it is always worth remembering that the average IQ of a human is 100. The largest part of any survey of public opinion will contain the views of those whom I would not trust to give me the correct change over the counter at McDonalds never mind formulate government policy.

And it isn't as if the politicians are unaware of this. They use it and manipulate it come election time, appealing to all that is low, baseless and selfish within the mass. When did you last hear a politician genuinely appeal to our higher nature, go against the grain because what they believed in was simply the right thing to do? And if, on the off chance that you have managed to come up with such an example, Ask yourself this. Did they get re-elected?

But then again, of US domestic policy I know little. What the rest of the world cannot help but notice are the ramifications of US foreign policy. And oh, my giddy aunt, what a spaghetti nest of cant, hypocrisy and mendacity that way lies.

I neither want nor have the time to go into this to the extent it deserves but I will take an example from current affairs. This whole fandango that is Guantanamo Bay. Now, I understand that the US isn't breaking international law here. Any laws or protocols that exist regarding any aspect of this the US is not a signatory to and thus cannot be accused of treaty breaking. But surely there is such a thing as the spirit of the law even if it is absurd to suggest that US law could be valid in say, Belgium for example. But when one starts to treat foreigners with less than one would treat one's own citizens and yet expect American citizens to be treated abroad as they would be at home, something is seriously out of whack. The thing that started this whole thing off today was discovering yesterday that the commandant of the camp has described the 32 suicide attempts amongst the non-lawful combatants held there as "manipulative behaviour." He should be on Oprah.

And that's another thing. Non-lawful combatants. What the fuck? I heard them described as non uniformed, non-members of regular army or some such. Maybe we should start rounding up any surviving members of the French resistance, then. Find a new use for Sangatte. Thing is, I don't recall the 'wars' in either Afghanistan or Iraq being agreed on at government level between all countries concerned. Maybe both those countries did in fact declare war on the US and I missed it. Maybe I'd popped out for some cigarette papers or something. America went in with a few minor 'coalition' members hanging on to their coat tails and then had the balls to decide who amongst the populations of those countries were legally entitled to fight them. Good grief!

Ooops, must go...I'll finish this later!

Right, now where was I? Oh, yeah...culture. Now I realise that this could easily turn into one of those discussions akin to that of the Jewish resistance movement in The Life of Brian..."Ok, well apart from Blues, Jazz, Gore Vidal, John Updike, David Byrne, Noam Chomsky etc...what have the Americans ever given us?"

Mind you, I would think that for all the pretty amazing things and people to have come out of America the Oprahisation of life and the cult of celebrity has been a rather high price to pay, but...onwards, ever onwards!

The fact which I find most boggling about US culture, apart from this weird and dangerous thing they've got going with the flag that is, is that for a country supposedly obsessed with individualism, they seem to have an almost irresistible desire for homogenisation. Witness the spread of retail food outlets, McDonalds, Taco Bell and Starbucks, the basic premise of which is that you will be able to walk into any of their establishments, anywhere in the States or even the world and be assured that the comestibles on offer will differ not a jot between any of them. All highly reassuring, I'm sure...after all, "You know where you are with McDonalds, don't you?" but the less variety one finds at home the more difficult it will be to accept that other cultures may have different tastes. The extrapolations of this reach far beyond the culinary.

And what is it with their cars? I read of a town somewhere in the mid-west which spent not a few million dollars on pedestrianising it's main street, turning it into a place where people could pleasantly go about their business, sit on benches and admire the specially planted foliage...a haven of calm, in fact.

It cost them a hell of a lot more to rip it all up and restore it to its original condition when people abandoned it for the out of town mall.

And the relentless dumbing down of everything. Here's Mariah Carey on the developing world.

"Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff."

5% of the world's population consuming 20% of its resources and Mariah can't keep the size of her ass out of the discussion.

Oprah. Well, what can I say? We are being encouraged to sublimate personal responsibility and blame, to claim that we have been abducted by aliens rather than face up to the fact that we are responsible for our own lives and have fucked them up entirely unaided. No, we have to be women who fall for men who were smacked by their mothers and have to join a support group in order to share and seek closure. Bollocks, the lot of it!

The longer this goes on, the more I realise that this isn't really about America at all, only in so far as most of what I find disagreeable about the world today either originated there or finds its most obvious expression within its shores.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that I would feel right at home in one of the more genteel Commonwealths of the South now that there are no longer any 'strange and bitter fruit' hanging from the trees.

I think all I'm really yearning for is a more civilised age, a more educated and critical population...somewhere where people will say "Thankyou" when I hold the door open for them. And a world in which George W Bush would not have been trusted with the car keys, never mind those to the White House.

Oh well, maybe you think it's all been a wee bit fastuous but if you have been, put the gun down.

No comments: