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Amish Ragtime Surfer Blues

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Well, I really hope the link I posted yesterday was to James Lileks’s criticism of the Guardian “what it’s like in America” piece, and not to the Guardian piece itself, but Mab’s post made me remember the one article on the subject I was ever really impressed with. 

Or maybe impressed isn’t the right word.

It was a short little piece, written for a Finnish newspaper by a young woman who had come to study for a year or two at a small public university in Missouri.   And what struck me about it, aside from its lack of prior commitment to animosity, was just what it was the young woman h ad chosen to be amazed at.

It’s not true, she said, that Americans spend all their time putting on a false friendliness.  Americans are actually friendly.  Her first day in town, she was struggling with her luggage and her street maps and was met by one of her professors, who  promptly stowed his bags in his trunk, drove her to where she was supposed to live, and got her bags inside.

Apparently, this is not something a professor would ever do for a student in Finland.  I say “supposedly,” because she didn’t actually say that.  She just kept going on and on about how wonderful it had been to get all this help from a professor!

The empasis was in her article, not in my post.  If that makes sense.

The other thing she was astonished at clarified something for me that I had never before understood.

She looked around this college town and saw lots of houses with flags flying in the front yards or from the windows, and she met lots of fellow students with flag decals on their cars or their notebooks.

Where in Europe, she said, this kind of display would mean an obsession with unhealthy and belligerent nationalism, in America it seemed to just mean that people liked being Americans.  Even some of the people who opposed the war in Iraq had flag decals and tended to get upset if you started to talk trash about the country at large.  It was one thing to disparage Bush and  Cheney.  It was another thing to run down “America.”

Um, okay.

I’ve lived a significant portion of my adult life outside the United States.  It still baffles me when I see polls that show that German, French and even British people don’t like being the nationality they are and don’t think their countries are good or admirable places.  You’d think that just family feeling would take care of that kind of thing.

And I wonder, as I’ve said here efore, how much of the “immigration problem” in Europe is actually an attitude problem.  Immigrants come here and are surrounded by Americans who like being Americans and are always talking up the virtues of the country.  Immigrants get there and all they hear is talk about how awful and corrupt their new society is. 

I mean, I don’t know–that could have something to do with the willingness of immigrants to assimilate, don’t you think?

I remember reading–apropos of the bit about the professor who drove the young woman to her new housing–many  years ago, a memoir by a writer of Indian descent who said he had decided that America was the place to be during his first term at Yale Graduate School. 

He was walking down a street in New Haven when a cab puled up and stopped.  The man who got out was the Dean of the Graduate School, and when the driver took the man’s bags out of the trunk, the good Dean picked them u p himself and carried them into his house. 

This was, apparently, absolutely unheard of in India, where an important man like a Dean would have somebody to carry his bags for him.

Sometimes, reading these things, I wonder if I’m still in the twentieth century.

A few years ago, I started up a web site called How To Be An American, which was meant to collect material from every state, and from people of different political and religious and philosophical persuasions from every state, as a kind of resource to counter things like the Guardian article.  Then my life went to hell yet again, and I didn’t have the time.

I still own the URL.  Maybe I should go back to it.

In the meantime, sitting up here in New England where practically nobody owns a gun, practically nobody goes to church and the wild turkeys could be the basis for one of those Fifties black and white monster movies, I’m going to go back to reading Simon Schama on the West Point tradition of the citizen engineer soldier.

Written by janeh

September 20th, 2009 at 6:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Amish Ragtime Surfer Blues'

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  1. This fits with our internal critics–for the most part professors, politicians and “public intellectuals” who look forward to the deference–if not actual servants–they can’t get here and now. They’ll win, but I see no reason for them to win quickly and easily.
    A special place in my heart for the memory of Senator Mosley-Braun explaining that OF COURSE congresspeople should have their own permanently reserved free parking next to the terminal at Reagan National Airport. Why she had sometimes had to carry her own bags…


    20 Sep 09 at 6:42 am

  2. I haven’t seen any of those surveys of Europeans in which they claim they don’t like being the nationality they are and don’t think their countries are good and admirable places, and I’m trying to figure out how this works in spite of this disadvantage.

    I tend to think that if you don’t like your nationality, you change it, like you would a job or an educational program. It’s not something to be done lightly, but it’s not impossible unless you happen to live behind an Iron Curtain, and even then it could sometimes be done.

    Have an opinion about my country’s goodness and admirableness… that’s tricky. I like Canada a lot – Newfoundland more, which is natural, of course. I, like our late Father of Confederation Joey Smallwood, chose Canada, since I grew up here as a non-citizen due to the citizenship laws of the period, and I made a choice between the US and Canada when I finally took out citizenship. I’d be really, really reluctant to say my country is good and admirable. Oh, in some ways, we are of course, but it’s nothing to boast of and of course I can think of ways in which we can improve. And yet, I don’t think I’m a bad or disloyal or even disatisfied citizen because I look at my country as clearly as I can and don’t go in for the little flags and fireworks on July 1 like some of my compatriots do. It’s like a pollster is asking the wrong question if he asks me is my country good and admirable. The adjectives are wrong. Just about everyone and everything is good and admirable sometimes and no one and nothing is in an absolute sense. Making a big public fuss about how good and admirable my country is seems so …. unCanadian even though I know many of my countrymen and women do so. To use the family comparison, it would be like renting a billboard to express my deepest personal feelings about my closest relatives. ICK.

    Journalists always get stuff wrong about the places they write about. And things go in cycles. Has anyone ever noticed how the big media outlet often have the same main story at almost the same time even when it’s not a death or a war or something that acutally happened. It’s like someone somewhere writes that Americans eat in chain restaurants, and all the other outlets have an article on the same thing within a week or two.

    The problem is that some people take this as reality.


    20 Sep 09 at 3:51 pm

  3. Right now America and Americans are demonized in Russia to the point of, I dunno, madness. But even people who think they are immune to it come back from the US singing its praises in tones of absolute amazement. They expect Americans to be pushy, arrogant, and money-grubbing. They find us to be incredibly friendly, warm, helpful and kind of parochial (ie, in small towns people don’t swagger around like Kings of the Universe). Not everyone, of course. Some people are unlucky or find what they are looking for.

    I laughed about the big Dean carrying his own bags. Here in Russia the 15th deputy minster of the Ministry of Mushroom Growing has a car, driver, and four assistants. We stop traffic for all of them and their wives, children and mistresses. On Friday the guards dropped the bar in the parking lot of a gated community because some jerk low-level bureaucrat was driving out of the fitness club after his sauna. We all had to wait for the great man to exit. This makes me want to grab an Uzi and do major damage.

    Cheryl: what you describe at the end of your post is herd journalism. Every Moscow news bureau starts the day by reading/watching the competition. If someone writes about a religious revival, the editors in NY or DC send off an email: why have you missed this story? So everyone troops off to churches and monasteries and writes their piece. That’s why you get these waves of stories and tones. It also makes me crazy. (My, I’m grumpy today.)


    21 Sep 09 at 4:31 am

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