Sunday, July 10, 2005

Conversations With My Neighbo(u)rs


When I lived in the United States a colleague, a dastardly Frenchman, conducted an even more dastardly experiment.

Apalled by what he described as the 'American Newswell', a place where very little from the outside penetrated, especially for those that watched a lot of TV, the dastardly Frenchman flashed a picture of the recently deceased Francois Mitterand at everybody in our workplace and asked them to identify him.

The place where we worked was full of science geeks from all over the world. Only two of the 12 North Americans among us got it right. And neither was actually an American.

Now those ten Americans that got it wrong were hardly a representative sample. After all, we were all apprentices who had come to a hardcharging, bigtime lab where we worked 70 or 80 hours a week in an effort to make a name for ourselves so that we could all go home and get real jobs.

As a result, the great majority of us had little time or, truth be told, inclination for the real world or realpolitick.

Thus, by the same token I'm not sure how many of the young Europeans working in the lab would have been able to identify a picture of Gerald Ford.

But not all the Americans I got to know pretty well while living in the States were science geeks. Luckily, my wife worked with normal humans in a very different field so we got to meet lots of interesting folks. Additionally, we were living in Berkeley California where, if you were paying attention and if you were open minded, it was pretty easy to have fantastic, rabble-rousing conversations with anyone, anytime just about anywhere at all, including, say, the ballpark or the supermarket checkout line.

Unfortunately, in recent years I've noticed that I rarely have these kinds of conversations anymore when I venture south, which is still pretty often.

And this post from Shawn over at the very fine, and very American, Liquid Thoughts got me thinking about the whys and wherefores:

".....I was vacationing many clicks north in Canada’s Banff National Park. It’s a beautiful place, and I’d highly recommend taking a vacation there. My wife and I saw grizzlies, elk, foxes, mountain goats, and lots of people that really do say “eh?”—a lot.......

.....In my head, as we jawboned (nice word, eh?) over the campfire each night, I really became quite saddened by the talk. I’ve traveled the world a good bit, and I clearly remember the days when status as an American citizen drew smiles and excitement from foreign hosts. In the past, conversation involved upbeat inquiries about life in the USA. No longer. Today the American traveler can expect suspicion and not-really-joking humor from their hosts ….even in Canada. How do Republicans’ deal with this, I wondered? How do they explain away behavior they support, like torture, to a gape-mouthed, horrified citizen of another country?"

Now I can't disagree with Shawn about how I, as a Canuckistani, currently deal with Americans, Republican or not, whose Newswell-assisted view of the world keeps them from wondering if pre-emptive war, total information domination, state-sanctioned torture, liberation by economic shock therapy or the flattening of entire villages for no good reason at all might have a downside, either for them or the wider world.

But I have also noticed something else.

And that is that it is not just foreigners that have become suspicious and cynical to the point of hopelessness. Because for those Americans, like my good friends from Berkeley and beyond, that are able to stand a little bit apart and peek back inside it is becoming harder and harder for them to honestly and openly discuss the destruction of their country, its way of life, and it's previous exceptionalism with outsiders.

And that truly is sad.


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