Visitors to the United States use many adjectives to describe the country. Subtle is not one of them. To many, the U.S. seems much more the lethal, cumbersome 70-ton Abrams tank thundering down the road than the nimble, fleet-footed forest creature relying on cunning and camouflage to escape capture.
My native country can often seem an incredibly jarring mixture of loud noise, blaring commercial assaults to buy something – anything, constant change coupled with in-your-face innovation, and a near-total disdain for anything that happened the day before. Europeans steeped in centuries-old traditions -- along with their assorted vicious religious and political feuds -- are often shocked that history in America is what you had for breakfast. Ancient history is last night’s TV schedule. Culture buffs are horrified that classical opera is reduced to elevator music and works by giants like Michelangelo can be reduced to hastily-created digital images on hand-held tablets.
On a recent visit home I was struck once again by the stark differences between the United States and Europe. Even in New England, considered by many to have close cultural and social ties to Europe, it was clear that the U.S. really is an ‘all bets are off, anything goes’ country.
American TV ads are one of my favourite examples of this. Other than the ban on cigarettes and alcohol there don’t appear to be any standards at all. The airways are filled with ads for prescription medicines that are supposed to cure all sorts of horrible diseases. A deep, authoritative voice assures you that this particular pill will reverse your downward slide and return you to sparkling shape in no time at all. Then the last half of the ad mentions, very rapidly, all the equally horrible side effects of this drug that could send you to an early grave.
Best of all, though, are the ads aimed at older men suffering from what is politely called erectile dysfunction. These ads all feature an attractive woman saying how much she likes older men, but, unfortunately, so many of them seem to have difficulty between the sheets. This little pill, however, can cure all of that and have them prancing around like randy teenagers in no time at all. Then the sonorous voice comes on listing all the adverse side effects, and says that if you have an erection lasting more than four hours you should call your doctor. Doctor, hell! It’s time to notify the Guinness Book of World Records.
These are just part of the stark contrasts that seem to define America. Awe-inspiring natural beauty and some man-made horrors; world leading universities stuffed with Nobel prizes coexist with some stupefying, almost wilful (I-don’t-know-nuthin’-and-I’m-proud-of- it)ignorance; cutting edge medical industry that leaves many with no care at all; dynamic economy that offers great opportunities but no guarantees.
Then, of course, there is the American love affair with ice. It can -15 degrees with a howling blizzard outside and the waiter will invariably serve you water in a glass filled with ice cubes. As you glance at the snow outside and politely ask if it would be possible to have the water without ice cubes the waiter gives you a look that says you are seconds away from being reported to Homeland Security. That threat level goes to orange when you mention to the same waiter that the portion size of the meal is perhaps better suited to a small town than just one individual.
Maybe it was the impact of the holiday season, but no effort is spared to part the consumer and his money. You are constantly bludgeoned with your patriotic duty to shop – on the internet or in real stores. One famous retailer specialising in outdoor gear is open 24/7 all year with no exceptions. I was jet lagged the day after arriving and decided to experiment with a bit of browsing at 4 am. Interesting people go shopping in a rural town at 4 o’clock in the morning. You want to watch out for the genetically-challenged guy with the glassy-eyed stare going over to the gun rack at that time of day. “Boy, that sure is a real nice looking shot gun you got there,” he gushes as he lovingly strokes the barrel. Others were just taking advantage of a warm place to sit and get some free coffee.
Personal freedom is cherished above all else. There are no thought police, no taste police in the form of not-so-subtle community pressure that dictates what you do. You want to wear orange bib overalls with a loud green shirt, go right ahead. You want to put enough reindeer and Christmas lights on your house and lawn so it can be seen from the planet Mars, go right ahead. People will congratulate you. Same for cars. You want what Europeans would consider an environmental disaster of car, go right ahead. Again, no one is going to stop you.
Perhaps most of all it is the sheer energy level, the drive to innovate, to change, to renew that make America an exciting place. Sometimes exhausting, frustrating and hypocritical, but seldom dull. All that went before -- your lineage, your achievements, your sense of proper social order -- means absolutely nothing. You are what you did today. Perhaps this is why the people who appreciate America the most are those who arrived with the least.