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March 13, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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In Defence of America

Fresh off a recent trip to the States, Salient Feature Writer Nicholas Holm looks at examines anti-Americanism in context of his own travels and comes up with the conclusion that a people, is not always reflected by a leader. In today’s supposedly open- minded times, why do Americans themselves cop so much of the blame? And more importantly, why doesn’t some of this hatred get deflected onto the Portugese?

Most New Zealanders have a very certain pre-conceived idea of the United States of America: loud obnoxious braggarts, crass commercialism, gung-ho gun-toting rednecks, smog-belching SUVs and everybody’s favourite halfwit president. “America is a country filled with stupid fat ignorant people who care more about their SUVs than their children,” as an opinionated young hippy lass once told me. Foreigners envision the world’s wealthiest country, not so much as the land of freedom and prosperity it so vocally and frequently proclaims itself to be, but rather as thirty-two red Republican states, crammed full of god-fearing sister-humping good ole boys (and girls, God bless) sandwiched between two coasts of much more tolerable, but frankly still shallow and uncouth blue Democrat states with the district of Columbia thrown in for good measure. Most New Zealanders hold dear a view of America deeply rooted in ignorance and prejudice. A view which unfortunately is more reflective of bigotry at home than any suspected bigotry abroad.

It has become the done thing to detest the USA, as second nature to the hip young urban crowd (or the desperate semi-hip students who aspire to their ranks) and the feckless as the endless playing of Fly My Pretties or the constant reproduction of Che Guevara (Che who?) images. Let’s stop to consider the US for a brief moment. The United States of America is a nation of two hundred and eighty-one million citizens, a few million McDonald restaurants and nine and a half million square kilometers of almost infinitely varied rural and urban terrain. It is less a single nation, than nine or ten nations roughly stitched together within a liberal federal framework.

As much as they may proclaim their unity, citizens of California, Texas and Virginia have less in common with one another than those of New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain. So what does this mean for Shane, who’s a regular at the Matterhorn, and likes to mouth off about Americans and how they are the source of all the world’s problems? Well, it means that Shane has a lot to hate. There may be racists there, and there may be bigots, but there are also a whole bunch of perfectly friendly, pretty decent folk, who are proud to be American, and either don’t give a whit that Bush sits in the Oval Office, or go on living their life regardless.

Too many young New Zealanders discount America for their travels or education opportunities because they believe that the US is an ugly, unfriendly country, when nothing could be further from the truth. The same self-confidence that has earned Americans the unfavourable reputation as loud and crass, also means that they are prepared to strike up a conversation with a stranger at nine in the morning in a seedy diner. There is an enthusiasm and a complete lack of shame that means Americans, in broad terms, are much more prepared to put themselves on the line and go out of their way just to make a good impression.

The USA, for better or worse, is a country built with cars in mind. In the cities this tends to translate into a complicated tangle of freeways, organised with a sheer hatred for humanity that puts the Wellington one-way system to shame. Walking is for poor people, and public transport is not so much slow and inefficient, as humiliating and dangerous. But once you escape the cities, the American obsession with the automobile begins to make a hell of lot of sense. This is the land where the road trip was born and rightly so, with hundreds of miles of long straight roads interrupted only by the occasional diner where the waitresses have names like Flo and Darlene, and they proudly display their “hygiene unsatisfactory” notices on the front door. Unlike pitiful New Zealand excuses for road trips, you don’t exhaust your driving options after eight hours and as you chew up the miles on the South-Western highways of New Mexico your cares and environmental concerns just melt away.

Following the I-25 south out of Albuquerque to the shit hole town of Truth or Consequences, is a surprisingly spiritual experience with miles of desert scrub stretching out to the horizons, lulling unwary travellers into a profound meditative state which aids the consumption of endless snacks and the blaring of ridiculous country and western tunes playing on the radio. A shortcut towards Carlsbad involves taking the four-lane highway, as opposed to the ten-lane, across the ridiculously Freudian, both in appearance and name, Organ mountain range – the top of the pass provide stunning views of the nearby US military missile testing site, and a windblown statue of cruise missiles emblazoned with U-S-A in big white letters strikes a patriotic chord in even the most cynical soul. Oddly enough there’s a restroom here several thousand feet above the valley floor, where a lone deviant has carved an ode to the joys of fucking twelve year old girls. Such are the perversions that exist along the American highway, and just when you think that things can’t get any weirder you encounter an official border-patrol roadblock where they demand to see your passport, despite the nearest international border being on the other side of the state of Texas.

It’s a BA student’s wet dream – a place where the 60s never died, they just got a respectable job and a nice pair of khakis

As a destination city, Carlsbad has very little going for it, short of a string of budget motels, a specialist clothing store catering for fat little girls and a really big hole in the ground. It really is a remarkable hole, extending almost half a kilometre beneath the ground. The Carlsbad Caverns are a perfect example of America’s ability to take a natural wonder and improve upon it with extensive construction. The Eisenhower era dining room deep within the cave system would have been n marvel of engineering at the time, and retains a creepy Cold-War-fuck-you-we’re-America-and-we-can-do-anything atmosphere. And how many of you can say you’ve taken a leak- five hundred metres below the surface of the earth?

There is very little argument surrounding the fact that George W. Bush has the political prowess of a bag of squirrels. It is important to note however that all New Zealanders did not immediately become drunken assholes between 1978 and 1984 in the Muldoon years, nor have we become distant, yet icily competent over the last seven years. While we as a country may be responsible for the election of our leaders, it does not follow that as democratic citizens our leaders will be a direct reflection of our personality and competence as individuals. Countless Americans at home and abroad have suffered jeers and jibes and gobs of lofty, no doubt well-intentioned, spit on account of a man who they hate with all their bleeding liberal hearts. The bottom line is that a political administration is not the same as the country it represents, and the equivocation of President W. Bush with every single citizen of America is as boring as it mindless. It is a crutch for those who lack the ability or enthusiasm to actually think about politics on any deeper level, but like to mouth out at parties.

Americans seem, for the most part, to hate their president with much more venom than any foreigner could ever hope to muster. Those on the left are aggrieved over any number of things, with the most offensive seeming to be that he is a partisan, yet highly successful Republican, not withstanding tax-cuts, foreign invasions and anti-gay marriage amendments. Those on the right regard him as a closet fan of big government who needlessly tinkers with social security schemes, threatens to cut funding to US farmers and encroaches on the basic rights to privacy. He is lampooned, cut down and criticised at every turn by an American media who sense if not political injustice, then at least a good story (that is with the obvious exclusion of Fox News, who most likely think that a bible should be installed in every home, just to make sure). The Anti-Bush industry, because it is most definitely a mass-producing industry in every negative sense, is very much an American industry, with its populists (Michael Moore), intellectuals (Noam Chomsky) and iconoclasts (Trey Parker) all hailing, unapologetically, from the country they so often criticise. Even king of the douchebags, Michael Moore, manages to distinguish between country and administration, so it’s a disappointment that his antipodean fans often lack the imagination to make that crucial intellectual step. It’s a great shame that New Zealand has not yet managed to produce any real critical self-reflection as the Americans have, perhaps because any real political radicalism has been focused on finding errors overseas rather than identifying any flaws closer to home. Are we so docile and accepting that we allow bro’Town to be the sole extent of our cultural self-searching?

The USA, for better or worse, is a country built with cars in mind. In the cities this tends to translate into a complicated tangle of freeways, organised with a sheer hatred for humanity that puts the Wellington one-way system to shame

It would be hard to find two cities as unalike as San Francisco and Las Vegas. The Bay Area, the greater urban sprawl of which San Francisco forms the heart, is often referred to as a country apart from the US – steadfastly liberal, consciously cultured, cheerily tolerant. It’s not that Las Vegas isn’t these things, it’s them and more, it just doesn’t give a toss. Who care about politics and culture when you can gamble, whore and experience bizarre levels of luxury normally reserved for oil magnates? What both cities have in common is that they’re tremendous fun, and they couldn’t really exist anywhere in the world besides the US.

San Francisco is conservative America’s shadow, it can exist only in opposition to the nation it imagines exists beyond its borders – a land of racists, yokels and snake oil salesmen. Like Wellington writ large it sprawls across hills and harbours, secreted away within the city limits are immense parks, crazy bohemian districts where you can spot the tourists because they’re the ones wearing shoes. It has beautiful hillside neighbourhoods, the kind Mt Vic aspires to be when it grows up, CD stores the size of suburbs where you could rummage for days and never find anything good but just enjoy the whole thing so much you don’t care. There are tiny independent bookstores sandwiched between restaurants where the English language has never been heard and a man on every street corner with a megaphone and a life philosophy based around class-A drugs. It’s a BA student’s wet dream – a place where the 60s never died, they just got a respectable job and a nice pair of khakis.

There is nothing respectable in Las Vegas however. A shamelessly self-promoting den of sin, Vegas is possibly the most hilarious place on the surface of the earth. It is a beautiful distillation of the other American dream, the one with booze and hookers and blackjack. People in the street thrust porn into the hands of passers-by underneath the neon glow of a half-scale imitation Eiffel Tower, which perfectly complements the replica Statue of Liberty and medieval castle down the road. Time passes quietly in Vegas, a city without clocks or natural lighting, where you could conceivably live a complete, albeit slightly skewed, life without ever catching sight of the sun. Glorious fountains cascade from every street corner with complete disregard for the Mojave desert, Vegas is, if nothing else, a monument to modern irrigation techniques. Throngs of tourists constantly clutter the streets and overhead walkways, hungry for stimulus of any kind, cheap magic, slutty stage production, gigantic animatronic statues and lobster buffets. For all those who have a soft spot for washed-up lounge singers, the sound of poor people frittering away their life savings into Beverly Hillbillies-themed pokies (or gaming machines as local parlance would have it) or a complete and utter refusal to accept reality then Las Vegas will be like coming home; coming home to the city that good taste forgot.

Why do we continue to insist that we hate something that we so obviously love so dearly? If it’s not politics that we’re railing against, it’s the shit music/films/TV/interpretative dance that America continues to impose on us, despite the fact that we’re culturally self-sufficient – we have both Shihad and Fat Freddy’s Drop! America is constantly held accountable for the crap it produces and rightly so, but the diagnosis seems to be far too often turned into a sick cultural rule that American no longer means, “originating from the United States of America”, but instead has come to mean, “shit” among those seeking to score cheap points.

The Midwest is a fucking awesome place, as long as you approach it with love in your heart and a desire to see some freaky shit

The American media industries were responsible for Big Momma’s House 2, true, but the same people were also responsible for Brokeback Mountain – and not one reviewer, American or in New Zealand, yet has managed to avoid mentioning how Brokeback challenges and confronts the archetypal American cultural icon of the gay cowboy. Like it or not, America’s culture is our culture, our fads and fashions, nostalgic memories and upcoming trends are a direct product of our complete parasitic relationship to the American cultural industries, and any attempt to deny our close relation smacks of childish tantrum at best, and stark utter muppetry at worst. Unless you grew up on a backwards commune in Wanganui, the rhythms of your childhood will have been irreversibly shaped by Transformers and My Little Pony, and by the medium of television, itself a cultural product of America. American cable is a wonder of the modern world, and the passive joy to be had from immersing oneself in five hundred channels of sheer bollocks should not be underemphasised.

Sure America is the current culturally imperialistic boogeyman, but to wish away cultural imperialism is to wish away our own cultural touch-points that have made us the country we are today. The music, art and literature we call our own has been inspired and shaped by the work of America, the most dominant English-language culture in the world. McDonalds is more than just a place to grab a feed when you’re boozed, it’s probably also a treasured icon of your childhood. It may just be flash marketing, but it works.

Whatever you’ve heard about the Midwest is wrong. Guide-books will warn you away, travel agents will gape with horror and even locals will equate your visit with some kind of mental deficiency. They are all wrong. The Midwest is a fucking awesome place, as long as you approach it with love in your heart and a desire to see some freaky shit. Take for example Leila’s (pronounced Lay-eye-la) Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, the world’s only hair museum, as it proudly notes on is extensive range of publicity material. It is exactly what it claims to be, nothing more, nothing less than two large rooms jam-packed with a range of products manufactured from human hair. It doesn’t deteriorate over time you know, just one of the interesting facts they teach you at the hair museum. So that means that the bracelets, rings, statuettes and wreaths that Leila has collected over the years are still supple and springy almost two hundred years after their original manufacture.

There is nothing respectable in Las Vegas however. A shamelessly self-promoting den of sin, Vegas is possibly the most hilarious place on the surface of the earth. It is a beautiful distillation of the other American dream, the one with booze and hookers and blackjack

Independence is also home to the world centre of the Community of Christ, a liberal offshoot of Mormonism, who have constructed a fifty million dollar temple in the shape of a seashell roughly two thousand miles from the sea. Nice people, though. Staying religious for a minute, the Midwest provides all manner of Christian-flavoured goodness in which to indulge. The Evangelical Word of Life church had recently embarked upon an “Unvarnished Jesus” campaign, renting strategically positioned billboards around the local community so you have to stare at a grinning saviour while you wait at the drive-through coffee place (you have to pick up your coffee through drive-through as the exterior temperature rarely seems to rise above zero, meaning it is best to minimise exposure to the outside world). Attending a Word of Life Sunday service proves even more enlightening, a twelve piece rock band welcomes you to prayer before the dapper young preacher encourages substantial donations (get out your chequebooks, people!) Then prays for the Lord to bless the congregation with substantial economic rewards. The crowd’s sheer enthusiasm and the oh-so-comfy seats discourage unbelievers from sneaking away early. Further afield the Midwest also provides a home for a cute little Amish community, who still wave back after what must have been decades of irritating tourists invading their neighbourhood to gawk at them. They don’t even seem to mind when you screw up your maths and end up stiffing them on the tip at the local restaurant. Local bars, probably not patronised by the Amish, have large signs prohibiting concealed firearms, so make sure everyone can see your handguns.

At the end of the day, hating America is pretty much a victimless crime, like punching a tree – the tree doesn’t hate you back, it doesn’t even notice. Brooke Byrd, full-blown citizen of the USA, takes it all in her stride, telling me that it’s a one-way feud: “I have never heard New Zealand brought up in conversation unless it’s about Lord of the Rings or Peter Jackson, your politics are never in the news and if it’s anything its’ sheep. Don’t be offended. Americans don’t think about other countries unless they pose a danger to us or have something we want.”

Whether it’s Winston Peters railing against the US in an unscripted example of “megaphone diplomacy” or Dave on page eight of this very magazine letting slip with a stream of expletives there is pretty much no substance to our populist denouncing of the US. America is an easy target because it is so much like us: a young colonial Western country that provides the perfect avatar for displacing all our fears and hatreds about our own country and its shortcomings. The belief that America is the place where the poor are mistreated, where people don’t care about each other, or their environment and where those who are different suffer intolerant, narrow-minded treatment insulates us from having to take a closer look at the realities of modern day New Zealand. It is unfortunate when abstract political posturing becomes nasty self-congratulatory nationalism or mistreatment of individuals. Americans touring abroad are told to pretend they’re Canadian to avoid abuse or condemnation, which is ridiculous when you consider that most of the people who leave do so because they’re eager to learn about the world.

Many New Zealanders don’t like America very much, but they don’t really have much reason to do so. One administration is not the be-all and end-all of a nation that has existed for over two centuries, and can hardly be said to encompass the almost infinite diversity of the world’s wealthiest and craziest country. To discount the USA as irrelevant is to write off one of the world’s most fascinating and gloriously messed-up creations, America contains multitudes, you just need to have the heart to give it a chance. There’s no point wasting your time hating America, it’s better just to stick to hating Portugal. It’s full of fucking Portuguese after all.

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About the Author ()

Nick Holm, feared by his enemies, loved by his friends, is the whore of student media. Having cut his teeth working for the California Aggie, and come closer to committing hate crimes than anyone will ever really know while the News Editor of Massey\'s Chaff, he\'s somehow beached himself at Salient for the near future. Haunted by prophetic dreams that show him tantalising glimpses of a future that may come to pass if he fails to prevent the robot uprising he will like you if you bring coffee or malt liquor.

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