Saturday, January 10, 2009

We're all living in America

After my parents and my sister visited me, it seems like a good time to evaluate my experiences here in the US. Like my parents, I came to this country with certain assumptions to and as happened to my parents, some assumptions where confirmed while I had to adjust others. To Americans, such assumptions might seem blatant generalizations that are not at all based on reality, but to many Europeans, only a very general or even typical image of Americans emerges from most media reports of this country.
Even though I can only speak based upon my experiences in Washington DC, New York, Boston and Columbus Ohio, so far my findings are that:

- America doesn't offer only fast food. Actually, I can find more vegetarian and/or organic restaurants in DC (but certainly in NY) than in Amsterdam.
- Not all Americans are fat. In fact, many Americans take great care to stay healthy.
- Americans are not all uncritical patriots. In fact, many (or most?) don't support the war in Iraq and a very large majority is nowadays merciless towards Wall Street banks and Detroit car-producers.
- The enthousiasm of Americans is not just an exaggerated, superficial expression of interest. Actually, many Americans are not as overly enthousiastic as often portrayed and I believe most really mean it. I guess to us cold, unengaged Dutch it seems exaggerated, but in fact I think it's a nice way to interact.

Some assumptions that seem to be confirmed are:
- Everything in the US is big: the cars, the streets, the buildings, the hamburgers, the cups of coffee. I always order the smalles size and in most cases that's a substantial meal or beverage. And sometimes I'm still surprised to see a 6-lane street run right through the city filled with SUV's and pick-up trucks big enough to house a Chinese family.
- Success is measured by wealth. It's very important to have a big, new car. It's very important to have a big house. It's very important to have expensive jewellery. Or at least so it seems when I look around on the streets and in magazine ads. And I believe that's what made many Americans take on debt that they counldn't pay off once the interest rates increased...
- War is not necessarily seen as bad. While most European countries (and especially Japan) revolt at any military operation abroad, Obama can only broker a reduction of troops in Iraq if he increases American presence in Afghanistan.

This is actually one of the most striking insights I got while I was here (or maybe not insight, but rather gut-feeling): even though many Americans don't believe in the flimsy excuses used by the Bush-administration to invade Iraq, they do believe that their army is doing good work there - and in Afghanistan. The conviction that the intention of most soldiers are good also musters support for those serving their country, even among those critical of the war effort. And while this good intention might be true for the individuals, often I doubt the intentions of the US Department of Defense as a whole (see the documentary Why we fight).
I can't suppress the feeling that most US citizens don't understand the real atrocities of war because the US has never experienced a modern full-scale war on it's own territory. War is always ugly - Abu Ghraib is not an exception, but rather the rule. If your job is to kill or be killed, you have to become numb to 'normal' human morals. You can blame American soldiers for that as little as you can blame German or Japanese fascists for it (see for example the documentary Japanese Devils). So as long as people don't realize what the real burden of war is, what death, destruction and mutilation look like, they can support any war waged in the name of freedom, democracy or some other abstract notion that won't bring anybody back to life.