Wednesday, February 16, 2005

My America: Letters To The World

Letter One

I was reading at one of my favorite sites, The Daily DeMarche, written by an anonymous field officer with the Foreign Services (an employee of foggy bottom for those of you in the know), when he directed me to an article called Fashionable Anti-Americanism where the writer, Dominic Hilton, describes why it's fashionable to hate America, some historical perspective and why it shouldn't matter to Americans because, honestly, we have been disliked for years for one reason or the other. He pointed out some contradictions.

For instance, you notice if America attacks a country for security reasons and ends up liberating it for democracy, America is exercising hegemony and imperialism. But, the good Lord forbid that America does NOT intervene in a country rife with dictatorships and human tragedy, America is an uncaring isolationist.

In the writer's words, "damned if you do and damned if you don't". Frankly, that's been my opinion for the last few years.

On the same site, I saw an article titled, My America: Letters To Americans, in which the author talks about seeing America as a bright shining place of pluralism, justice and tolerance that once helped her out of a tight spot when she was captured in Sierre Leone covering the on-going civil war. But, now, and predictably, she is disappointed over American actions in Somalia (she believes that we made war on the leaders of the people and the people rightly joined together and stood up to us - I know, I could cover so much just dealing with that subject, but I won't); war against Afghanistan in which she believes America made war on the Afghanistan people and devastated the country (yes, yes, I know and you know what it was about, but everyone has their opinion) and, of course, the war in Iraq where America has killed thousands of people for, you guessed it, securing oil and hegemony.

She writes that her feelings could be summed up in one word, "disappointment".

It has an open forum attached to it where people wrote in their own letters, most of which were their own disappointments of course, so I thought that I would undertake my own effort to explain "My America" and the disappointments I've suffered with some of our friends.

I would, of course, find it interesting what others would write. Maybe we could make it a whole series? I think I will just start out with a basic introduction to "My America" and maybe go from there?

So, here it is, my first letter to the world (as if they care):

Dear World,

Let me introduce myself. I am an American. I was born in America, raised in America and have lived in America my entire life. Honestly, I have never visited another country although I do like to watch the travel channel and the history channel and occasionally catch a film with sub-titles. I have thought about how wonderful it would be to visit the places I've seen on the TV or read about in the many books I've consumed, but, alas, it hasn't happened yet. Financial and familial constraints and all that, but I've got hopes for the future.

My family is quintessentially American. My ancestry is German, French, Irish, Russian, American Indian and possibly a Brit in there as well. My family has had a long history of law enforcement officers starting with my Great Great Great Uncle who was a sheriff of a small town, not far from where I live, who was shot in the back and died as he entered church one Sunday morning. The killer was captured, found guilty and hanged as was the punishment of the day. It was 1889 and it was the "wild west" after all.

We also have some other "colorful" characters who were, shall we say, outside the law? My great-grandfather was a "moonshiner". He distilled illegal liquor and ran it through the backwoods for delivery. He used to tell us, after banging on the porch with his cane for somebody to come and empty his spittoon and get his new package of "chaw" (chewing tobacco), that he came across America in a covered wagon and he had his right index finger shot off in a gun battle with "the revenuers". These were Treasury men whose job it was to stop the illegal trade in liquor during the prohibition. Actually, he did come from Tennessee to Missouri in a covered wagon when he was seven, he did run liquor and he did have his finger "shot off", but that last part, about the "revenuers", was a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, he was messing with a gun (it was 1922) when it blew up in his hand and caused him to lose his finger.

Of course, by the time he told us these stories, he was quite old and quite a law abiding citizen, but we were fascinated by them just the same. He told us about his parents buying one of the first cars in the area and how his father drove it through the barn because he didn't understand the concept of a "brake". He told us about his father, Own Mae Howard, who was a full blooded Cherokee Indian, that took the last name of the people that he worked for on a ranch in Tennessee. He told us about his mother and her two sisters, Mary, Kitty and Katherine, who traveled from Ireland, like many before them, and Mary met and fell in love with Own Mae and subsequently had seven sons. My great grandfather was number seven. It was to his great chagrin that he only had six children and could not produce the "seventh son of the seventh son". Mostly because he kept having daughters.

I could go on, but I just wanted to let you know that America is a country of great diversity and great history, even in its short lifetime.

I'm sure that somewhere there is a Frenchman who could trace his ancestors back to Charlemagne who cherishes that attachment to history and would feel that, well, my ancestry is one of a "mongrel".

I suppose, if I had to explain something about America first, I would say that most of us relish our "mongrel" backgrounds. They might not be filled with marshall merits in a great crusade, or stories about ancestors in castles, but Americans, by far and if they take an interest in it, find our mixed heritage to be very exciting and something to be proud of, even those "colorful" characters in our family trees.

I love to read and see other cultures. There is something to be said about a country or people rich in traditions and passed down for centuries. It helps to keep the history alive. I suppose the second thing I would say about America is that, as a young nation, with many points of cultural heritage, we have enjoyed absorbing many cultures and traditions, picking for our very own those things that we would and making it part of America. It is the great melting pot of the world. Being open to many cultures and traditions, I believe, has helped so many of our new immigrants "assimilate" into our country. We have whole communities that stick to their traditions, but it never fails that some of those traditions "bleed out" into everyday life.

It's a grand tradition of our own and, I also believe that, it is the reason we have remained so strong and capable. With new peoples, new traditions and cultures, come new ideas and they help to keep this country moving.

I think I should also talk about everyday life in America. On pain of disappointing some of our friends, I must tell you that the thoughts of your average American don't stray much past our borders, our communities, on the average day.

I personally never gave it much thought before that fateful day in September 2001 and now, three years later, I pay more attention, but, when I wake in the morning, I'm afraid my first thoughts do not wonder across the oceans. I would hazard a guess that your average person in Berlin or Budapest or Bangkok doesn't give it that much thought either. Yes, I understand there are things going on in the world today that effect us all, but, if we were really honest with ourselves, and I'm trying to be, I don't wake up in the morning and wonder what Juan in Madrid thinks about America or Americans. Ten US dollars says, even if you're reading this, you probably do the same.

Instead, when I wake up, I stumble out of bed hoping that I set up the coffee pot the night before, walk bleary eyed and rubbing my eyes to the bathroom where I take a shower and think about what bills, meetings or other things I need to take care of today and finally, wrapped in a fluffy robe, get a cup of coffee and wonder back to the bedroom where I sip coffee, get dressed and catch a few minutes of the news before I start my busy day. Mostly I am interested in the weather forecast as I live in a place where it can be sunny and warm one day and snowing fifteen inches the next during this time of the year. I am particularly interested if I must drive into the office that day. I live in the north of the city and the office is 35 minutes south by major highways.

Fortunately for me, I often get to work from my home office so my travel time is cut down to the two minutes it takes me to walk to that room, open the shades and turn on the computer.

During the day, if I am thinking hard about how to solve a problem or what to write next, I'll look out the one window in my office that faces the street in front of my house. I live on a busy, suburban street. On my side of the street are miles and miles of roads and cul de sacs with many homes, ranging in sizes from small to grand, with schools and churches, synagogues, a Buddhist temple and a small mosque. This is a nice residential area where everyone has a yard and trees and, all year round, you can see the people coming out to mow their grass, rake the leaves, water the lawn or shovel the snow depending on the season.

On the other side of my street is a small business community that includes a strip mall with a grocery store, furniture store, dry cleaning business, hair salon and movie video store. There are two banks within a block of each other, a convenience store (where I can buy gas, a pack of cigarettes, some chewing gum, soda, chips, etc), and several restaurants of different cuisines. Within a mile of my house, I can have Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Italian, East Indian and American cuisine whenever I want or just don't feel like cooking that night. All of which is just a reminder of the multi-cultural society that I live in.

That doesn't include several fast food restaurants, all of which are within walking distance. I can also find a dance studio, hardware store and a mechanic, once again, within a mile or so of my house. Further down the road is a mall and on the other end of the road is a Wal-mart, the new American version of a one stop department store where I can buy everything from a lightbulb to shampoo to a television to a fishing pole to clothes and even books and music.

Right behind this strip of businesses on the opposite side of the road are more miles and miles of homes of all different shapes and sizes, all different prices. This is my American suburb, not far away from a hustling and bustling city that I can drive into in 15 minutes or less. To the right of my house is an elderly couple who have lived in their home for over 30 years and, to the left, is a nice young couple with two children who just recently discovered the joys of home ownership. I took them cookies on their first day of moving in and gave them a lamp that the wife had been admiring when I discovered that their favorite lamp had been broken in their move. Did I mention that the elderly couple are Russian and the young couple are African American? Just another example of the great diversity of our nation.

The one thing that I wanted to mention, when I look out my window, directly across the street from me, is an American business icon. It's a McDonald's and it does a brisk business from 5:30 AM to 11 PM at night. In front of McDonald's and directly in line with my window, is a flag pole from which hangs an American flag, day and night. Some days, when there is a brisk breeze, it flies out in the wind with all its stripes and stars beating a crisp tattoo in the wind and other days, it just floats gently on the breeze. If you drive around my neighborhood, you can see the American flag flying from at least every other house. I have one, too.

Whenever I am thinking hard about something, I stare out my window and watch the people, all kinds of people from all walks of life and from all kinds of nations, driving into the parking lot and walking into the restaurant. I look at the flag flying out and, after a few minutes or so, an idea will come to me and I've solved my problem.

I know, you are wondering about the strangeness of getting an idea while staring at a McDonald's with a flag, but it's really not that strange at all. You see, McDonald's might be known around the world as a place to buy cheap, fast, American food and, of course, we all know that it can be fattening, but, if a person has lived here in America for any amount of time, they all learn the story of how McDonald's came to be the world's first and foremost purveyor of American fastfood around the world. It is the epitome of the American story.

Actually, it started right here in the city that I live in. Two brothers owned a small drive-in restaurant. It served only four items on its menu: simple hamburgers (not the variety you can get today), french fries, Coca-cola and milk shakes. At the time of this first restaurant, it only had one golden arch as part of a sign that read "McDonald's". They worked and built the restaurant up until they opened two in the city. Then they opened four and, fifty some odd years later, they had sold thousands of franchises that opened thousands of restaurants around the world and in every major city. The triumph of American enterprise and perseverance, serving millions of people every day with over thirty menu items.

Strangely, amongst all the things that I remember about historical events in my lifetime, one of the historical events that sticks in my mind is the opening of the first McDonald's restaurant in Moscow. Another reminder of American perseverance and enterprise. Communist Russia fell without an American soldier stepping one foot on Russian soil. Instead, it was an American restaurant, with an American name serving American food that planted the American flag on Russian soil.

No, this is not a free nor paid advertisement for McDonald's. I know it sounds like I'm bragging, and I am, but this story should tell you something about America. We are people, like many people around the world, that work hard every day to make a living, provide for our families and enjoy life. We like people who work hard to make a success and we applaud them, particularly those who rise from our ranks and make a success out of whatever endeavor they choose to lead. We don't have to be descended from princes or kings. We are a people that strives to be more and do more because that is our tradition, our heritage.

Whether it be older generations of immigrants that came to this land and built a life out of dirt farms or small clapboard business, struggling against the wind, or new immigrants that just step off the plane, the train, the boat or drive into the country across our borders to put down roots, grow our country, share their culture and traditions and keep this country moving forwards by their own hard work and striving. Or people that are born here, raised here and live here, always working towards a better day a better way, we are the American people.

I am an American.

Yes, I understand that some of you may read this letter and think that it is another version of American grand standing or triumphalism. I suppose you may call it what you wish. You may think that this is not the America you have heard about or that this is American propaganda.

I am sorry to disappoint, but this is what I see, everyday, looking out my window.

This is my America.

Respectfully yours,

K. Henry

6 comments:

Kathy K said...

Nicely done. I linked it. :)

Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files said...

I am an American who HAS travelled the world. I've seen the differences in fairly stark detail, between the cultures of a large number of places, and my homeland. Some detailed items here and there are quaint and fascinating curiosities, and sometimes I'd wish to see those things incorporated more into the America I know. The western European penchant for making a big, slow, festive production of dinner time, which we tend to only do on our Thanksgiving holiday; the Asian work ethic; the Russian regard for chess and classical music, which seems to benefit their thought process in some ways; the African and Latin American capacity for happiness in rather unhappy situations.

There are also things in American culture which I would wish to see more widely spread throughout the world though. Hygiene, urban planning, pleasant experiences with wait staff in restaurants, that sort of thing.

When an ultra-patriot gets back on American soil from a journey, he will kiss the ground. When an America-hating leftist gets back, he will spit on it. I simply grab a handful to shake hands with it, to congratulate it on being what it is, and simply enjoy that bit of topsoil communion.

I think the special case of America is a result of it being a sort of genetic petri dish to the world: waves of people flock here, and if they are the best and brightest of their home culture, they will thrive here; and if not, well ...not. That tendancy of the cream to rise to the top, that subtle implicit partial meritocracy we have going on here, I think that gives us a measure of political and technological and economic strength which is often underestimated or misunderstood by foreign rivals.

Our average construction workers are not as smart as the best of French college professors, so we get mocked for being "stupid".

The most corrupt of our cops are not as ethical as the most pious and philosophical of their mystics, and so we are mistakenly touted as "evil".

The most egregious of our military mistakes (e.g., Abu Ghraib) don't measure up to the highest ideals of what a pacifist Canadian would wish to see in the world, and so we are put down as "cruel torturing imperialists".

And sometimes we are overestimated.

Due to our advanced technology, foreign conspiracy theorists ascribe to our scientists an evil plot to cause earthquakes such as the one that caused the recent tsunami that hit southeast Asia.

Due to the soundness of our economic system, we are appraised as rich enough to where we should be the ones to lift the entire rest of the world out of poverty.

Due to the hypnotic charms of Bill Clinton, we are expected to have a capacity to simply wave a wand of diplomacy and solve all international conflicts in that way and never EVER resort to the use of force.

Because of how well our troops are trained, some in the world at large expect those troops to have absolutely perfect judgment when a terrorist is lying on the ground and could either be wounded and twitching a hand involuntarily, or going for a bomb detonator.

All in all, the world tends to hate us because the world tends to not have a CLUE as to who we are, what we are, where we are from, and where we are going. Whether it is best to educate these ignorant people about us, the good, bad, and ugly aspects of us, warts, shiny spots, and all, is a question to ponder.

Sometimes it's best to be "misunderestimated", as George W. Bush let slip.

Alan Kellogg said...

I'm here because Kathy K linked to you. And like her, I think it was nicely done. I'll be checking in on a daily basis to see what more you've written.

BTW, there is a two word description for American vitality, "hybrid vigor'.

Take care.

Jamie said...

It would be great if the people in other countries could see us as we truly are instead of as viewed thru the lenses of their anti-American/anti-Western media (or OUR anti-American msm) or as we are portrayed in American movies. There are those in other countries who think we are all rich, who think that blacks are being denied entrance into university, that we are all immoral and depraved, that we are all ignorant, uncultured boobs (like Michael Moore-on), that we are gun-toting cowboys, etc. Years of indoctrination is the cause of so many believing such nonsense as "American scientists created the tsunami"; "Americans are trying to poison us with genetically altered grain"; "American soldiers rape and kill indiscriminately"; etc. But hopefully all of that is changing with the advent of the internet. It has allowed Americans to connect to people in different parts of the world, so that we can touch the lives of people in other countries. So we can begin friendships with people we might otherwise never even know existed. One of the blogs that I frequently visit has a Belgian gentleman who contributes to the blog. Michael (a.k.a. MFBB) keeps us updated on the conditions in Europe, the problems that they are having with radical Islamists, the politics, etc. He is also educating us about the European Union. Its been very interesting and enlightening. Here is the link, in case you've never been there. The Iraqi blogs have allowed us to "talk" to real Iraqis, so we can read their own words as they blog about their lives as seen from their viewpoint instead of from CNN's or Reuters'. I enjoy reading Nabil's blog and hear from an Iraqi teen (who is about the same age as my son) and see the similarities between him and my son, and also the difference between them. Nabil is so very serious about his studies and wants to excel, whereas my son is laid back and simply wants to make a passing grade and keep a 3.5 GPA! I've encouraged my son to read Nabil's blogs so he can see how fortunate we are to have lived in a free country all of all lives. Hopefully he will appreciate what we have more as a result. If we can "touch" more lives, more young people like Nabil, maybe the impression they have of America will change and they tell their friends, who will tell their other friends, and who knows what effect that will have.

Mark said...

Kat,

I enjoyed your letter.

I have to admit that I am a little bit puzzled as to why so many people seem to dislike America.

On one level I tend to doubt that this is true. If non-Americans believed that America was such an awful place why do we have so many immigrants? But, of course, only a small percentage of people actually resolve to come to America.

To be sure, America has been forced to make many foreign policy judgements over the years as a world power and many of these judgements are questionable. Also, the history of America isn't all positive. American history is fully of injustice and dispair in addition to idealism and progress.

Tom said...

Kat

I've actually been in that McDonalds in Moscow. It's kind of an island, a bright spot on a typically drab street. It's also one of the few decent places to eat there, if you can believe that (or at least was, I was there in 1993). I've heard that the hardest part of hiring locals was teaching them to smile. I can't confirm this but it sounds true.

And the "damned of you do, damned if you don't", isn't that the truth. I've thought that it's so easy for a Canada or Sweden to do nothing but criticise; whenever there's an emergency in the world no one expects them to solve it. Instead they come crying to us. And whatever we do, someone will find room for fault.

So to a certain extent we just have to ignore the anti-American types and do what we know is right.