When my brother was 16, he spent a year as an exchange student in Phoenix, Arizona. The year was 1976. Gerald Ford was the president of the USA.
The cold war was on and we should know it as we lived right next to the Soviet Union, a scary and unpredictable dictatorship, where you could buy a bottle of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye with a pair of pantyhose. With a pair of jeans you could stay in a hotel for a week. Even supermarket plastic bags were high currency. These facts made it hard for us to take socialism seriously. That people read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in their sad concrete ghettos, instead of watching TV, was something we never thought about because our eyes were on America.
America was something else. It was the country of Saturday Night Fever and Charlie’s Angels. From where we stood it was perhaps as weird as the USSR but in a different way. It was just as they sing in West Side Story: Very big deal in America!
My brother thrived in Arizona. He came back as a bronze skinned football star and told us fascinating stories about the land of the brave and the home of the free. Americans wash laundry every day, we learned. They eat pancakes for breakfast. They don’t walk but drive to supermarkets the size of small towns that are open 24/7. And they drink Coca Cola at lunch, everyday.
Whoa, we thought. How marvellous!
America got under my brother’s skin and has never left.
We realized that while fabulous, America wasn’t a paradise. We learned that Americans could get through high schools without knowing how to read and that New York was a violent city, where doughnut-eating cops chased gangsters in shadowy allies. We saw that happening on TV all the time. But all this was okay because some of the Americans were really smart. They did art and science and sports like nobody else. They won Nobel Prizes and Oscars and Pulitzers and Olympic medals. They did everything fabulously and with a big bang, always flashing their big white teeth.
Years went by and we kept liking America. Sure, America was thoroughly commercialized. We could see that. It was also a bit shallow. We thought it was funny they would elect a cowboy actor as their president. We laughed at his ignorance and quite particularly at his inability to see the difference between social democracy and communism. But we liked what he said about the Soviet Union because it was true. The USSR was, indeed, an evil empire.
And then along came George W. Bush and got us dumbfounded. We knew that Reagan wasn’t an educated man but at least he was street-smart. He was funny. And he was nice. Bush, on the other hand, was none of those things. When he opened his mouth, he didn’t say anything smart, ever.
Bush became a global laughingstock but what did Americans do? They re-elected him because why not? I was in an international conference in Mexico when that happened. Upon hearing the news a well-known American professor climbed to the podium and begun his keynote lecture by saying: We have elected an idiot as our president.
In what kind of country do they elect idiots as presidents, I wondered? In a country free enough to allow professors to call their presidents idiots in their international conference keynotes, I reckoned. The Soviets would have gotten deported to Siberia for far lesser reasons, like critizing their government for the shortage of milk.
In retrospect it seems that Bush probably wasn’t as bad as we thought he was. Maybe he was just, well, too American for us really to comprehend. The Americans have a way of talking that is sometimes hard for us non-Americans to understand. They communicate as if they are constantly selling something. And they smile way too much, even when they are being destroyed in live TV panel discussions, which happens a lot these days.
What makes America so confusing is that the same folks that elected Bush and did it twice, also gave us the Obamas. I cried when he was elected. I felt happy and hopeful. The Soviet Union was gone, Sarah Palin was out and there was a good man in the Oval Office. We were going to be alright.
Obama appeared to be too good to be true and, of course, he was. The pendulum just had to swung back and it did, bigly.
When I think of America now, I am baffled. What is this country ruled by both idiots and geniuses? Instead of one country, are there two of them? Do the God fearing hard working folks have anything in common with the West Coast hippies and the East Coast intellectuals? When they say they are patriots, and they say it a lot, are they patriotic towards the whole country or just to the part where people think like they do?
I would like America to come back. I would like it to be every bit as fabulous as it once was. So please, Americans, get a grip! Get united. Give us back the America we once admired. We know you can do it. You have done it before, remember? You can get your states united. And now it would be a really really good time to do it.