I give up understanding American politics

Abut a week ago today I climbed off a plane in Philadelphia, and took the little train to 30th street station where I was going to catch a larger train to New York. Somewhere in 30th Station I passed a news stand; outsde it stood three soldiers, looking ridiculously young and gawky: a blonde girl, a white guy and a hispanic. They had baggy green uniforms, the usual guns and so forth. I don’t know what they were doing there, and they didn’t seem to, either. So far as I know, they were about 6,000 miles from anyone who might seriously be trying to kill them. As I walked towards them, a middle-aged couple ahead of me walked right up to the soldiers, shook their hands, all three of them, and said something about how proud they were.

At this moment, I realised that I know nothing whatever about America, and all the American blogs, magazines and so on that I read have been misleading me by concealing some vital piece of knowledge — but I don’t know what it is.

Obviously I have seen armed soldiers (and policemen) patrolling airports and stations before. I this country we have been fighting IRA terrorists for nearly 30 years. But I have never seen anyone go up and shake their hands while they’re on duty, any more than you’d shake hands with pilot while he’s flying.

Neither the soldiers nor their supporters seemed to find anything odd in the transaction at all. Perhaps no one in America would do so. At first I thought, hah! this just shows they’re playing at war. But I think this is wrong too. Then I thought that it showed how Americans still think war can be fun, or ennobling, or uplifting, or all the other things that we stopped thinking some time around 1917. But I don’t know that that’s true, and I don’t think that it’s helpful either.

Suppose it was just a little gesture of patriotic piety, like crossing yourself as you pass a roadside shrine, or removing your hat in a church? This may be true, but how does it help me? The point is that this comes from some continent so far outside my own experience, and so far outside the kind of experiences that my liberal American friends will transmit or admit to that I can’t keep that continent in mind. Yet without that knowledge, everything I read is inextricably biased by my own hemisagnosia, and everything I learn simply leads me deeper into ignorance. So I am going to stop reading all American political magazines and blogs unless I am actually in the country.

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6 Responses to I give up understanding American politics

  1. Rafe says:

    I’ve lived in America my entire life and I fear that I’m no closer than you are at understanding it. There are so many things going on here on a daily basis that I look at and think, I just can’t relate.

  2. mike durham says:

    I have just read a quintessentially English book, Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (don’t bother – it’s overlong, unfocussed, dull, tedious and supremely irritating) but I understood more about America and Americans in the passages set in the antebellum mid-west of the USA than any modern novel. Dickens sent up the foibles of our American cousins 140 years ago and not much has changed since. I think the key to understanding the yanks lies in their history.


  3. H. E. Baber says:

    Jeez, I haven’t read Martin Chuzzlewit but have read Dickens’ American Notes–this guy just didn’t like us.

    Please put this airport event in its historical context. Vietnam is still with us. There were no welcomes for returning Vietnam vets and for years afterward the military was despised (and not just by a few coastal, cosmopolitan liberals) because of the bad taste of Vietnam. Military personnel didn’t wear their uniforms off base. Being in the military was seen by lots of people as shameful.

    I think quite a number of Americans have a sense that they want to make amends and show some appreciation, as they perceive it, for being protected. I don’t think you would have seen that handshake prior to Vietnam.

  4. Bob Kegel says:

    Perhaps the middle-aged couple had read Kipling’s “Tommy.”

  5. acb says:

    Oh I could think of lots of possible explanations. But I don’t know how to choose between them.

    It must be germane that [“a Harris poll”:http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=544%5D this weekend showed that nearly half of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan 9/11 and that some of the hijackers were Iraqis. It must help them make sense of the war.

    But I know that I don’t have the kind of background knowledge needed to make sense of this kind of thing, since you can only get it by living in a country, and absorbing the unspoken assumptions through the skin.

  6. wg says:

    I think those folks had been watching the evening ABC news — there was a squib on it recently about a some people thanking soldiers at airports.


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