Okay, I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.
You know, if I started posting about how snooty and homophobic the French people are, or how the Dutch will always find a way to make money out of somebody else’s bad luck, or how the British are cornering the market in illegal organ trafficking, or…name one for yourself… I’d get pilloried for generalizing and being a bigot. And rightly so.
So why is it accepted practice among otherwise good thoughtful people, to generalize like this about America? Do you really think you know America from the headlines that make it across the water? or from your long holiday weekend in New York? Or the “Dutch Circuit’ you did in a camper van through Vegas, Yosemite, LA and San Francisco? Maybe you spent six months there on assignment? Do you really know it well enough to make sweeping statements about its people, as a whole? I’m telling you, you really don’t.
I do. I’ve lived in American small towns, big cities, and suburbs. I’ve criss-crossed the country multiple times by train, bus, and car. I’ve eaten greasy eggs in truck stops, and fancy food in the WestVillage. One of my relatives had a gun in every room – so he’d be ‘ready’ wherever they come for him. Another put herself through college while working full time and raising two children. I worked all summer once, with a man who’s hobby was getting together with other members of his ‘family’ to hunt ‘witches’, and was surprised to find he’d worked all summer with one. Yes, I know what racism looks like in America: it looks like my father as we fought over my black boyfriend in college. It also looks like the black man who spit on me and called me a racist because I wouldn’t sit next to him at the bus stop, at midnight, when I was travelling alone. As if I’d sit next to any stranger at that hour, in that place. While travelling alone. I know was sexism looks like in America. It looks like the man who told me it was nice to have me along for the meetings…because it was always nice to have such a pretty pair of legs in the room. It looks like the man who told me to raise my skirt a few inches, or he’d have to let me go from my waitressing job. I was raised by bikers, and put myself through college surrounded by artists.. I’ve had relationships, friendships and affairs with poets, businessmen, shady characters, scientists and survivalists. Of all colors, from all social and educational levels, and all political leanings – yes Virginia, there are more than two political parties in America.
I do know America enough to generalize about its people. And I’m telling you, if you can remember ever saying “Americans are so…”… you don’t. And you won’t find me generalizing about it or its people in the negative way everyone seems to get such a kick out of. If you do, you’re free to point it out to me. With a vengeance. Why won’t you?
Because when we catch ourselves saying “Americans are so…”, which Americans do we mean, exactly? The African-Americans? Italian-Americans? Dutch-Americans? Korean-Americans? The poor ones, the educated ones? Or do we just mean the bigots, the greedy ones, the small minded ones… and it’s just easier, it makes us feel better, to generally say “Americans are…”
I’ve seen the best and worst of America, a microcosm of the nation in my one small life. And after 12 years of living in Europe, I’m telling you: it doesn’t look all that different over here. I’ve heard the “you’re too qualified” code for ageism. The ‘allochtoon’ code for racism. The ‘Dutch women don’t want fulltime careers’ of sexism.
The first year I was in NL, I sat in an integration class and was taught that bigotry wasn’t okay in our new country – that it wasn’t one of our ‘normen en waarden’. (By the way, it isn’t okay in my homeland either, whatever some Neanderthals there think, or you read in the headlines) Then I listened while a classmate pontificated about how Americans will sell anything for money, even their own body parts. Nobody said butkis, including the teacher. Lesson learned. And learned repeatedly over the years: it isn’t bigotry if it’s aimed at America, because everyone knows it (whatever nonsense it might be) is true. Don’t they? Folks, that’s called bigotry, in case you were wondering.
Get a grip, people. America is no better or worse than any other nation, just bigger. At the moment. Just younger. Look at your own country when it was big, when it was an empire, when it was young. Look back just 60 years, and ask yourself if it behaved any better then. Ask yourself if, with the hundreds of years behind you as a country, you have it all figured out. Then ask yourself if you really think a small town American is any different from a small town Netherlander. Do you think they’re any more attached to their own regional and biased news sources? Have you read the Telegraaf lately? Are the people living in the big cities of America any more or less work-driven, money driven, decadent, than those living in most big cities around the world? Did Europeans give up their guns voluntarily? (Do you know that 90% of Americans want more gun control?) Has your country figured out its race issues? Is Europe more advanced than the US on the Gay Marriage issue? No. Sorry to burst your bubble, but no.
And then ask yourselves who we learned to be Americans from, such a short time ago. That’s right, we learned our habits from our European grandfathers. Many of us – like myself – are only two generations away from being European, you know. When I married my Dutch husband, my new father-in-law talked at our wedding. He didn’t talk about my immigrating to the Netherlands. He talked about my return to Europe, ignoring – like so many Americans like to do – the non-European blood in my past. America is filled with boat people from around the world, and yes, they’re having trouble figuring out how to live together as one nation. Wouldn’t you? Oh that’s right, some of you are.
Who gave us the evil of Wall Street and the stock market? …Yes, the Dutch. Who started the genocide of our native population? …Many nations, all squabbling over the local landscape, and the cheap local labor, like they’d done in Europe for thousands of years. Who introduced the slave market to the country that would one day become the US, bequeathing us a struggle for civil rights that we’re still burdened with today? …Look in your own mirror if you’re from any country that used to be an empire in the business of human trafficking. Look at France now, if you think slavery was or is only an American problem. Look at Australia if you want to read about state sanctioned oppression of the native peoples. Or Belgium if you want to find large scale child pornography. Or at the Netherlands, if you want to see a strong racist tradition defended with nationalistic ferver – or haven’t you met Zwarte Piet yet? So, while being smug about America’s convoluted struggle toward being a civilized nation, maybe you can reflect on your own country’s journey there, and whether it went – or is going – all that smoothly.
And then – more importantly than all these negatives – look at all these countries, and what will you find? Good people, all around the world, trying to right the wrongs of the past and present, getting little coverage in the headlines, or thanks from the public. Now, look at your favourite evil empire and ask yourselves if we’re really so very different. If you really can generalize about Americans. Or the Dutch. Or any nation’s people. If you still can, then, my friend, you are part of the problem, not the solution.
I’m sure I’ll get responses to this note from people who think I ‘can’t take’ a little criticism. I’m going to ignore those people, because they don’t know how little or much criticism I’ve taken with a smile on my face and an attempt to understand the double and triple standard so much of this criticism is based on. I’ll ignore them, because they don’t know how very much I criticize my own Neanderthals and leaders – in both my countries. How I freely debate these issues with my fellow countrymen, and my relatives, and my friends. Because that’s what responsible citizens of this planet do. At least, it’s what those of us who wish to one day call ourselves civilized do.
I haven’t had it with anyone criticising the behaviour of bigots, wherever they are found. Or with anyone criticising our banks or governments’ bad handling of our finances or civil rights. Or with anyone saying we – all of us – have a long way to go. I have been, and will be, right out there in front with you on all of it, my friends. What I’m tired of is the double standard, the ignorance, the smug finger pointing. The addiction to cheap headlines and Facebook postings as a source of your knowledge about my homeland – or any land. The fact that, whenever we speak of a local issue, someone always brings up a similar, but supposedly (and sometimes really) much much worse issue in the US, to make us all feel comfortably superior. And to take the heat off of us here, locally, to remove the sty from our own eye. That, I will no longer take with a smile on my face. Because I’ve had it with all that, I am up to here with it.
I will respond to people who read this and want to discuss this issue – any issue – with passion, respect, and a few facts to bolster their arguments. That’s what responsible citizens do. I’m sure we will disagree. On many issues. That’s also what we do. Big friggin’ deal. I can take that. I love that part of being a citizen. From anywhere. Because it moves us forward, toward that goal of being civilized people, living on this planet together. And that’s worth fighting for, and about.
I will never get enough of that.