Before I came to America in 1988, I’d experienced a lot of cultural diversity. Having grown up in England, traveled through much of Europe, lived in India and France, briefly witnessed the revolution in Iran, explored pre-war Afghanistan, lived in mud huts and slept in caves, I didn’t think I was susceptible to culture shock — until I came here.
This is the paradox the United States presents to so many non-Americans: no other country is so well-known to people from afar, yet upon being confronted with the reality, one discovers that what looks familiar turns out to be foreign.
No other country seems quite as obsessed with a self-defined vision of its uniqueness — an exceptionalism held onto by a population that is largely unfamiliar with other countries. In this glorified isolation the rest of the world is barely visible. At times, America seems less like a country and more like a religion.
From Britain, Jonathan Freedland writes:
We watch their movies, we eat their fast food. Their culture has become global culture. So it always comes as a shock to realise how different Americans are from everyone else. The massacre in Newtown horrified even those who thought themselves inured to horror – I know many who could hardly bear to look at those smiling family photographs of the children – but for non-Americans the subsequent discussion has also been shocking to watch.
To outsiders, the point seems so blindingly obvious: more guns equal more death. In Britain, where gun laws are strict, the annual number of gun-related murders stood, at last count, at 41. In the US the equivalent figure is just short of 10,000.
Whether it’s Britain, Japan or Australia, the evidence is the same: strict gun control means fewer people die. American unwillingness to face this basic arithmetic – preferring to blame the mental health system or videogames or the “feminisation” of the classroom, as one conservative pundit did, or the absence of religious prayer in schools – the explanation of former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – rather than the most obvious culprit for all this gun violence, namely easy access to military-grade assault weapons, can drive outsiders to distraction. Witness Piers Morgan’s bad-tempered hosting of a CNN debate on guns this week, haranguing his guests for failing to admit what to him was obvious – a performance that few of his American colleagues would match.
What exactly is America’s problem? Why does it stand so far apart, notching up more gun homicides than the rest of the world’s wealthy countries put together? People like to point the finger at the mighty National Rifle Association, which, to be sure, is a well-funded, effective lobby, especially in battleground congressional districts where NRA members can make the difference between victory and defeat. But big tobacco used to be a mighty lobby too; yet when the evidence linked smoking to lung cancer, they were steadily beaten back. Judging by its abysmal performance at a bizarre press conference today, the NRA could ultimately be defeated.
If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience. [Continue reading…]