Monday, March 08, 2004

We're Not That Bad, Really!

I came across this article in Commentary today (via Dean's World) written by an expatriate American who moved her life to Paris, and after 30 years is having second thoughts. Now, it is in a way kind of nice to find that someone who had written her homeland off in her younger days has reconsidered and found that United States has some redeeming features after all, but I have some other thoughts about Ms. Poller's essay. I want to dispute the oh-so-casually expressed idea of the USA being some low-rent, second-rate place to live.

I'm not disagreeing with the larger part of what she said. I have no intention of disputing what she writes about the French press - she reads a lot more of it than I do. And it is nice that she has discovered that the nation that she so easily dismissed 32 years ago does actually have some merit. However, she seems to find it hard to actually name them, other than the US is a free country. Everything else here, it seems, is distinctly second-rate in her eyes. After all, she left for France in 1972 at least partially because:

Instead, I'd been a "European," picking up after a brief interruption not exactly where my family had left off-not Budapest, not Przemysl, those were places we would not go back to- but Europe and all it could boast of. Beautiful cities that are really lived in, monuments at every street corner, savoir faire, craftsmanship, savoir vivre, boutiques, refinement, manners, health care, free education, history, French windows and parquet floors.

Really? The USA lacks beautiful cities, monuments, history, craftsmanship, refinement, history, etc. ? Spare me the silliness of that statement. Let me provide a few examples why.

Cities? We have New York (which the author herself mentioned as almost perfect), Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Savannah, my own home of St. Paul/Minneapolis, plus many, many others that are pretty nice, livable places.

Monuments? It's true that we don't have one on every street corner, but with over 3.6 million square miles to fill it takes awhile. We'll get there eventually. But in the meantime, there is no shortage of monuments here. Admittedly some of them are a bit super-sized, like the Death Valley National Monument or the Custer Battlefield, but there quite a few. In Atlanta for example, there are markers everywhere to mark events that occurred during the American Civil War.

History? We have no history? Sure, our time as a nation is relatively short. But we've crammed a lot of history (both good and ill) into our 228 years. The Revolution, the creation of our governing documents (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights), exploration of the continent, the westward expansion,The Trail of Tears, the Civil War and the end of slavery, the growth of the US into a great trading nation, sending our troops to the rescue in Europe, the Manhattan Project, Project Apollo, the Cold War, our growth into a 'superpower', two centuries of invention, and yes, even culture. There's an awful lot packed into that last sentence, and that's just scratching the surface. The individual histories of the states, counties, cities, and towns haven't even been mentioned yet. Consider that practically every county in the US has one or more organizations devoted to finding and maintaining the local history. One last thing. Consider the impact this nation has had on the world in her brief existence - is it less or greater than that of France?

Oh, and by the way, we do so have manners, dammit! We're actually a pretty polite people albeit a plainly spoken one, although our standards of politeness may vary from that of the average Parisian. Anyway, I don't need to go farther to make my point.

Later on, she describes the USA thusly:

I come from a free country. A rough and ready, clumsy, slapped together, tacky country where people say wow and gosh and shop at Costco. A country so vast I haven't the faintest idea where I would put myself. A homeland I would have liked to keep at a distance, visit with pleasure, and leave with relief.

Rough and ready, sure. Just don't forget open, hospitable, and generous as well. Clumsy? I wasn't aware a nation could be agile. Is there a gymnastics or figure skating competition for nations? (Ladies and gentlemen, skating the short program to La Marseillaise is France!) If what is meant by clumsiness is our characteristic directness. I disagree. Now, about tacky. It is absurd to describe a whole country as tasteless (otherwise known as tacky), especially since taste actually is one of those qualities that is pretty relative. Yes, to our discredit we have Jerry Springer, soap operas, and professional wrestling, but Europeans made David Hasselhof a star. I wouldn't want to bet on which one is the bigger crime against good taste. Also, there are fair number of pretty good orchestras, theatres, and even a few artists here and there. Some of them even tour in Europe (like the Minnesota Orchestra, for example). This country's big enough to hold 'em all.

Ms. Poller, please don't be so quick to sell us short.

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