Diary of an Expat, Part 61
America. What the hell, America?
What the hell, America?

What the hell.

I've mentioned in the past, in my blog if not in these diaries, how I dislike the way the news reacts to tragedy. It's trite, ugly and coarse in its insincerity. I don't know what the conversion rate is between pints of blood and advertising payments, but I do know that it takes a particular sort of ghoulishness to want to find out.

So anyway, I have a bunch of European friends and contacts. Whenever America does something they like — such as electing a center-right autocrat with "D" after his name instead of a center-right plutocrat with "R" after his name, or making marginal advances towards fundamental human rights and social safety nets — Europeans throw a patronising "attaboy" towards 'America' or 'Americans,' which is just meaningless enough to be jovial and just condescending enough to reinforce Americans' existing perceptions of Europe.

When America does something that they do not like, the question is the one with which I led off this diary.

As an American expatriate, you wind up fielding this question as though you were an ersatz diplomat, pressed into service to explain the vagaries of American politics or social dynamics or foreign policy. I had a penpal, many years ago, who wanted to know why we "hated" Iraq. I know that she wasn't really expecting me to have a direct line to the White House, but it can feel that way.

The expectation is that you are going to be diplomatic. You are going to be diplomatic because, at the officeplace or wherever, it pays not to piss people off. You're representing your country! Your status as an American citizen lends you special insight! So c'mon, American, tell us: what the hell? Why don't you sign Kyoto? Why do you have such big cars? And houses? Are you all cowboys?

Of course, America isn't monolithic, and America is home to a diverse range of views. Americans themselves seem to forget this, on occasion, so I'm willing to cut slack liberally. I spend a lot of my time trying to be fair and rounding out all sides and whatever: here's mine. I'm not going to put this all in nifty "IMHO" blocks because you already know that. It didn't come down on tablets.

So I'll explain this from my perspective as one single American.

Gun control is a somewhat tricky question in the United States. It is not wholly controversial; the right to bear arms spelled out in the United States Constitution is an individual right, per the Supreme Court, and legislative efforts to restrict it have been successfully and repeatedly challenged. In the past two decades advocates for stringent control have tracked along roughly the same trajectory as opponents of gay marriage are now facing — dwindling public support as the opposition point of view becomes normative.

It helps that, in both cases the real argument is an emotional one, not a rational one. People have a visceral reaction to firearms in the same way as they have a visceral reaction to homosexuality. This is the part where I'm expected to say "but they're different, because" because people don't like to be compared to bigots. Fine; gun control advocacy is only tangentially bigoted and most advocates are not bigots.

But their position is not a rational one and I'm not going to be compelled by some fairness doctrine to pretend that it is. Gun control laws have been struck down or sunsetted over the last ten years. Being a left-leaning member of a household that received Brady Campaign flyers I know exactly how troublesome this was at the time. The result? Crime has continued its steady drop over the last decades, with a 20% drop in the homicide rate since 1999. Accidental firearms fatalities have decreased in real numbers as firearms ownership rates have remained steady or climbed and the population has increased, for an overall net decrease of 33%.

The United States is a massively diverse country with serious social problems linked to ineffective urban support programs, class and cultural divides (20% of all immigrants in the world have moved to America). Its homicide rate is 4.8, which places it on the high end of the developed world. For the record, here is a list of gun ownership by state. Where do you suppose the top 10 states for firearms ownership (LA, MS, NM, MD, SC, AL, MI, AZ, MO, and TN) rank in the murder rate calculations? 34th, 27th, 37th, 38th, 25th, 14th, 42nd 2nd, 6th, and 33rd. The bottom 10 states rank 1st, 17th, 19th, 4th, 11th, 26th, 30th, 47th, 36th, and 24th. What's that? It looks like there isn't much of a correlation at all?

No — really?

That's because, not to put too fine a point on it, there isn't really an issue. The United States is not a dangerous place. It is not dangerous to walk through the streets of a major American city at 2 in the morning. It is not dangerous to drive through Oakland or Detroit. The United States is not a wild, lawless mess. You can go there. We have nice... quick, Americans, give me something nice we have — boutique cupcake restaurants. There you go.

This is a media issue, and it's a stupid one and an ugly one. Remember how after the 2008 election, all the news stories about runs on gun stores as people worried that Obama was going to steal their precious rifles. Oh those crazy gun nuts! Do you want to know what that spike looked like? It looked like that.

"But, wasn't there a tragedy? And doesn't that deserve some response?"

"Yes," and "sort of."

I'm going to edge away from sanctimony here. Mumbling about tragedy and moments of silence and whatever doesn't mean much on a blog. You want to have a serious discussion about gun control? Fine. Bring it on. But I don't think most of them do. They want Americans to ramrod a kneejerk attack on their civil liberties in the cloak of "but a tragedy! Thou must respond!" when they really mean "hey guys, be more like us."

But they're not going to be more like Europeans. 'Cause, hey man, you want to see how Americans kneejerk? Fuckin' try to get through security in an American airport. But everybody feels safer, right? Right?

Anyway, since I'm not in my workplace and I'm not on the street, trying to explain to someone selling blueberries why holding an American passport does not give me special ability to fix the American economy (hint: if it was fixed, I might be there instead of working as your cheap immigrant labour), I have a bit more freedom. So I'll be blunt and say that as an expatriate, what I want most is for Europeans to understand that Americans are different because they are, and that's how it works.

There is a continuum between how much you value individual freedom and America, as a country, is well along that line. We have made some mistakes, certainly — curiously enough, generally in the name of sacrificing them in the name of safety that proved to be illusory because the threat was illusory. Yes, a lot of us own guns. No, that does not make America a more dangerous, radical, or bizarre country. Yes, we believe that's a personal freedom that should be respected. You know, like the freedom to say things without being hauled into court because you hurt someone's feelings? Or the freedom to be critical of other religions?

Right. So it's a continuum, we're there, and we deal with it. We deal with it because part of our personality is enshrining those liberties, and understanding that the reflexive action is not always the appropriate one. We deal with it in spite of setbacks, and we preserve those liberties even when it's painful to do so, because that's how we approach the world. It's not a universal perspective — clearly, for one, it's not yours.

Anyway, I'll return to my regular America-bashing next week when I'm back there. But as I've had this conversation half a dozen times today, well, what the hell. Might as well get it off my damned chest.
15.12.2012 - 11h46

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