My Letter from America (May 2004)
“We’ve been through it all together,
And we’ve had our ups and downs”
—Marching On Together
I look back on my ride through the most prominent nation on earth and find it impossible to summarize neatly. I am very conscious that I have seen only a tiny sliver of the country and that my experience of the west coast tells me almost nothing about life in Texas or New York or Kentucky. However, with the language here being, for the most part, more understandable to me than Swahili or Arabic I have been talking and learning more than in many other places I have been.
The United States is so diverse, so confused and so confusing that no two conversations or people are the same. I have met creationists and evolutionists, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, racists and mixed-race families, idealists and defeatists, atheists and Christians, gay marriage supporters and spittle-flying homophobes, Dubya voters and Dubya haters, anti-abortion and pro-electric chair, pro-choice and anti-electric chair, enormous wind-farms and enormous RV’s, triathletes and couch potatoes, beautiful National Parks and massive cities, drive-thru banks and epic trans-continental bike routes, anything-goes liberalism and old-fashioned bigotism, intrepid world travelers and folks who have barely left their state. I met millionaires and passed an Indian reservation as poor as the Third World. I never felt comfortable enough to knock on strangers’ doors to ask for a place to camp but one family gave me their house for a week while they were out of town.
America is the most overtly religious country I have been in since the Islamic world yet arguments rage about the word ‘God’ being on the dollar bills. It is the most patriotic country I have been to, with the “stars’n’bars” flying everywhere yet many are despondent about the state of the union. Bumper stickers tell many tales, from American flags and slogans like ‘United we Stand: the Power of Pride’ and ‘These Colors Don’t Run’ to ‘No War for Oil’, ‘if you can read this you’re not the President’ and ‘if you can read this you’re too damned close so back off bitch’.
I rode through a tree and the enormity of LA. I never got to go to a baseball game nor to play any sports, but I have watched a lot of TV. I have spoken English and Spanish. I have eaten Indian, Mexican, Korean, Ethiopian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Japanese and Israeli. I have eaten enormous amounts of food and drunk bucketfuls of coffee (but even I could not manage the extraordinary 64 oz (2 liter) cupfuls of soda that petrol stations sell). No wonder I need a dentist for the first time in years.
America is fabulously rich, hard-working, beautiful and friendly. It is also a lot of the things that anger people around the globe: consumerism gone crazy (the size of Walmart and Costco superstores has to be seen to be believed), a disregard for the environment (most noticeable in the incredibly cheap gasoline and the massive vehicles everybody drives), and an unawareness of, and lack of interest in, the rest of the world (“if you want to make the world disappear,” they say, “read an American newspaper”). America has certainly made mistakes, but then ‘the man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.’ This is an intriguing, vast country and, in the words of one of it’s most prominent politicians, (no, not the “Africa is a nation…/ I don’t speak Mexican…” fellow) “I’ll be back”. I have enjoyed my few months here, and have been reassured to find that many of the preconceptions about the USA are not true. I only hope that the rest of the World can begin to learn this before the present global atmosphere of divisive, fomenting hatred really explodes.
I thought for a time that I should not mix politics and bike riding, but then last week I, like MLK, had a dream. In my dream I finally got to meet The President of the United States face to face. As I was introduced to Bush I was too much of a wimp to tell him all that I had planned to say, and instead I groveled and fawned and woke up furious at myself. So I decided I should at least say what I believe to the people of America: If you disagree with me please write back and tell me why. Don’t just get mad: a privilege of living in a democracy is to have an opinion. Thomas Jefferson said that dissent was the highest form of patriotism. And surely any opinion and thought is better than apathy and indifference. This is not my country so perhaps it is really none of my business. But the United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. It’s actions and ideologies affect all of us on the planet. Therefore because your country effects us all, I think we should at least be allowed an opinion, if not an outright right to vote in your elections!
I have always been relatively happy with the USA being the current big cheese of the world. However my experience over the last 1000 days in 43 countries and 4 continents has been that the positive impact of the USA is diminishing fast. The world is disillusioned at best and murderous at worst about the role that the United States is playing today. This is not just regarding the war in Iraq – it stretches from before that and much wider than that, although I think that the Al-Qaeda PR department could never have dreamed up a better recruitment campaign than the current Iraq saga.
In my opinion the biggest problem the world faces today is George W. Bush. I honestly believe that George W. Bush is a bigger threat to the world than Osama bin Laden. Bush has polarized the world and fuelled the fires of our differences. America is certainly a good country, filled with good people. But it is currently portraying itself as an arrogant, ignorant bully who will stop at nothing to achieve it’s goals, with complete disregard for different beliefs, nations or international organizations. Hatred, tension, resistance, resentment and bitterness are escalating all over the planet. This is so contrary to the hopes and viewpoints of so many ordinary Americans (over 50% in the last election).
But take a moment to think about your perception of Arabs – do you (like I once did) find yourself thinking of AK-toting, flag-burning loonies? Now, try and imagine how the rest of the world perceives you from what little they know…
George W. Bush is your voice to the world and from my personal observations that scares the hell out of me. I had dinner last weekend with an 81-year-old man who has proudly voted Republican in every single election of his long life. But this November he is going to vote for John Kerry. Kerry is perhaps no JFK, nor even a Clinton (bumper sticker: ‘nobody died when Clinton lied’), but at least he does not appear hell bent on arrogant, ignorant world domination. The American President has an enormous impact on all of us foreign folks and so I think that we should all have the right to vote. If everybody on Earth was given a vote, who do you think would win the election in November?
But, seeing as we can’t vote I will settle for the result if every single one of you votes, and every single one of your votes is counted fairly. This is the Land of the Brave, the Home of the Free… and I want the rest of the world to realize that before things become even more insane.