What’s Wrong With America?

By Jenn Miller on January 26th, 2015
BootsnAll
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou

Let me start by saying: I love America.

I wasn’t born there, but I do hold citizenship in the US, and I’ve lived there for a little over a third of my life. I am married to an American, and my four children’s primary citizenship is American. Some of the best people I know are American and proud of it.

Do you travel to learn more about yourself and the world?
Do you travel to learn more about yourself and the world?

I love that it’s a country of opportunity, of economic prosperity, of wild freedom, of zany excess, and of democratic evolution (even when that process gets messy). I love refillable sodas, Chicago deep dish pizza, a New York bagel, San Francisco sourdough, the National Parks Service, reliable infrastructure, Twizzlers, and Route 66. When I’m away, I miss the crazy array of choices in a grocery store, my Chevy Suburban, reliable, ubiquitous internet, the cheese section at Whole Foods, and the ease of an English only culture (I never have to translate when we’re in America!).

That being said, there are a lot of things that America is getting wrong.

It’s not “America the Government,” entirely. Nor is it individual Americans, entirely. In fact, a lot of what I see as “wrong” with America seems to stem from the institutions that we’ve allowed to grow up between the individuals and the government – byproducts of the democratic process and that American ideal of, “Live Free or Die,” that’s the New Hampshire state motto.

It’s not as easy as pointing a finger at someone and saying, “There! YOU! You are wrong! Stop that right now!”

‘That’s one of the things that’s so beautifully right with America: the diversity of perspectives and lifestyles within one great big, powerful, beautiful, messy country.’

And it’s not as cut and dried as simply shuffling the political deck: out with the old, in with the new. It’s a cultural issue that is creating what’s wrong with America. And it might be worth noting that what seems “wrong” with America from the outside, may not, in fact, be things that Americans see as being wrong with, or for, their country and themselves at all. That’s one of the things that’s so beautifully right with America: the diversity of perspectives and lifestyles within one great big, powerful, beautiful, messy country.

I have long said that America is a great place to be from but a very had place to be, at least for me.

The more time one spends outside of the country, the clearer this becomes. I’ve had two guests this past month, men I met walking the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. For both of them, that walk was their first really major trip outside of the USA, for a longer period of time, not a vacation, and not to a resort. As we hiked the volcanos around the Guatemalan lake I’m calling home for the winter they both expressed the same sentiment: How hard America seemed to them now, and a little bit of wonder that they’d never seen it before.

I had to chuckle. I can relate. It makes me a little bit sad to say that I now max out at about three months inside America before I’m ready to go. It’s not the people. I love the people. Our “friends and family” tour is my favorite. It’s not the cheap gas or the predictable food, or the big screen TVs in every room. It’s none of the big things, it’s a million of the little things, and how they are, in actuality, very, very big things, and yet almost no one sees it.

It’s walking into someone’s house and seeing the “Duck Dynasty Teen Devotional Bible” laying on the kitchen table. The very presence of such an asinine item says an awful lot about what America is getting wrong.

Assuming you’re a purist on the Biblical front and that book is considered the holy word of god, do we really want commentary added by momentary celebrities who style themselves as the consummate rednecks? Do we really want our daughters taking spiritual advice from people who make us laugh during prime time every week as their primary function in society?

Is religion serious? Or is it now another kind of popularity contest? Are we trendier for having the “right,” media driven, pink camo covered words of Jesus in our children’s hands? While we’re at it, can we consider the implications of covering the word of god in military issue fabric to begin with and the dichotomy, unseen by too many parents purchasing those books, between Islamic jihadists and American Christian fundamentalists.

The “Duck Dynasty Teen Devotional Bible” is what’s wrong with America, folks.

‘When even religion becomes a marketed commodity, it is, perhaps, time to take a step back and look at the larger implications across a society, where every damned thing…is gift wrapped with a bow and handed to you with a smile.’

Does everyone subscribe to that kind of nonsense?

No, of course not, but the fact that Walmart, purveyor of mass goods to the masses carried them by the hundreds in every store should demonstrate that it’s not an anomaly either. When even religion becomes a marketed commodity, it is, perhaps, time to take a step back and look at the larger implications across a society, where every damned thing, from the pills you didn’t know you needed for the ailment you didn’t know you had, to what you ought to do with your leisure hours, is gift wrapped with a bow and handed to you with a smile, the sound of a cash register chiming in the background.

It’s the fact that letting children walk to the park alone is grounds for a police investigation. When I was a kid, “free range” wasn’t the newest parenting trend, it was how mothers remained sane. We were kicked out of the house and told not to return until dinner hour unless there was blood or bone.

My brother and I were all over the place, digging things up, riding our bikes for miles, rowing, sailing, fishing, ice skating, and generally running amok. We were turned loose in Central American markets to do the family grocery shopping before we were teenagers, and we were allowed to snorkel all around our Mexican bay without my parents hovering, in spite of the fact that we were keeping a pet shark in a tide pool.

You know what drives my children absolutely insane? The nanny aspect of American culture. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, or get in the least bit creative with their life paths as young people without some well meaning middle-aged American woman freaking out about whether or not they’re going to live through the afternoon without Mommy right there, bubble wrap and bandaids in hand.

My kids had their own boat, in Canada, when they were 8 and 6, and they were often gone for hours. Sometimes, I’d wake up in the morning and they’d have cobbed the jar of worms from the fridge, two apples and a peanut butter sandwich between them, and they’d already be long gone. One time, my nine year old son didn’t come in off of the river for eight hours. He was alone. He was fishing, and thinking. My daughter took off backpacking without us for the first time when she was 14, across an international border in Central America, with some other intrepid teenage friends. My sons are beginning to make a habit of going away to work for a month at a time in the summer. My 14-year-old made a nine hour return trip into Guatemala City to pick up his grandparents last month. My 12-year-old ranges between about six towns spread out around this 50 km circumference lake we’re living on at the moment.

And yet responsible, well thought out, intentional parents who have carefully prepared their children to walk a mile to a park, in very safe Maryland, are investigated by the police.

There are two active Amber Alerts and 11 children listed on the government missing persons site for Maryland. There are approximately 1,304,339 children in the same state. Run the odds of your child being abducted between home and the park they know well and are prepared to walk to.

Parenting from a place of fear
is what is wrong with America.

Is it our responsibility to protect our children?

Yes.

Do bad things happen?

Yes, but very, very rarely.

Which is a better response?

  • To legislate against children, and parents, cowing them into fear based submission with police investigations over lovely afternoon walks to the park?
  • To cause our children to believe that the world is a frightening place and no one can be trusted?
  • To keep our kids so sheltered that they are always safe but then lack independence when “the time comes” for them to brave the real world?

Or?

  • To encourage parents to wisely, sanely, carefully prepare those little people to become as independent as they can?
  • Teaching them to manage independence in graduated doses, with safety nets in place, so that they learn intelligent risk-benefit analysis, develop the ability to assess a given social situation and make a wise choice, and grow slowly and naturally into their ability to handle what the world throws at them?

While there are a few notable exceptions, parents can, largely, be trusted to have their kids’ best interests at heart, making healthy choices regarding their growth and freedom accordingly. This business of micromanaging families because we’re afraid, or because there is a statistical minority that can’t keep their heads in the game is insidious.

As a former child, it makes me want to riot and rebel. As a parent, it’s offensive to me. It factors into our decision to raise our children outside US borders for a good portion of their childhoods.

We want them to see that the rest of the world is not like this.

It’s in the insistence that everyone speak English.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love English, it’s the easiest language for me to live in. I bask in the fact that in America I can read everything without effort, and that I never pick up a soup can to read the label and get the French side first, like I do in Canada, my other home. I support the idea that people who move to America should learn the language, just as I make the effort to when I’m living abroad. It’s just good manners as a guest in a country.

‘I support the idea that people who move to America should learn the language, just as I make the effort to when I’m living abroad. It’s just good manners as a guest in a country.’

There is, however, an undertone of ugliness in a certain demographic of the “English only” contingent that seems to suggest a shortsightedness and a lack of perspective on the subject. My favorite arguments are the ones in which an American is grumbling about how they couldn’t understand the Indian customer service representative on the other end of the phone line because his English was so bad. I can never resist pointing out that there are 1.25 billion people in India, and English is one of their national languages, which means that there are almost three times as many English speakers in India, alone, as there are in the USA, Canada, and the UK combined. Tell me again who doesn’t speak standard English?

‘A desire, or even a requirement, for immigrants to speak English in America isn’t what’s wrong with America, it’s the lack of compassion and the ugly attitude that too often goes with that argument. ‘

A desire, or even a requirement, for immigrants to speak English in America isn’t what’s wrong with America, it’s the lack of compassion and the ugly attitude that too often goes with that argument. Let’s face it, your life as an English speaking American isn’t in the least inconvenienced by a foreigner who can’t speak English. Not really, not in the grand scheme of things. Having to repeat your coffee order at Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t count. This is one of the levels on which I’d like to see more Americans getting beyond the international border. There is nothing like being reduced to tears over trying to accomplish something that should be simple in your second or third language to cause a person to tread a little more lightly with the hotel staff in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Compassion isn’t the only by-product of getting outside of your comfort zone and your national bubble. An increased gratitude for all of the things that are absolutely amazing and wonderful about home, be that America or anywhere else, is sure to follow.

After all, at the end of most big adventures, a traveler returns home for a reason. Perspective on how little we need and how insidious the continual marketing to our basic instincts is, and an appreciation of the fact that there are lots and lots of ways to live life, raise kids, and interact with the planet and our fellow humans are other lessons that emerge.

I’m far from believing that everyone should travel long-term, but I do believe that if more Americans did, it would change the culture of our nation, one personal commitment to international understanding at a time.

Photo credits: Jakub.it