I went to the United States carrying the baggage of stereotypes and cliches: street muggings; violence from both cops and robbers; an uncaring people in an uncaring society.
I returned from the States with my baggage unpacked. Almost without exception the Americans we met were kind, gracious, generous and courteous. The only cliché that held was that they seemed to live in a tough society which, despite the promise of choice and freedom, offered them curtailed versions of both.
Any country that takes six hours to fly across is so vast that it’s impossible to characterise it accurately. We touched down only in the big cities of San Francisco, New York and Boston and left untouched the prairies and divides, physical and social, of the interior.
But wherever we went we found the average American unfailingly polite. So there’s one level. On another we watched the late night news and sometimes couldn’t believe what we saw and heard. There’s a pastor in Texas standing as a candidate and part of his policy is violent overthrow of the government …eh? It’s America in mid-term elections, but somehow weirdly disconnected from what we encounter on an everyday level with ordinary people. They’re far removed from the media commentariat and the political system - the two classes which set the agenda here. But there’s one other, far more powerful class – corporates and the moneyed elite.
Money poured into the mid-terms from all directions this year, partly because George Bush’s five conservative judges on the Supreme Court said it could. At one point a political observer said there had always been capitalism and the political system. He worried though that at this stage, the democracy of the political system was about to be swamped (bought). Not long after, another commentator on the news pointed to the divide between Democrats and Republicans. For years the two parties competed but co-existed. This year he said, the issues were driven by the fervour of ‘Tea Party’ fundamentalists.
“Now” he said, “there’s mainstream and ex-treme”.
As babyboomer Kiwis, raised with full healthcare, it did seem strange to hear people railing against President Obama’s reforms which extended health care to 30 million people; or to hear them decry his regulating of the financial system – the very one which threw the world into its third recession in 80 years.
We caught the subway to the Bronx and saw the disparity between these debates and the reality of weary, less than wealthy workers around us in the carriage. In San Francisco we wondered, as we watched men line the street outside St Vincent de Paul waiting for food or accommodation, how such an abundant nation could produce so many beggars in this city. But we were in transit, making passing observations. But what remains as truth, was the warmth of the American welcome. The rest is a mystery.