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Musings on America: Land of Extremes

21/07/2013 19:46 | Updated 18 September 2013

America may be the land of the free, but it is also the land of extremes. For a British person, for whom "moderation in all things" can be an article of faith sometimes taken to the extreme, America invokes wonderment, excitement but occasional challenge as well.

Over the past decade, I have travelled to the United States at least once a year, mostly to Washington, DC to advocate for freedom for Burma, North Korea or religious minorities in Indonesia and Pakistan. I have also travelled around the country, speaking in churches and universities, from New York to Wyoming, from Seattle to Alabama, and taking in Texas, Colorado, Florida and California along the way. I love America; I have many American friends; and I value America's leadership in the world. You could not find a more pro-American Brit than me.

And yet - there I was, sitting peacefully and quietly by a pool in San Diego, reading, when 'Boom' - the drone-strike hit. A gaggle of loud Americans descended and the peace was shattered. I wondered why, when Silicon Valley is just down the road, they don't invent a volume control dial. Perhaps it is in proportion to their geographical size and worldwide influence as a country (and physical size as individuals) that Americans are so loud? Of course there are many exceptions - some are the epitome of graciousness, daintiness, decorum and dignity. But comment pieces depend on generalisations, so I shall continue.

It was the same in San Diego zoo. There I was peacefully observing a takin which, if you don't know, is a cross between a goat and an antelope, when 'boom', another drone-strike, as a flock of Americans came and shrieked with excitement at the fact that the takin was peeing. It was akin to man landing on the moon. "He's pee-ing, he's pee-ing," they gasped, with sheer delight and a volume that could reach the moon. One lone, sane, American voice could be heard to whisper: "They do, you know." I wondered how we would feel if, while perched on the loo, a gang of orang-utans, zebra, tigers, elephants and hippopotami suddenly appeared, cameras flashing, cackling "He's on the loo"!

All this got me thinking. America is a country of extremes. For just a few days before being disturbed by Americans whose volume doubled their body weight, I had been with some of the most sophisticated, thoughtful, intelligent, knowledgeable brains I have come across - twice. First, I had the privilege of being with five wonderful American friends, on holiday in Italy. A more cultured, spiritual, intellectual bunch I do not know. Not for them the 'It's Monday, it must be Rome', 'It's Tuesday, where's my Picasso?' jamboree. They were the epitome of leisurely, un-hyped human delight. And then I attended a conference of equally thoughtful, educated, literary Americans whose brainpower would trump that of most people's. They were devoted to freedom, the theme of the conference, but not a rash libertarianism - rather a compassionate, principled freedom accompanied by good values and responsibility.

And then I realised, it isn't just in its climates that America is a nation of contrasting extremes. Compare the weather in San Diego all year round with the winter in New York. Contrast Florida, Arizona, Texas and California with Connecticut, Michigan, Vermont and Virginia. Pitch Hawaii against Alaska. But alongside contrasting temperatures, there are contrasts in every other sense. As I have described, America has some of the most genteel, educated folk in the world, alongside some of the most ignorant, stupid and unaware. Its people are either extraordinarily obese, its cuisine trumpeting humongous burgers and huge platters of fries, or they are obsessed with health foods, fitness and exercise to the point of being hyper. They include some of the most devout, pious and fundamentalist religious believers alongside ultra-militant secularists. They have battles in the courtrooms over whether and where churches should worship, yet they enshrine religious liberty as their first freedom, and have positioned themselves as the world leader on the subject, with an Act enshrining religious freedom internationally and creating an Ambassador-at-Large to monitor it.

America has led the world in licentiousness, with violence and pornography booming in Hollywood and beyond, yet there are plenty of ultra-Puritans who would balk at a glass of wine. It is full of some of the most generous, hospitable and compassionate people I know, and some of the most materialistic, vain and narcissistic. As a nation it is capable of tremendous acts of humanitarianism, but seems to indulge also in gun-toting shooting sprees. It can be unthinkingly militaristic, or naively peacenik-ish. It champions democracy, but it it only a few decades ago that African-Americans were segregated and Martin Luther King said he had a dream of civil rights. And it seems to over-compensate one extreme for the other.

The response to George W Bush's perceived military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq has been Barak Obama's "hug a dictator" strategy. Teddy Roosevelt's old adage "speak softly and carry a big stick" is ignored by both. Bush did not speak softly enough, and was perceived not to listen; Obama has forgotten the stick America has the power to wield. Bush squandered the good will the world had towards the United States after 9/11; Obama has squandered the euphoria the world had towards him after his first election.

But as I draw towards the end of another two weeks in the United States, I conclude that the balance of extremes weighs in the country's favour. One aspect of American life I particularly appreciate is the friendliness and helpfulness of people, particularly restaurant waiters and waitresses. The "have a nice day" spirit is not just some superficial platitude - when a waiter or shopkeeper greets you and bids you farewell with a smile, willingly answers your questions, and exchanges pleasant conversation, it brightens the spirit. It is something we in Britain could learn from.

Simple neighbourliness is a positive. In Britain, if a stranger talks to you on the tube, you think they are mad. Often they are. In America, they are perfectly sane and just being friendly. At a bar the other night in San Diego, two guys approached me and asked if the other two empty chairs were available. I looked up from my book and nodded, assuming they would take the chairs away to their table. They promptly thanked me, and sat down next to me, to my initial astonishment. Then they proceeded to engage me in conversation. After initially looking aghast and trying to hide it, I recovered and responded. They were perfectly normal, indeed charming, retired architects. They bought me a drink, and offered to save my seat in case I wished to return to hear the next band. That wouldn't happen in London - and it's a pity. It was simple common humanity, something we in Britain take a while to warm up to.

On balance, the United States has done a lot of good in the world. If it were not for the United States, we in Europe might well be living under either Nazi or communist rule. Britain played its part in the struggles against both Hitler and the Soviet Union, often alone and with particular courage under two brave leaders, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. But if it had not been for America's willingness, belatedly in one case, to use its power, and the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in particular, we might never have won.

In a contemporary context, the United States has long been the loudest, clearest voice for human rights, religious freedom and liberty in general - and it is in this way that I appreciate American volume. Yes, American foreign policy could do with more humility, in the sense of listening more to others, and more consistency. But just as past administrations may have forgotten humility, Obama's seems to have forgotten its strength - and that is the greater loss.

So as I return home to London, I leave happy. The "sunshine state" has made me glow. But I also leave noting the extremes in American life, and even while the good outweighs the bad, and often the good turns into excellent, and sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, America could learn to modify its less attractive extremes, and we in Britain could learn to be more passionate in our modesty. Perhaps some gun control, some noise control, some sense of fun among the "fundies" and some greater tolerance among the liberals, and some smaller portions of food in restaurants would not go amiss. America is a great country, the world is better off with it than without it, but it must remember that it carries its stripes on its back as well as its stars in its eyes.