"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 28, 2013

How Do You Explain America?

In the course of my many years travelling abroad, I have always been asked where one should visit in America.  “It’s such a big country”, foreigners say. “We don’t know where to start”.

I always answer Las Vegas.  Without a doubt this outsized, outlandish, fantastical, overdone, and gloriously glitzy city is America. We built the Eiffel Tower.

We built the pyramids and the Sphinx.

We love fake.  We are not interested in long lineages, castles, obscure wars and complicated history.  We like to keep it simple: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; and all the rest can be fake.  Las Vegas is a symbol of this indifference to what actually happened, and an exuberant embrace of what could be if shaped by American hands.

I visited Austin,Texas many years ago, long before it became the cosmopolitan place it is now.  I remember little except for the new upscale residential developments.  Each house was built in a different style – Mediterranean stucco, Tudor, Georgian, Antebellum South, Swiss chalet and many more. Not a one reflected anything of the Texas landscape, topography, and environment in which they were were placed. No design feature was Texan or Western. No trace of cows or saddles, open spaces or corrals. This was but my first exposure to American fantasy architecture. It is now everywhere like here in Potomac, Maryland. 

Las Vegas more than any other city captures the very essence of the American spirit – optimistic, forward-looking, enterprising, and individualistic.  We have jettisoned the past and offered to all citizens the promise of an unlimited future.

Next stop would be Los Angeles.  What is more American than Hollywood? America is a country of image, glamour, glitz, showmanship, and fame. If reincarnated, few of us would choose to come back as Richard Nixon, Millard Fillmore, or Susan B. Anthony. Brad Pitt, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, or Scarlett Johansson would be much more like it.

Los Angeles has American style – sun, sand, and surf.  Beach boys, tans, palm trees, unimaginable wealth, and energy. This is what people in Minsk dream of at night – an endless summer, warm breezes, gorgeous women, beaches, boardwalks, and sun. They pray to God to release them from their gulag, brutally cold and unremitting winters, and boiled potatoes and vodka.

Boston just doesn’t do it for these romantic dreamers, or Philadelphia.  Few Americans want to visit these cities.  They are stolid and old-fashioned. There is the Liberty Bell, Faneuil Hall, and the Ride of Paul Revere, but they are passé  and part of an American history remembered only vaguely.

American tourists don’t really want to visit Washington, DC, but feel some duty to come. Washington is a dull, bureaucratic, height-limited, fashion-less city. Although there are always hundreds of tourists in front of the White House and around the Washington Monument, but they record, check it off the list, and leave. Where they really want to be is Las Vegas, Hollywood, or especially Miami.

Miami is next on the list of recommended places to visit. It is hot and cool. Even the poor Bulgarian living in Vratsa has images of South Beach dancing in his head.  All those pastels and bikinis, azure waters, and endless white sand beaches.

Blazhe from Bulgaria knows only babushka-ed women with steel teeth, hard work in the nickel smelter, smoked fish and pickles; but in Miami there are hot Cubans, Haitians, and Dominicans.  No one wears clothes.  They drink rum, dance the meringue under the palms, and make love by the ocean.

Pamela Druckerman, writing in the New York Times (12.28.13) writes of explaining America to 7-year old French children.

I arrive for the talk with a stack of American images: Mickey Mouse, pancakes, the Statue of Liberty (with its French connection), Martin Luther King Jr., and Neil Armstrong on the Moon. I chose them because they were iconic and kid-friendly. But once I saw them all together, I realized that they conveyed the same message as “High School Musical”: Yes you can. That we’re an optimistic people is hardly surprising. But I was surprised by how pervasive this sentiment was. Even the steaming stack of pancakes seemed heroic.

It is not an easy job to sum up America; and when asked to do so we pick iconic images.  The French would laugh at this simplistic graphic notion of culture and statehood, and talk endlessly about Charlemagne, Napoleon, The Sun King, the glorious Revolution, and France’s anointed role as the Defender of Europe, and the champion of Western civilization.  They can never understand how we are all about image, presentation, and simple symbolism. Imagine a treatise on Deconstructionism by Derrida or Lacan illustrated with images of Dior, Chanel, the Brasserie Bofinger, or the vineyards of Bordeaux.  Impossible. French seriousness requires density and intellectual weight, not pictures.

The visitor to America should spend no time in museums nor listen to lectures on Revolutionary history at the Old South Church.  He should waste no vacation time on Congress and should avoid lectures on G-men, J.Edgar Hoover, and the FBI.  To do tourist things would be to conclude that America is no different from any other country with its set of particular laws, rules and regulations; struggles and statesmen; and going about its daily business of buying, selling, and negotiating.

Visits to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami require no thought, just experience.  If France is all about intellectuals, philosophy, and history; America is about sensation, promise, image, and fantasy.

I used to have San Francisco on my list, but despite the Bay, the Bridge, the fog, and the hills, it doesn’t have a big message. Super-gay San Francisco with the Castro, Bay-to-Breakers parade, and Halloween transvestite get-ups is great for Americans to gawk at; but the city doesn’t have national allure.  It is not thoroughly American like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, nor dreamy enough like Miami.

New York City also was on my list, but cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are far more exciting, with more energy and vitality.  The East is where cities are expanding and exuberant.

New Orleans once had a certain cachet, but the French Quarter has always been cheap and tacky, and particularly after Katrina the city is a wreck – a few garden neighborhoods surrounded by ghetto. 

Chicago, made somewhat iconic by Carl Sandburg and Studs Terkel, may have some resonance with Americans who appreciate its muscle, stockyards, and Midwestern-type energy; but it would be lost on most foreigners.

Finally, I would send foreign visitors to the Mississippi Delta and have them drive from Memphis to Natchez visiting Indianola, Yazoo City, Belzoni, Clarksdale, and Greenwood. The Deep South is no longer a unique America, but every Northern city lives with its history. No one can understand America without understanding black urban America.  It all started in the Delta.  Cotton fields are as iconic as the glitz of Las Vegas. Once again, it takes little thought to create images of the Old South.  Gone With The Wind does the rest.

I am glad so many people want to visit the United States, and I hate to see them waste their time.  So for all you who are thinking of a trip, head to Vegas.

1 comment:

  1. Just for the record here, the Latin Quarter is in Paris - the University section where the plethora of foreign students made Latin the lingua franca of the district - the only language they all knew. New Orleans has a French Quarter where the settlement began in 1722 and where people who were not of French descent were not allowed to own property.

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