Sunday, March 31, 2013

The greatest nation on earth

Crossing the border from Canada to the United States is an interesting experience. In Australia, which borders no other country, you can't do this. I am reminded of the arbitrary nature of nationalism - over here, you're in Canada, a minute later, the United States. People drive back and forth across the border to do their grocery shopping or fill up their cars with gas (petrol - I mean really, North Americans, there is nothing gas-like about it). And yet the two countries, whilst sharing many traits that could be deemed North American, have quite distinct personalities.

The first thing I notice upon entering the United States is the proliferation of American flags. It's lucky they do that because otherwise I might have forgotten where I was for a minute. We drive past many dilapidated, boarded-up houses. I'm not sure whether they are victims of the Global Financial Crisis or just that the neighbourhood we are in has always been thus. They look like they could have been that way a while.

We stop for coffee and baked goods. An older lady with grey hair is our server. We ask for tea and she somewhat defensively tells us we'll have to wait a few minutes because some one didn't bother to put a fresh pot on when the old one was finished. We say, that's fine, we'll wait. She softens and thanks us. I guess she is used to people reacting badly to having to wait five minutes for a cup of tea. Maybe she's been on her feet all day. Maybe she's had enough. She gives us an extra treat to thank us for our patience. I want to give it back to her.

The gloss and glamour of the image America projects to the world through its movies, TV shows and music is dazzling. When I was a kid, anything American was, by default, coveted. But there is an underbelly of division in opportunity that the world doesn't see. When the President proclaims with conviction (and he is certainly not the first to do so) that America is "the greatest nation on earth" one assumes this is because of the lofty ideals of equal opportunity for all. The idea that is is a place where any one can make it with a bit of hard work and determination. That in a free market, any one with an idea can work their way up to the top. Individual freedom, liberty and opportunity is prized. But it's not a level playing field. And those in greatest need often stay that way. It's interesting to me that it's taken as a given that every one should want to make it big. That every one should want to make their dreams come true. That capitalism is held up as virtuous and somehow the perfect system for perpetual motion. It's that Oprah-style "find out what you were put on the planet to do" ideation that permeates the aspirational classes. But who on earth was put on the earth to be a waitress, or a janitor, or a toll booth collector? And what would happen to those jobs if every one did what they were "supposed" to be doing? If everyone followed their bliss, the world would collapse. There would be no service workers. So in this system, true equality and liberation for all is not actually possible. Capitalism itself encourages competition rather than the sharing of resources. So this notion of egalitarianism is out of step with the reality of what it takes to make it here.

Our waitress greets us with a smile and shows us to our seats. The food is ridiculously cheap. The service is ridiculously friendly. The portions are ridiculously large. Our waitress has one of her front teeth missing. I assume she doesn't have dental coverage. I wonder what her dream is.

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