The first U.S. citizens I really got to know were almost as new to the American experience as I was. Hawaii only became a state in 1959, and when my family mysteriously moved there from Alberta in the fall of 1963, I discovered Hawaiians were still getting used to the idea. Kennedy was the first president they voted for, and when he was assassinated that November, it hit them hard. Sometimes I think Hawaiians have voted Democratic ever since because they’re still grieving. I loved the Hawaiians.
I really didn’t have another close encounter with an American (this one was from Texas) until the summer of 1969, after my second year of university. I was working as a tree planter in the Rocky Mountain foothills, based in Hinton, just east of Jasper National Park. My girlfriend was working in Jasper town, so I’d hitch-hike in to visit from time to time.
One July evening I was sitting on a Jasper bench when the Texan approached and asked if I was local. I confessed I was Albertan. He complimented me on how well we treated tourists, how beautiful the park was, and asked how early the rangers had to get up each morning to set up the mountain backdrop. I was stunned. Still am. This man, who seemed of fairly normal intelligence, actually sincerely believed that the mountains behind Jasper were like a painted movie set, erected for the pleasure of the travelling public. I’m not making this up. The mind boggles.
I confess that this encounter coloured my view of Americans for quite some time. In the intervening five decades, of course, I’ve met thousands more U.S. citizens on their home turf, from Alaska to New Orleans, from Manhattan to West Virginia; the vast majority of them have been as pleasant as that Texan was, and most of them have been considerably more enlightened. But…
When I was growing up, the United States had a reputation as not only the most powerful nation in the world, but the most advanced as well. Over the years, however, I’ve been baffled by how, in so many ways, the country refuses to get dragged into the 20th century in terms of social progress. It’s almost as though it stubbornly refuses to move past the glory days of the 1780s, when the Yankees threw off the British oppressors and founded their nation. Its ridiculous electoral system dates from that time. So does its gun culture; the Second Amendment of the Constitution and its “right to bear arms” was created for the colonial world, not for the modern one, but it remains the major reason most world citizens are frightened by the prospect of even visiting the U.S., let alone living there.
Almost every “developed” nation in the world has had universal health care for decades. Not America. And even though Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was proclaimed in 1863, the U.S. remained overtly discriminatory for another century, and remains deeply racist today.
Like most of you, I suspect, I was profoundly shocked when Americans voted in Donald Trump in 2016. I’ve disagreed with the politics of most U.S. presidents, but at least they seemed to be decent human beings (with the possible exception of Nixon). But here was a guy who didn’t just play a boor and a bully on TV. He proved himself to be those things (and worse) almost daily over the last four years.
Again like most of you, I breathed a sigh of relief last week when Biden was finally declared the victor, and when civil war didn’t immediately break out (although thanks to the aforementioned gun culture, that remains a dangerous possibility). The Donald can go back to the totally unreal world of reality TV, perhaps become a commentator on public health for Fox News, or become a golf course designer like his buddy Jack Nicklaus (there’s one sort-of-hero I’ve lost a lot of respect for).
But why, after all they’ve seen and heard from him over the last four years, did more than 72 million Americans still vote for the guy? That’s a real puzzler, one that’s kept me awake a lot over the last two weeks. Why, as my wife frequently points out, do Americans seem bright and friendly one on one, but so often behave ignorantly in groups?
A clue, I think, lies in the fact that even though Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution more than 160 years ago, an elegant theory long since adopted by every reputable biologist in the world, and even though the vast majority of Christian and Jewish theologians are quite prepared to accept that the Book of Genesis was written allegorically, a very large percentage of Americans persist in the belief that God created the world in just six days, and only a few thousand years ago.
I don’t think these Americans are stupid, or even willfully ignorant. I believe they’re just relentlessly (and sometimes aggressively) stubborn in the face of facts. No “expert” is going to tell them what to believe or what to do. No biologist is going to tell them they share DNA with a gorilla. No doctor is going to tell them to wear an uncomfortable mask. No “socialist” politician is going to make them help pay for their neighbour’s health care, even if it benefits them or their family down the road. So they vote for the ultimate anti-expert.
I guess I understand this stubborn streak. It goes back to 1783, when they beat those arrogant, superior British. But all the same, I wish that segment of American society could just drop their hard-skinned attitude, and look at the world as it really is. Like the Texan in Jasper, just open your eyes. And your minds. And your hearts.