I was recently asked by a friend: What does the rest of the world think about the U.S.? The question was posed because in the last year I’ve had the absolute privilege to travel to some far-flung places and hear firsthand what others think of us.
America is so large that when we vacation or travel to see family or get on a plane for business, many of us never have to leave the lower 48 states. The news we watch is local, one of the big networks or cable, and in all those cases, we get three minutes of international news. Ours is a myopic country. We rarely look outside our borders for insight into the world’s people, politics or religions. Many people on the right actively demonize countries that seem too different, leading them to scream incoherently:
Many people on the right also consider other countries backward, and like to holler about how our education and healthcare is the best in the world. In fact, according to The Guardian, the U.S. ranks 14th in education, behind Estonia and Poland. We fared even worse on healthcare, coming in at a dismal 37th worldwide.
The difference in our worldview may be directly related to the size and location of our country. Most countries border multiple nations, so they speak different languages, celebrate different holidays and practice different customs. The proximity of many countries and cultures to other countries and cultures makes their worldview more open and less provincial. America borders only Canada (which we dismiss as America-lite) and Mexico (which we just dismiss), so it’s unsurprising that only about a third of Americans hold a passport.
When I visit other countries, my American-ness fascinates. Yes, I am making up that word. I am opinionated, laugh heartily, have a big smile, a firm handshake and I am generally very optimistic. I am invariably asked about our fixation on Hollywood (or theirs). Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are favorite TV shows, which is funny: I don’t know anyone who watches them.
Big action movies are also favorites, which makes me wonder if the world really thinks Tom Cruise is constantly saving the world (Scientologist OT VIII that he is) or that Bruce Willis really blows up buildings with homemade bombs and witty repartee.
Every country I go to, I also get this question:
Why do Americans love guns so much?
I arrived in Moscow shortly after the Charleston shooting and got into a conversation with a woman who asked why we condone killing children. I don’t think she thinks we actively shoot kids, but her point was simple: Why do we allow mass shootings, especially with children as the carnage, to continue? Why don’t we stop it? Why can’t we make guns illegal or legislate more (or any) gun control?
I am embarrassed for my country when they ask me this. And I have been asked this in every country I have visited so far this year, including Italy, Russia, Bangladesh, India and Mexico. When Mexico thinks we have a gun problem, I believe we have a gun problem.
They don’t understand that we have a Constitution that allows individual ownership of guns. They also don’t understand that many gun owners believe they have a God-given right to pack heat. I try to explain what the NRA is and how it is run by fanatical gun worshipers with millions of dollars to buy the votes of politicians and how it is beholden to gun manufacturers. I explain that our politicians are so scared of losing their jobs that they sacrifice their constituents — literally, the lives of their constituents — for large donations to their PACs or campaigns.
But the answer, weirdly, is freedom. Our country guarantees its citizens many freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights. We have Freedom of Religion, so I can practice my pagan rituals without being mocked by my family. We have Freedom of the Press, so Fox News can hire a former reality show contestant as a political pundit. We have Freedom of Assembly, so religious purists can stand outside abortion clinics and actively shame women who are going into them. We have the Freedom to Bear Arms, enshrined by the Second Amendment, though it does not mean the freedom to go sleeveless regardless of the shape of your upper arms:
I explain that the Second Amendment was originally enshrined so ordinary citizens could serve in a militia and defend the newly created States against the British. Since we no longer fear the British coming except to see the Grand Canyon, gun lobbyists only cite the last part of the amendment. I explain that, for them, “the right to bear arms shall not be infringed,“ which means owning an unlimited assault weapons.
I explain that having these freedoms is usually a good thing. We are a great country with almost no limitations on our citizenry. We can gather in large groups without police harassment unless you are brown and male. We can shout the most insane babble while waving our guns in the air. Is Donald Trump going to be our next President? No, I tell them, a thousand times, no.
Which question embarrasses me more, guns or Trump? I’m going with guns, and here’s why: Trump may be leading in the polls, but the people being polled are a small percentage of a small percentage of the voters. Trump’s bombastic tone is great, I add, for those with lots of anger toward Washington and Other People. We know these people will never vote for a Democrat and we know they are not Independents and we know they are definitely not moderate Republicans, because that is no longer legal. They are die-hard Tea Partiers, they are outliers, extreme far-right Republican ideologues. Last month’s Washington Post-ABC News poll (which most Trumpeters discount as Lamestream Media, therefore useless) shows that most support for Trump comes from white, under-educated, lower-middle-class voters. Not that those are bad people, but they tend to be less read, not well-traveled, and listen to right-wing radio and surround themselves with people who think and look just like them. They tend not to be nuanced thinkers, since they could not care less that Trump has no actual policy papers (well, he has one), or well-thought-out economic plans.
I explain that we have over a year to go before we vote. I explain that Trump’s endlessly disparaging remarks about women and POWs will eventually hurt him when the Democrats hammer him with his own words. When it comes time to lay out his plan for economic and foreign policy, he is doomed. He can only call his opponents losers for so long before no one laughs anymore.
I tell my colleagues all of this. I tell them that we have an imperfect, certainly flawed system. But the fact still remains that any citizen has a right to run for President as long as they are over 35 and a natural-born citizen (Ted Cruz, show us your birth certificate!). Our Constitution puts government directly into the hands of citizens, which is a blessing and a curse. Given our freedom to own a gun, and all snark aside, the vast majority of our citizens do live up to that responsibility. Indeed, to give up our rights because of bozos, buffoons or extremists would be disastrous. I let my new friends know that I live with our moments of insanity because the freedom to be a jackass is a purely American virtue. We still have one of the best political systems in the world, and every four or eight years we have a violence-free turnover of power. Which gives us another chance to see who the clown-car spits out next. But I absolutely believe in gun control, so shoot me.