I have recently returned from three weeks in the United States of America, the longest continuous visit I have made to that country, and it has proved to be most enlightening.
America is both wonderful and awful, delightful and maddening, beautiful and ugly, full of charm and full of rudeness, wonderfully efficient and stupidly incompetent. It is, in short, the best and worst of all the world in one country.
We saw the most spectacular scenery of national parks that rivalled anything in New Zealand and glimpsed the back ends of the big cities that were worse than anything in South Auckland or Porirua East. We stayed in spacious accommodation with everything a traveller could need and in hotels where the service was worse than Basil Fawlty's. We enjoyed superb food and wine in great restaurants and found places where we could eat nothing but sugery doughnuts and greasy fries. We enjoyed the company of some of the most charming people we have met in our travels and were shouted at by arrogant officials who were incapable of understanding that their jobs were to serve the public.
And yet America was comfortably familiar, even to those of our group who had not been there before. At heart we share similar values and traditions, founded in a common European colonial history that has given us human rights, the rule of law and our democratic form of government. We are, of course, exposed to so much American culture every day.
But there are pronouced differences between us that have grown in recent years. Americans have always had a more defined sense of nationhood than we in New Zealand. They have always been very patriotic, although in the decades following World War 2 this was a proud, expansive form of patriotism - "look at us, haven't we done well!" Recently it has become a neurotic, defensive patriotism that manifests as jingoism and xenophobia.
America has turned into a nation of fear. People everywhere are scared and none more so than those who exercise authority. You can see it in the faces of the policemen, security guards and officials you encounter at the checkpoints and searches that greet you at the entrance to every public building or place where people congregate - we even had our bags scanned entering a food court in a Washington DC shopping mall. The fear and stress expresses itself in a complete lack of respect and courtesy by officials in their dealings with the public. This is a noticable change for people that were once renown for their courtesy and respect. There is none of the relaxed competence that you encounter from New Zealand public officials and service staff. The contrast was most noticeable when we re-entered New Zealand and passed through the friendly and efficient Customs and Biosecurity checks. In the United States, we encountered no one in a position of authority who went about their job with this relaxed confidence.
Americans we spoke to were bewildered by what their country has become. Certainly they do not like it, but they can see no way out of the locked cell they have created for themselves. As one local said, "Osama Bin Laden has won. If he set out to turn America into a nation of fear, he has achieved that." What is the point of being the most powerful nation on earth if its people cannot have lunch in a shopping mall without having to go through onerous security checks?
For the first time in a number of visits to America, I was glad I did not have to live there.