Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Multi-Faceted America

As a Canadian, I can easily fall into the trap of pigeon-holing my American neighbours into distinct camps. Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, Bible thumper or secularist, gun lover or gun hater.  Of course, America is much more complicated than that.

In the past couple of weeks I have overheard many conversations, and had the privilege to engage in many more. My expectation was that as I moved further south into America's heartland the more conservative would be the opinions of those I met.  I also assumed that the more liberal thinker would be easier to find in the urban areas and in college towns.  To some extent this seems to be true, but one must always remember what the word assume spells: (It makes an ass out of u & me;)

Kent, Ohio had the distinct feel of a progressive college town. A vibrant art scene, funky downtown with lots of independent business and a variety of ethnic foods.  Chatting with folks at the local farmer's market I found there was lots of interest in organic farming.

Within a couple of days, however, I met a couple in Mansfield, Ohio who clearly defined themselves as "conservative Republicans". They were quite curious to have read on my previous blog posting my observation regarding the "divisiveness" of this election. In their opinion, it was the Democrats who were doing the dividing.  They agreed with my interpretation of those posters that Barrack Obama is "anti-American." "He wants to fundamentally change our country into something our founding fathers did not intend."  Apparently they had been convinced on this matter by a movie they had recently seen. When asked about their support for Mitt Romney, I was told "He's not my first choice, but I like his support of family. He's a family oriented man. I like that he does not support abortion." I chose not to ask about the issue of gay marriage.

Next stop was the college town of Delaware, Ohio, home to Wesleyan Ohio University. My experience there couldn't have been more radically different from economically depressed Mansfield, less than fifty miles north. As another college town, it also had a vibrant, funky downtown which supports a twice weekly farmer's market. There was an openness to the town that was in the air. Smiles and conversations were easy to come by.  My hosts in Delaware were clearly progressive liberal people who were outraged at the income disparity in their country. They also were personally affected by the lack of a comprehensive medical system that left people vulnerable to possibly bankruptcy due to medical costs.  Not native to Delaware, they had a considerable worldview, having traveled extensively not only across America, but around the world.  They could appreciate the world from many points of view.  Although they never spoke of it, I had the sense that there faith was important to them from the muted references I saw in their home.

A couple of days later and about 50 miles further south I spent quite a bit of time with another unique American. A former military man with a son and daughter in the military he was ready to acknowledge his fundamentally conservative views, but was also quite open to another side of any argument. He was, you might say, an open minded conservative.  His college training was in agriculture. Although he liked the notion of local organic agriculture, he didn't feel we could feed the world that way. He did, however, feel that he was a "steward" of the earth and was most concerned about some of the more rapacious agricultural and industrial practices he had witnessed.

Next stop was Cincinnati. Big city feel, big city thinking, big city views. I met progressive liberals and fundamental Republican Romney supporters.  Some of the young people simply felt it was a matter of time before the old guard "Tea Party" types would die off and that the world would ultimately be a better place.  Many of these young people however mixed their progressive views with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.  Those of my (the baby-boomer) generation were very saddened by the current divisive political discourse. The difference this time was that they put the blame on the Republicans.  The Romney supporter clearly felt that a business background was essential to running America.  "What does Obama know?" he asked rhetorically. He doesn't know anything about business. "He's never had a real job." he opined.

In Madison Indiana I chatted for at least half an hour with John W.  a retired Indiana State trooper.  Our discussion ranged from gun control to religion to medical insurance. (Indeed, almost every conversation I have had with Americans on this trip has at least touched on the issue of medical care.)

John's opinions on issues leave any preconceived notions you have about Americans in disarray.  He initiated our conversation proclaiming that "Most Americans don't know their own history."  "Did you know that our first four Presidents were Deists?"  He shook his head scornfully as he recalled one glorified portrait of George Washington on his knees praying to the Almighty.  "Washington would never have been on his knees in prayer." he assured me.   He literally laughed out loud as he talked about those who believed that "God would save them" from whatever may happen to them. "When it comes down to it", John concluded, "I'm an atheist."

"You go talk to Americans," he told me. "They don't want us to continue to be Sheriff of the world. We'll sell 'em the weapons if they want to buy 'em, but we shouldn't be fighting these wars."  He agreed with me when I suggested that America's stance on this harmed their international reputation.

He was curious about the Canadian health care system.  I told him that it wasn't perfect, but that what I liked the most about it was that Canadians were largely protected from catastrophic health care costs. He nodded his head attentively.

He then asked about gun control. "I understand you have a much lower murder rate. Is that correct? he asked. Although I couldn't provide him with the exact statistics I assured him our murder rate was miniscule compared to the U.S. "You probably don't realize this, but as a former state trooper I have a lifetime concealed weapon permit and I'm carrying a .38 revolver right now." he stated in a matter-of-fact fashion.  "You know, where more of the population is armed, there is less violent crime." he offered as support for everyone  being armed.  He agreed with my assessment that over many decades Canada and the U.S. had developed distinctly different cultures regarding gun control. 

No doubt, America is a complex, multi-faceted place. At least as demonstrated by those I have been talking with.

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