America the Dangerous

It’s noon on a Monday in America. I’ve now been home for three weeks and still I’m feeling fine about my country, about my home and community, about my life. That part of me that was conditioned to be on the move from country to country, that part that thrives on a new scene every day, hasn’t squawked even after three weeks. For now I’m content to be at rest and to stay in motion within the perimeter of my house. Strange, don’t you think? I expected much more unease, much more discontent with the familiar.


But maybe it’s not familiar yet. Maybe it’s still country #20 and I’m just doing what I did in Rome and Istanbul and Bangkok—observing, staying alert, finding fascination in the everyday, in pursuit of what it means to be American


Three examples:


  1. Last week I waited at the Sonora Sports and Fitness to pick up Liam, whom a friend who works there was dropping off. While waiting I felt the urge to pee so I walked past the front desk and headed toward the bathroom. I stopped, thinking it would be proper to ask first of the woman at the front desk. Here’s our exchange:


“Hi, is it okay if I use your restroom?” (Note: In my mind this was a rhetorical question.)


She looked up from a form and said nothing for two seconds, and then came a wonderful single syllable. “Why?” she asked.


“Why?” I could feel my eyebrows arc into wicket formation. After all, what is she getting at? Is she asking, Why would I need the bathroom? Why does a human need to pee? Why am I bothering her instead of just going? “What do you mean, ‘Why’?”


“Are you a member?”




“Then why are you here.”


“To pick up my son.”


“Then no, you can’t use it.”


“I can’t use it?”


“Bathrooms are for members only.”


“Are you serious?”


She bowed her head to the form on her desk. “That’s our policy.”


I walked away with three clear thoughts, only two of which I can write on this family-friendly site. 1. ______; 2. I’ll never join this place, ever; 3. Would this have happened anywhere else on earth?


The answer to #3 is no, though there are still about 160 countries in the world that I haven’t visited. The larger question is this: Was this just the odd place with a bitter woman rather than an opportunity to say something about America? Maybe, but I’ll still venture these three thoughts: 1. America follows its rules, 2. America is afraid; and 3. America is not hospitable to strangers.


  1. Example #2 picks up on these themes:


Saturday morning at Farmer’s Market, the atmosphere all friendly and back slapping and kid friendly. I spot a little girl eating a cinnamon bun about the size of her head. I laugh along with a stranger next to me about the sight, but our laugh is not a ha-ha laugh but a “life is so sweet sometimes” laugh. I pull out my iPhone camera and approach the little girl. Next to her is a short man whom I presume is her father, and to him I ask in a sing-song voice, “Ohh, what a cute image, is it okay for me to take a photo?”


As in example #1, my question is rhetorical. Of course the answer is “yes”; I’m only asking to fill up the air with sound waves.


The father tugs the girl by her upper arm closer to him, and he says to me, “What! A photo!” His eyes have a hint of rage in them, and in a voice that is more of a growl he says, “Absolutely not, now get away! Go on, get away!”


I did. I stepped away, bewildered—bewildered and shocked and with my mind trying to figure out what just happened. Maybe he’s just one freaky guy among the 330 million Americans. Or maybe not. Maybe this is the new code in America, a code that prevents photos of kids because of perverts and pedophiles. Was that the subtext? Were his animal eyes protecting his child from a creep like me?


That’s how it felt, me inside a uniquely American situation that is full of fear and full of drama, especially for those who watch a lot of television. I’ve since learned that you need parents’ permission to take any photos at school, even random ones with kids in the background.


Maybe this makes sense. Maybe a good parent in the year 2014 must shield his daughter from the perils of the world, and I’m just naïve to not know about the scale of this problem in America.



But what I do know is this: Nowhere and at no time in the last 319 days circling the globe would this have happened. I took hundreds of photos of kids and we had hundreds of photos taken of Liam. Never did the specter of perversion creep into the scene. Never.


I’m ready to take a leap and say that this is America, a country with a bottomless appetite for the sordid and the perverse. Such events in a country of 330 million people are happening everyday. Everyday, then, the event in a corner of Vermont or in a small town in New Mexico gets fed into the Great Maw of American media, which makes money putting it on tv or on the front pages. Perversion sells. Kiddy porn really sells. If you’re weak of will and addled of brain and likely a closet pervert yourself, you’ll devour these stories for six hours a day. The result is a father at a Farmer’s Market full of fear and bad stories, a father who says, “Get away! Go on, get away!”


I wish I could do a scientific survey. I wish I could determine if such attitudes belong to certain groups in America. My hunch is that this father is a far right-wing conservative Christian, likely a fundamentalist Christian of the kind so commonly found up here in Tuolumne County. Irony of ironies, his brain has found a faith that justifies, even sanctifies, his sordid and violent world view. His brain has met a religion that teaches that gays are an abomination, that Muslims are out to get us, that the world is 6000 years old, that abortion doctors are murderers. His world is a tiny insular world that feeds its own waste back into itself. His “Get away!” is full of hate and suspicion. His brand of religion—remember that “religio” means “to bring together”—tears people apart, is the purveyor of hatred and fear.


This brand of father, this brand of Christianity, this brand of conservative Republican (read: Tea Party) is uniquely American. More than anything, he needs to travel like I’ve been traveling to shatter these dangerous but thin beliefs. The problem is that such Americans aren’t inclined to travel, aren’t fascinated by cultures—not when there’s the greatest nation in the history of the world right here beneath our feet.


All of this leads to example #3:



  1. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe not, but last night I received an unusual email from my brother in Wisconsin that I think says something unique about America. The email was titled “Letterman’s Top 10 for Voting Democrat.” Letterman, I know, is a moderate Democrat, so I was curious how his list might make fun of his own beliefs.


Well, the list was a top ten but had nothing to do with Letterman. It was a Republican’s list of ten abominations of the Democratic platform, all twisted so out of shape that true Democratic beliefs are nowhere to be found. For example, here’s #10: “I vote Democrat because I love the fact that I can now marry whatever I want. I’ve decided to marry my German Shepherd.”


Read that one again.


Now, I could easily go ahead with the obvious points about gay marriage, about the Supreme Court supporting it and about the joy that America has evolved into a more tolerant society that is approving gay marriage state by state. I could easily dismiss the laughable logic that marriage between two people of the same sex will lead to a society that supports the marriage between a man and a dog.


But that’s not the point here. The question to ask is this: Why do smart people believe such nonsense?


This nonsense is not funny and it’s not innocent. It’s violent and it’s cruel and it’s in need of spirituality, creativity, and exposure to other cultures to save it from itself. The irony yet again is that most often, it’s religion that is teaching its believers to hate and to ridicule.


And it’s a strictly Republican and libertarian entertainment. Democrats don’t come up with a top ten list that mangles what Republicans truly believe. If we did, our #8 would be, “I vote Republican because I love the fact that I can now drive without any speed limits and no traffic signals and no police to write tickets, because Republicans believe that all government intervention is wrong and limits my God-given freedom.” Or something like that.


Why? Why do that?


It has nothing to do with politics and with real differences between our political parties—and everything to do with something else. That “something else” is what intrigues me, because it’s what distinguishes America from the rest of the places I visited around the world.


I’ll be blunt. From my vantage point that “something else” is racism, is a vein of confederate ideology that runs through a large portion—maybe 40%–of America. It’s tribal. That’s key here: It’s tribal, it’s something that bypasses logic and reasoning and taps into something around the fire, something that relies on ridicule to push the stranger and the threat out of the inner circle. Even as I write this I wonder if there is a deep portion of our brainstem where all of this resides, a not-very-smart part that cares nothing for language and logic and everything for survival. It is afraid. This caricature is afraid—afraid of the boogy man (Obama as black man), afraid of becoming irrelevant, afraid of being pushed out of the inner circle themselves. This is the adult version of what goes on in playgrounds among boys that are bullies.


It would be one thing if the freak 10% believed this drivel. There will always be that 10% who believe the world is flat and that the Holocaust never happened. But that’s not what’s going on here. It’s a huge swath of America we’re talking about, even a whole populous state like Texas that just published its Republican platform that supports conversion therapy to correct the inclinations of homosexuals.


To give you an idea of the scale of these beliefs in America, I now offer you the most astounding fact about Americans.


Are you ready? Are you sure?


Ok, here goes.


What percentage of Americans believe that the “earth is less than 10,000 years old”?


Take a guess. Now guess again.


The answer: 46%.


I’m in too good of a mood to expand upon the meaning of that figure. In short, it says something about the core of America when nearly half its citizens are… are tribal. That’s the kindest thing I can say right now. The forces of tribalism and religion (America is 90% Christian) run strong through America, so strong that they override basic science and reason. Way down deep, beneath the left brain that cannot be trusted for its worship of reason and beneath the right brain that sees that Bible as a story and not fact, is a brain stem that pulses out messages of fear, of us around the fire and them out in the dark jungle.


Fear. America is full of fear.


Inhospitality. America does not invite strangers into their home.


Anti-intellectual. America distrusts the Harvard-educated Obama and trusts the good-old-boy Bush. Thus America has a feeble system of education that ensures its citizens can be easily led by the nose. Thus America, unlike all of Europe and much of the world, doesn’t pay for higher education because it might encourage higher education. It might push that 46% out from its brain stem into vast lobes of the brain that are full of wonder and kindness and true reason. Thus in Germany a Ph.D. in physics (we met two) and its medical doctors (me met two) pay $0 for their years of education. Compare that to an American, who might graduate with a quarter million in debt—or if not that high, high enough to discourage an education that would eventually serve the society that has funded that education.


By the way, in that top-ten list of what Democrats believe from the perspective of rabid Republicans, there’s no mention of health care. Isn’t that fascinating? I guess the verdict is officially in: Obamacare has won.


So there are my recent examples that fall together into a pattern that reveals something key and disturbing about America.


Now, America is huge, and that’s why I can still live here and raise my son here. For every bizarre email from my brother, for every one of the 46% who believe we’re heading down a path to marrying German Shepherds, there are flocks of Americans who think and feel and believe the exact opposite. That’s why I live in California and not Texas. That’s why I’m an atheist and not a Christian. That’s why I believe that rock I touched in New Zealand last month is indeed 60 million years old and not from a near past when man sprang fully formed from the rib of Adam.


Mainly, that’s why Dolora and I have the friends that we have. Of the 330 million Americans out there, we’ve found a good hundred that surround us. 20 of those 100 came to our house on Saturday night to hear about our around-the-world trip, complete with 921 slides. It was a fabulous night, and a night that gave us our first chance to make some sense of our grand odyssey.


I’ll tell you about it… tomorrow.





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