America’s veil of fear

A reader of The Economist, Tim Rooks, apparently an American now living in Berlin, just sent a letter in response to one of my recent pieces.

(The piece was about California’s prison overcrowding, itself an aspect of America’s incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world, surpassed only by the Soviet Gulag.)

An excerpt from the letter:

… since leaving the United States, I feel as if a veil of fear has been lifted. I am freer and safer than ever…

This caught my interest because the premise of my thread on America is that, like Mr Rooks, I often feel less free and safe in America than in any of the other places I have lived. And this, of course, is ironic, since many Americans claim or like to pretend that they have some special relationship with liberty.

It is also interesting because Rooks and I both seem simultaneously to be insiders and outsiders in America, and that tends to be a good vantage point for seeing that which is, as it were, hiding in plain view. (I, for instance, started my thread with two views from Hong Kong, here and here.)

Compare, for instance, what Jonah Lehrer says about outsiders:

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23 thoughts on “America’s veil of fear

  1. Fear it may be, but not enough fear to want to leave the country to move to Canada or other country?

    P.S. Cool video about outsiders. Thinking about it, I find it enjoyable to be an “outsider” in areas/subject matters that I have no business being in (and sometimes even excel in them).

    • Oh, I’ve been tempted, as have many people. Vancouver is apparently the best city on the planet (though not, perhaps, right now).

      The trouble is that Canada does not have any cities that news correspondents could convincingly sell to their editors as must-have locations for foreign bureaus. If you could engineer a Canadian financial crisis that threatens to bring down the entire world, then maybe ….

    • Andreas, it is one of the disadvantage of sleeping with an elephant. We are so close to US, and in the off-chance something “important” happen here, news media can either use a freelancer to report or fly someone up for a few days.

      P.S. Vancouver is going crazy (crazy in a good fun way) with the Olympics. We are a nice and quiet people but the Olympics has bought out a lot of pride (in a positive way) in our country and a very public manner.

      Go Canada Go !!!

  2. I’m both insider and outsider as well, in that I’ve spent the first half of my life in Austria and the second (almost) half in NYC.

    For the record, I feel no difference regarding freedom and safety whatsoever.

    I grant that for personal reasons, I may simply not be properly plugged into the nuances of my surroundings.

    On second thought, I did get mugged once here in NYC. Lost 20 bucks. Never been mugged in Europe.

  3. When you speak of “freedom” do you speak of “freedom from” (negative freedom), or “freedom to” (positive freedom)?

    How about that in America you are so free that it feels like a burden, which manifests in feelings of emptiness and anxiety?

    Life, after all, is much simpler if you are just ordered about, rather than having to make all decisions yourself.

    • Well, there it gets quite nuanced. Frankly, that merits an essay, which I will attempt in due course.

      I’ve alluded to some of it in the earlier posts in the America thread.

      “Freedom from” and “freedom to” is one dichotomy. “Freedom for whom” is another. If you’re Sergey Brin or another entrepreneurial tycoon, you are freer in America than almost anywhere else. If you are growing up in the hood, or commuting to and from your exurb, or caught in the thicket of regulations and the “justice” system, etc, then you might wish you were in Europe or Canada or even parts of Asia. Provided you knew about the alternatives there.

  4. These are the shadows the US casts in my cave of ignorance.

    Its citizens believe the US is an entity capable of criticism. This delusion arises from a grandiloquent, but false, precept that seeks to make wrap humanity and its aspirations into a neat bundle:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    These observations are wrong in almost every respect. They are not truths. They are not endowed by a creator and there are no rights, only privileges. They were written, of course, to further certain minority political interests. They parade as axioms, which they are not, since they are as far from as observable facts as it is possible to be.

    It is a tribute to ingenuity and earnestness that the American people have sought to express a common humanity from within this strait-jacket, but the restrictions lead to a number of abominations. These include a sense of self-righteousness, a cultural hegemony, a belief in absolutes where there are none and arrogance. Risk-taking becomes recklessness. The narrow horizon breeds intolerance and ignorance. Worst of all is the false belief they have, or have had, all the best ideas.

    How can the true American shed this stereotype? Only by questioning and overhauling, or perhaps even abandoning, the political and social indoctrinations which have become second nature. This is clearly possible, for otherwise America would not have been the force for good that it undoubtedly has been.

    Perhaps the hidden truth behind the Declaration of Independence is the infinite variety of humanity and an aversion to those who seek to control others. That is why America itself is not an entity capable of criticism.

    • Exuvia and Dafna will realise from the above that I suffer from Xenophobic Agoraphobia – that well-known indisposition to travel outside the country of one’s birth.

      This has resulted in an inadvertent ambiguity in the above comment. For “entity capable of criticism” read “entity that can be criticised” throughout (where the context so admits). Rights and liabilities apply irrespective of number and gender and plural references are joint and several. Without prejudice.

    • hello richard,

      you just clarified the grammatical ambiguity 🙂 you are usually so on point and concise, i thought you came unhinged! #2 you are not american, correct?

      well, perhaps criticism of the US does fall on deaf ears. very ironic that a county built on immigrants should be accused of Xenophobia. (i know you accuse yourself of it, but you also imply we are incapable of embracing our diversity, which leads to etc.)

      i think perhaps you flatter america by calling it a force for good, might makes right?

      eh, americans, despite our faults, are not so easily provoked (unfortunately)! i am actually first generation american. i have no further knowledge of this thread since i am new to the blog. i am sure it has been already pointed out somewhere that “feeling” safe and being safe are two separate things.

      Greece is now crumbling under the weight of “Baksheesh” and had the Americans understood its meaning the movie “Midnight Express” would never have been made.

      in short, all around the world we get as much justice as we can afford.

      dissent used to be the highest form of patriotism, now you would be hard pressed to pry people away from the telly and overstuffed couch.

      thanks so much for posting. you do us a disservice by not having your own blog.

  5. “… self-righteousness, a cultural hegemony, a belief in absolutes where there are none and arrogance. Risk-taking becomes recklessness. The narrow horizon breeds intolerance and ignorance….”

    That seems to be the nut of your critique of America.

    This is very arbitrary, of course, but I do find much of American culture self-righteous and occasionally arrogant and reckless, but NOT (for the most part) intolerant or ignorant.

    When I’m criticizing America, it’s not really for its culture, which is quite vibrant. It’s more for some of its bizarre administrative, bureaucratic, judicial, punitive traditions.

    • You are over-generous referring to my effort as a critique. It was intended to be a provocation but seems to have failed.

    • “American people have…….a sense of self-righteousness, a cultural hegemony, a belief in absolutes where there are none and arrogance. Risk-taking becomes recklessness. The narrow horizon breeds intolerance and ignorance…….”

      This is America, goddammit. Love it or leave it.

    • he, he, he, i am my own dowry (plus son), so who will have me? England, Canada, France… only the lovely lady who takes refuse from other shores.

    • Oo – I love America all right, Phil, and regret I am not there. I’m just jealous.

      Perhaps it should conduct its politics across choirstalls instead of in a theatre, Dafna, and start shouting.

      The italics in Phil’s reply look like a description of me.

    • No – I’m too obscure. The UK House of Commons in its present form started off in choir stalls. Other legislatures resemble a stage and auditorium.

      I was only leg-pulling.

    • hi richard,

      actually, you were on point.

      Obama’s last State of the Union address was compared by our media to the way the UK conducts its politics (in tone and atmosphere) i just can’t find the quotes.

      Also the Republican response was not “set” in the hallway this time but from the floor of the House of Delegates at the Virginia State Capitol, a pretty nice stage, eh?

      thankfully, nobody shouted disrespectfully this time.

    • Aha.

      two suggestions there.

      1) the Hannibal Blog should have a Style Guide. Consider it under consideration.

      2) No fake-objectivity quotes. Amen. Have I sinned above? Do blow the whistle.

    • Sinned? Perhaps, but not mortally. 

      Neil Simon sinned by writing a false third act to the Odd Couple, not once, but three times. Despairing, he wandered up Fifth Avenue till he reached Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which he, a Jew, reluctantly entered. 

      And God spoke to him!    

      “If you have wandered into this cathedral, it’s with good reason.”

      “If this is where you will find peace of mind to do your work, so be it,”

      ” … but don’t make a habit of it.”

      So, if you’ve sinned, the God that oversees writers will surely forgive you — it’s Michael Kinsley I’m not so sure about.

      (Disclaimer: see Rewrites by Neil Simon for the precise details of the above story.)    

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