As many of my readers know, my wife Susan and I had lived in Zurich, Switzerland before moving to the Villages about three years ago. Having been out the States for nearly 30 years, I have been confronted with many cultural changes since we returned. Since last December, I have been recording some of my impressions of America in the form of blogs on my website. Some of the blogs have been more political in nature, others more sociological or religious. Since the blogs were written for you and have appeared on my website on the fourth of each month, I have called them my Blog4u4. The first blog was entitled “Spice and Thyme” and dealt with the religious situation in America today. The blog for this month is: “A Fearful Nation”, and I will conclude the series of blogs in May with the topic: “What is the American Way?” After reading these blogs, you are invited to click on the Contact tab and share with me some of your thoughts.
A Fearful Nation
As Susan and I were contemplating retirement about three years ago, we considered a number of different locations. Since I had worked in Switzerland for almost 30 years, we considered, of course, staying somewhere in the Zürich area. As many of you know from picture postcards, Zürich is beautiful in the spring and summer, but the weather is very cold and gloomy in the winter. So in the end, we decided to look for a warmer climate. Browsing through the various options on the internet, we came across The Villages, Florida–advertised as Florida’s Friendliest Retirement Hometown. That was very appealing. Since we would be acclimating anew to US culture after many years abroad, the idea of a “friendly environment” in which to do it sounded perfect. So we moved to The Villages where we embarked upon our venture of rediscovering America. Unfortunately, what I personally have discovered, is quite different from what I expected.
One of my first experiences in the new “friendly environment” was to find myself standing in front of the closed door of a fellow Villager’s house–after he had slammed it in my face! Over the years, I have lived in quite a few different communities, both in the US and in Europe. I have met quite a few different personality types, some very pleasant, others less so. But I have never–I repeat–I have never had a door slammed in my face. So I was not only offended, but more importantly, I was truly puzzled about the irrational anger expressed in this act of rudeness.
As I have discovered in the meantime, the anger of this Villager is not an isolated case. Not that everyone in The Villages or in the US has developed the unpleasant habit of “door slamming”, but the “irrational anger” expressed in this act seems to be very widespread. The Villages has an online newspaper called “Villages-News.com”, in which residents can publish opinion pieces or letters to the editor. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I have published several opinion pieces to which residents have responded. Since Central Florida is typically conservative and my views on most issues are, in comparison, much more liberal, I always expect to receive critical remarks to my opinions. That is, after all, the nature of a democracy–that we share opposing views. What has surprised me, however, is not so much the criticism as the anger with which it has been expressed. Almost all of the conservative responses to my writing are imbued with anger, and it seems as though there is a direct correlation between the anger of the conservatives and their patriotism. The angrier they get, the more patriotic they become, as if expressions of patriotism would dissipate their anger or would make some point that they are not able to express verbally. Yet, the anger in America today does not seem to be limited to the conservatives. Even the liberals seem at times to be very angry, stooping to name calling instead of engaging in serious dialogue, exercising their wit to formulate clever deprecations instead of seeking for common ground. So I ask: Why is it that so many people are angry today?
When the tragedy of 9/11 occurred, I was in Switzerland and saw the films of the World Trade Center on CNN Europe. Neither the Americans living in Switzerland nor the Swiss themselves could find words to express their dismay and sorrow. One of my very good friends in the States wrote to me and said: “It’s a different world now. The States will never be the same again.” As tragic as the attack was, I did not believe his words. How could one event change everything? But looking back on events in the US since the tragedy occurred, I think that he was right. The US has become a different place to live. The values are different. The attitudes are different. The hopes and aspirations of its citizens are different. The American people are not as open and friendly as they once were. And yes, many of them are very angry.
Concealed under the surface of this anger, there is, in my opinion, something else even more destructive: Fear. Relative to many other countries in the world, the US has always enjoyed a security afforded by its geographical isolation. Americans fought numerous wars in the 20th century, but never on their own turf. Separated from Europe and Asia, the US seemed to be a safe place to live, and there was indeed a sense of security in the land. The message of Osama Bin Laden put an end to that sense of security. He said in effect: “You are vulnerable!” If one considers the psychological and sociological impact of Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the US, one could make a convincing case that he succeeded. It was his aim to destroy America, and in a sense he has; he has destroyed something of great value in the American spirit. And what is worse: We have let him do it. We have let fear overwhelm us. We have let the darker side of human nature gain the upper hand. Out of fear, we have convinced ourselves that torture is acceptable and that the killing of innocent people is justifiable. Out of fear, we went to war with Iraq and we have totally destabilized the entire Middle East. Out of fear, we have forfeited basic civil rights. Out of fear, we remain silent when we see huge corporations abusing their employees.
Americans sing about the “home of the brave”, but in their heart of hearts, many of them have become fearful, and the glaring contradiction between the feigned bravery and the actual fear makes them angry–angry at the news media, angry at the government, angry with the opposing political party, and finally angry with their neighbors who dare to have differing opinions. A fearful nation is not the America that I wanted to rediscover. And so I would like to make a suggestion: Let us join together to overcome our fear, let us put an end to divisiveness and anger, and let us return to respectful, rational dialogue with each other. It will make America a better place to live.