‘We’ve all come to look for America…’

By skepticlawyer

As I mentioned over at Catallaxy, I’m one of those erstwhile lefties who decided that I didn’t want to visit the USA as a callow youth, and then – despite my politics shifting as time passed – I never got around to it. Last week’s conference was my first visit, and wasn’t the best introduction, mainly because it rained. A lot. It got that way that DC locals were starting to sound like the English – in perpetual apology mode for their shitty weather. Because I have zero climatic luck (my mother used to tell me that ‘if it was raining bloody fur coats, you’d get hit by the only flying shithouse in Australia’), this was going on while Oxford was bathed in glorious sunshine (I saw the Facebook updates). I’ve returned to a town full of people brown enough to be taken for Australians.

Washington is at once familiar and strange. I’d not realised how different US-style traffic-lights – suspended over the intersection and painted bright yellow – actually look. There are more police forces (with a mind-boggling array of uniforms) than anywhere with the possible exception of Italy. Tour groups in the Capitol seemed spontaneously segregated, leading to the peculiar visual image of an all black-group led by a thin white man with a facial tic, and an all-white group led by a very large black woman whose presence seemed to fill every room. Artwork in the Capitol – particularly the statuary – varies from glorious to tat. The Library of Congress, by contrast, is all class.

For the most part people took me for English, except for one member of the Capitol Police, who said ‘Australian, but you’ve spent a long time in England’. I was so flummoxed I simply said ‘well spotted!’ and forgot to ask how he guessed. He was an elderly black man, his hat slightly skew-whiff. I presume he’s been manning the metal detector since, like, whenever they introduced metal detectors everywhere. And they were everywhere. That, of course, was the commonality, but Britain trains you to terrorism and the threat of terrorism. Long queues, metal detectors, take your shoes off, fingerprinting, show your passport (and not just at the airport), softly spoken but effective policing. Americans still grizzle at their loss of rapid mobility, although they’re getting quieter, slowly approaching the phlegmatic stoicism of the Brits. Still, strangers do talk to you on trains, in lifts and in hotel lobbies, and not just about the weather. After the initial surprise – I must admit I did an awfully discombobulated Englisher impression the first time (I’m used to being left alone to my thoughts) – I found the warmth and generosity of spirit on display very attractive.

The election is everywhere, too, from novelty nutcrackers to off-colour jokes about Obama. These are uttered with a nervous titter and sotto voce, in part because he seems harder to mock in the same obvious, physical way as McCain or Clinton. I came across an office – apparently manned 24/7 – supporting the Clinton campaign a stone’s throw from my hotel. People had decorated a whiteboard – the biggest whiteboard I’ve ever seen – under a heading ‘why I support Hillary Clinton’ just inside the door.

More detail in the pics; a public Facebook photo album is here.

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 15, 2008 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    It is pretty funny. People have been photoshopping McCain into the Godfather, too.

  2. Posted May 16, 2008 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Yep, I got mistaken ALL THE TIME for an Englisher during my four week tour of the States last year. “Oh my God, are you English?” “You’re English, aren’t you?” Or sometimes, just for a change, they mistook me for an Irishman.

    Oh, and New Yorkers had an added peculiarity – they always asked you what the hell you were doing in their city. “What are you doing in New York?” “What are you doing here?” “Why did you come to New York?”, etc, ad infinitum.

    Lovely people!

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  1. […] The DC pics are here, and I’m currently looking for my notes so that I can blog the rest of Prof Cowen’s […]

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