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Indifferent Swiss

A while back Jay Leno had a joke relating to a feel-good story about a little girl who got trapped in a well and was rescued after a number of days. The community “rallied around” the event, as communities tend to do in such circumstances. “I was watching the news coverage,” Leno said, “and the reporter said ‘only in America’ do people respond this way.’ Yeah, sure .. like the Swiss would have left her in there.” These days “only in America” is typically invoked for something bad or in disfavor with the person using the phrase. Some kook shoots up a shopping mall or a nightclub and it’s an “only in America” thing. Some brash real estate blowhard is elected President. The uses don’t hold up to close inspection without further qualification. Most of the time you need to be speaking about the western world, because if you include everybody else all bets are off. Of course you’ve got your share of crazy shit going on in Europe and elsewhere with no shortage of varying personalities being elected to public office. America is just bigger and more powerful, which in itself raises the red flag of suspicion. I’ve had people younger than me from other countries tell me “I used to have such great hope for America.” Really? What should make our evolution and self-perception any different from yours?

My Scottish pal Denis has a phrase for types inclined to use “only in America” in a pejorative sense. He calls them the “Down With Us” crowd. Down With Us folks seem unaware that they are included in the group they criticize. Either this or they somehow think that by asserting such criticism they are set apart and given a pass. Down With Us is an extension of Down With Me, which typically has roots in either charming self-deprecation or crippling depression. I had a blind date with a woman who critiqued our meeting the next day with the observation “while I enjoy a self-deprecating sense of humor, there is nothing more intoxicating than self-confidence.” It was included in a bit of “free advice” she gave about why there was no “love connection” between us. For me it rested in the fact that her arms were kind of fat, so she could have included ‘superficial’ with “unassertive” in my list of faults.

Being anti Down With Us isn’t the same thing as outlawing all criticism. At any given time there’s going to be well over fifty percent of the population doing something that rankles you. It’s perfectly acceptable to point this out, bitch about it, or vote them out of office. It’s when you attribute these objectionable qualities to the group at large that you run into problems. Think Homer Simpson watching a black comedian bust on white people on ‘Def Comedy Jam’ while bursting into hysterical agreement. “It’s true! It’s true! We’re so lame!” If someone makes a comment on boorish Americans and you’re from America, perhaps an eloquent and restrained reply is in order before enthusiastic concurrence. Yes, we have louts a’plenty .. but they aren’t in front of you at present, choosing to run down your country. In the current climate “patriotism” is sometimes assumed synonymous with “racism” or “nationalism.” But there’s plenty of things to be unapologetically patriotic about .. baseball and jazz music to name just a few. Could anybody really call nationalism on being a patriotic Louis Armstrong fan? OK .. so I’m conflating a bit here, and jazz fans aren’t typically getting called nationalists. But conflating is what we Americans do. We’re so lame ..

Perhaps the most important distinction to keep in mind is that Down With Us typically involves an observation. It shouldn’t be a movement as such because it offers no solutions. There’s never a “here’s what we should do” attached. But sadly it seems to be turning into a cause. The most vocal proponents include anybody in the majority or ruling class. If someone makes the observation “Americans are xenophobic bigots” it won’t raise an eyebrow in some circles. But this isn’t true if they include the qualifier “especially Chinese people.” The implied racism disallows the statement. But aren’t Chinese Americans just as American as the rest of us? Maybe the “especially” should be disallowed, but the point still stands that you’re speaking for everybody. On the other hand I was annoyed recently by a friend who corrected me from the colloquial use of “we” in a conversation while making a common observation. “Please,” he interrupted, “use ‘I’ and not ‘we’.” I would have been OK with dumping a chocolate milk on his head at that particular juncture, but it had nothing to do with his being American.

Down With Us is plain lazy, and indicative of neither sophistication nor evolved thinking. It isn’t even a distinctly American instinct and has likely been around since cavemen learned to cook food and sit in reflection by the fire. Only In America is OK if Don King is using it to bolster his pomposity or someone is pointing something out that’s specific to our Constitution. But it might be better used more carefully, whether being applied to positive or negative observation. Unless of course you’re simply using it to bond with your fellow countrymen and create warm feelings. Come to think of it, there are no hard and fast rules. Only in America would this pass as a blog post.

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