In addition to a profound and passionate interest in linguistics, I am equally driven, if not even more so, by a brain-stimulating, soul-shaking fascination towards the North American continent, the U.S. of A. in particular. The questions, research and casual, that arise from a nation so wonderfully contradictory and attached to its past are copious and complex enough to keep me from ever getting a full night’s sleep.
From a “foreigner’s” perspective, it’s always a question of legitimacy when studying a different culture and especially when passing judgment or reaching conclusions about a country whose society I have never embraced as my own. However, in order to reach an understanding about something, it always requires that the inquiry be at least partly detached from the object of study. That I am inspecting Americanism from my comfortable study in Finland isn’t thus a hindrance but provides a whole slew of differing approaches to the analysis of the phenomena. Of course, it also delimits my interpretations a great deal, because I can’t really say anything about things that really do require me to be subjected to the American society, either for my whole life or at least for more than just a summer vacation. Or, to be more precise, of course I can posit conclusions and analyses of these kinds of issues, but will they ever be relevant to the American way of life, which is, as I proclaim, what should be the crux of North American studies? No, of course not.
In fact, the “foreigner’s” perspective, and here I’m referring to the investigation of a society one has never belonged to, is rather interesting as a separate phenomenon; one that is intrinsically included in all cultural studies. For example, the 2008 presidential elections were interesting to follow as a Finn. Almost every single person I talked to supported Obama with a passion. When asked why, the responses were varied, but the general themes were along the lines of “it’s time for a democrat president”, “it’s time for change” and “republicans do no good to the country”. Also, interestingly, a number of people (myself included) occasionally referred to the new president as “our president”. What a funny thing to say as a Finnish citizen.
The thing that made the responses above curious was that follow-up questions revealed the ignorance of those who said these things. When asked what’s so special about a democrat president, the arguments were almost categorically circular: “look what the previous, republican president has done” or “Clinton was a democrat, and he was a good president”. I’m not saying that people aren’t entitled to an opinion or that only those who have knowledge of the American political system (before it’s confuddled with campaign propaganda) are entitled to one. What I’m saying is that the common understanding among the various people I chatted with on and off before the elections is the very understanding that truly negates the very foundations of American society: that a president equals the nation. For my generation, the republican who failed will always be George W. Bush. There will never be any references to the distribution of seats in Congress during his office, nor will anyone remember the judges of the Supreme Court. Why I’m bringing these two into the discussion is simple: the U.S. Constitution guarantees that no single person will ever hold too much power. This guarantee is supported by a “checks and balances” system that divides all the big decisions (such as declaring war) between the three branches of government: the Judicial, Legislative and Executive. The president holds a LOT of power, that’s for sure. But the “checks and balances” system prevents him from making any rash decisions that might be interpreted to oppose the liberal values that the country was founded on.
Bush deserves, rightly, a lot of the blame. In fact, he deserves so much blame that McCain would probably have proved a much stronger contestant had he not been shackled to Bush’s misgivings. However, to identify McCain as instantly adopting the same values as Bush, just because they belong to the same political party, is a very narrow-minded perspective. Also, McCain advocated some pretty stupid things during the elections. Sarah Palin was one of them, and it just proves how 95% of election success depends on matters that have little relevance to actual politics. It’s all about lobbying for general approval with a clean set of teeth and a spotless record. This is a shame, because thinking of the president’s actual power in the U.S. it’s actually frightening how much of a PR job the office has become. Probably not what Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and the rest had in mind when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
I think that when we are driven to make scathing comments about the U.S. leadership or the society in general, we have to remember that the nation was founded upon some of the greatest philosophies of the Enlightenment era. Inherent rights, consensus government and egalitarianism are all core ideas of the aforementioned two documents. In fact, the entire history of the United States can be reduced to the struggle of upholding these virtues while at the same time evolving into a modern society that is also deeply entrenched in foreign politics and world economy.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject, but I’ll leave that for another day. I guess the general point I’ve been trying to make all along is not to fall subject to misgivings about a society of which very little concise can be said before understanding how that society works from the inside out. I am, like I’ve said, definitely no authority on this matter, as my own interest in the U.S. is tied to the theoretical approaches provided by cultural and regional studies. But I do wish to preach open-mindedness about it all. Otherwise the conflicts we create on the outside can leak to the inside and affect the internal mechanisms of a foreign society in a way that can’t be predicted or resolved.