How They See Us

O would some power the giftie gie us 
to see ourselves as others see us.
--Robert Burns

Well look at that, Andrew. You're keeping company with Robert Burns.

Andrew is a Comedy Sportz veteran, a brilliant improviser who has performed in more shows than I can imagine. He's also a world traveler, both for business and pleasure. Right now, he's in Barcelona, attending an international improv festival. That's what led him to make this observation on Facebook earlier today:

You know how our shorthand for French people is smoking, and our shorthand for Italian people is hand gestures and kissing on the cheek?
Well here in Europe, improv shorthand for American people is grabbing guns and shooting.

That landed him squarely in the company of Robert Burns, and the quote at the top of this blog.

Improv shorthand is an occasionally uncomfortable thing for me as I do my work behind the keyboard. I hear that we're doing something French, and I find the accordion setting, play "La Vie en Rose" or "La Marseilles" to underscore the scene, which always--I've played hundreds of shows, and have yet to see it any other way--features dramatic mimed smoking and a snooty attitude. As Andrew notes, there's also shorthand for Italians. If the scene is Spanish, there is often flamenco included. And now we know that Europeans have their own shorthand for us, and it involves shooting guns.

That doesn't surprise me at all. In fact, 26 years ago I found myself coming up against an American stereotype that was extremely hard to dispel.

I was working as a student pastor in Cheadle, a suburb of Manchester. One afternoon the phone in the manse rang. It was my circuit superintendent, Alan Mimmack, telling me he'd been contacted by one of my parishioners telling him his wife had died, and asking him to perform the funeral. Alan wondered in his dry, polite voice why this person, whom he'd never met, would be coming to him about the funeral. He said he was perfectly willing to do so, but thought it would be good for me to have a chat with the fellow first, just to see what was going on. I told him I'd get right on it. He gave me the man's name and phone number, and I discovered then that I had something in common with my boss: I had no idea who this person was.

I did a little research prior to contacting him, checking with some of my church officers, and learned that he and his wife had been members of one of the three churches that had merged fifteen years earlier to create this new parish. I also learned that his wife had attended occasionally, though he had not come once, always complaining that the new, very modern building just didn't feel like a church next to the old chapel that had been torn down to make way for it. Furthermore, she'd only been to services once when I'd been in the pulpit (in the English Methodist Church, pastors itinerate around a circuit, preaching more often in the church[es] they're appointed to, but also appearing in all the others at least once a quarter). She had told her friends that she didn't care for my informal preaching style, my American accent, or my youth (I was 27). Just hearing me once didn't keep her from talking about me: she referred to me disparagingly as "The Boy."

Armed with this knowledge, I called her husband and made an appointment for a visit. Sitting in his living room, I mostly listened as he talked about his grief, how the church building wasn't churchy enough, and how much he'd heard about "The Boy"--and about why he hadn't wanted an American presiding over his wife's funeral, with a ten-gallon hat, a giant grin, and saying "Howdy." That's when I realized his only point of reference for Americans was Dallas, which was then in its final season on the BBC. I talked with him for an hour, long enough for him to realize I wasn't anything like J.R. Ewing, that I would be absolutely respectful and dignified in presiding over his wife's funeral, and that my first concern was honoring her memory. By the end of the conversation, he'd agreed to withdraw his request for a British pastor. It was a lovely funeral, and the family thanked me sincerely after it was over, though I don't believe I ever saw that gentleman in church the rest of the time I was there. Of course, he had been very clear about how the modern decor made him feel, so there is that.

What I love most about being American is knowing that no other American has higher status by birth than I do. We have no lords, no dukes, no princesses or queens or satraps or sheiks. Some of us hold higher office, and are guarded by secret service agents, but they got there by campaigning; and while I might have to salute such an official if I were in the military, as a civilian I am not required to make any gesture of obeisance to them. This is not simply an artifact of living in a democracy: If I were a British citizen and I met the queen, I would be required to bow to her and, at the end of the meeting, to walk backward as I left. As an American, I can be just as callous as I want around foreign dignitaries.

That sense of civilized anarchy is, of course, also the problem. We're rude, coarse, vulgar. We don't know the proper manners and worse, we don't care. Our cultural ambassadors are pop stars with big voices and bigger egos. It could be worse, of course. We could be judged not so much by our glad-handing personalities as by our proclivity to kill each other with guns.

Oh, wait. That actually is happening.

I read Andrew's post about European improvisers using guns as shorthand for Americans and felt terribly sad. My experience in Europe was extremely limited--except for a ten-day rail trip on the continent, and a week in Ireland, I spent the entire two years in Britain--but in that time, I had the opportunity to see my country through the eyes of many Europeans. What I saw was a nation of labradors, a people who are loudly, aggressively friendly. Except for that skeptical widower, I didn't meet anyone who viewed Americans negatively. If they had a criticism of us, it was that we were just too loud.

That was then. This is now. Since September 11, 2001, the world has discovered a different side of America. We're the invaders, the aggressors, the avengers who will blow up an entire wedding party to get one terrorist--and that's just the Americans in uniform. The Americans they never meet, the ones who stay here in the United States for their entire lives, are even scarier, because we cling to our guns, our ignorance of science, our backward ideas about religion, sexuality, health care, economics. And we kill each other with those guns at a rate that has horrifying to the rest of the world and, much worse, is somehow not horrifying to the majority of Americans. Our obsession with firearms is poisoning our relationship with the rest of the world even as it is killing the innocent in shocking numbers.

For a short time in 2009, America's image improved: we had a new President who at least talked about peace, who seemed to be moving us away from the war-mongering of his predecessor. The change was significant enough that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But even in his acceptance speech for that award, President Obama made it clear that, whatever ideals he might have professed coming into office, the reality as he saw it was going to be more of the same. In fact, he stepped up the drone war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And as for guns: he's good at lamenting the mass shootings that come so frequently, but there don't seem to be any teeth to those laments.

That may just be a reminder of that huge difference between the rest of the world and us I alluded to earlier: the President is not the King. He's not even the Prime Minister. For all the pomp of his office, his powers are limited. Those powers that he has are much more in keeping with blowing things up than with reducing the trafficking of civilian weapons.

I wish the world saw us differently. My personal experience was that it only took a conversation to dispel the stereotype I was up against in 1989. America as a people could have, and ultimately will have, the same experience in the world: once we finally wake up from our psychotic obsession with instruments of murder, the world will take notice.

I just hope I live to see the day when a European improviser chooses a glad-handing Texan, rather than a wild-eyed gun nut, as shorthand for an American.


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