Saturday, May 15, 2004

only in america

last night, after failing to find ghosts, some friends and i were sitting on a stoop in philadelphia. we were going out to dinner and, because pennsylvania issues about 6 liquor licenses to restaurants in the whole state, we were waiting for some other friends to dig up a bottle or two that they had somewhere in their apartment so we could b.y.o.

while we sat, a taxi pulled up and a guy got out of the cab. actually, he didn't get out for a minute or two, he seemed to be engrossed in a detailed conversation with the driver. but when he did, i guess i made the mistake of making eye contact with him because he started into this long speech about how all of life's truths can be learned by talking to taxi drivers. now i'm actually a big fan of talking to taxi drivers. i always ask where the driver is from, ask them about their country, and try to speak to them in their native tongue if they happen to come from french or arabic speaking countries (on the one occasion that i actually got an american cab driver, i must admit i was secretly disappointed. although you wouldn't know if from my crappy writing here, i'm fairly confident that my spoken english does not need practice).

but i digress.

anyway, this guy was going on and on about the educational value of taxi drivers and was eventually interrupted when our friends emerged from their apartment with a couple of bottles of wine. i guess he realized that i had to wrap things up and so, after asking if i knew where the punjab was, he said one more time how great it is to talk to taxi drivers solemnly adding "only in america" as he started to walk off. "or maybe canada?" i yelled after him as he turned away.

"only in america," is one of those phrases sometimes gets on my nerves. it's not the soft jingoism i hear in it, there are things about the u.s. that really do make this country exceptional. it's that the phrase is often used to make a claim of american exceptionalism that is simply incorrect. was the guy i met last night saying that: only in america there are foreign taxi drivers? or only in america can you talk to people from different ethnic backgrounds? or only in america can you meet people from other countries? all three are simply untrue. if that's what he meant it shows a stunning ignorance of what the rest of the world is like, albeit widely shared misconceptions here in this country.

case in point: this week william safire wrote a column entitled hold fast idealists in which he tries to put an optimistic face on the recent abuse scandals and setbacks in iraq. at one point safire notes that the abu ghraib abuse revealed the heroism of major general taguba:
Assigned by top commanders to investigate, he did his job without fear or favor. No other military anywhere would permit such searing self-examination.

in response to that last line chris from explanda wrote:
"Is Safire so far gone that he thinks that, say, Norway, would refuse to investigate public, photographic evidence of war crimes committed by its own troops?"

as chris also pointed out:
The U.S. actually has a rather mixed record of facing up squarely to wrongdoings, especially those committed by people much higher up in authority. After all, Henry Kissinger stills gets invited on television to speak about foreign affairs, published in the papers, (abortively) named to head important commissions, and so on. Please spare me the crap about how the punishment of serious crimes is what sets the U.S. apart. Either that, or explain to me what you think counts as a crime.

chris might have a point, but unfortunately he's canadian. so what does he know? only in america do we spend so much time patting ourselves on the back and so little time paying attention to what those non-taxi-driving foreigners are saying.