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I watched “Amazing Grace” on the plane. Twice. It was an inspired choice by BA to show this film, and that it should always and forever be available on flights to the United States. It portrays William Wilberforce’s fight to have slavery abolished and is moving and very uplifting and made me a little bit proud too. The area of our town that we live in is mostly infamous for all the wrong reasons, but was initially parcelled up by a Quaker landowner and sold off to fellow faithful Quakers. Most of the roads are named after slave abolitionists – Wilberforce, Dilwyn, Clarkson, Benezet – which added to the resonance of the film for me. The themes of the film were so touching, though. Faith, kindness, non-discrimination. I could have watched it again, and again, and probably will. I hate flying. Trust issues.
The last time I felt as if I had to ask nicely to be allowed into a country was in 1987 when I briefly went to East Berlin. Since then every country that I have visited has either had an obligation to let me in, or has been slathering over the thought of all my tourist pounds to the point where refusal becomes an impossibility. I very much felt as if I had to ask very very nicely if I could please be allowed to enter the United States – a humbling and, therefore, not necessarily bad experience. Still, having a white skin, and a British passport, eased the passage of our family, as I could see from the experience of others around us.
It is impossible to talk about the definitive American culture. Colorado and San Francisco were so different that it would be difficult to include both in any generalisation. So some of these observations apply to only one of our destinations, and a few apply to both. Also, we met only a small untypical sample of Americans – and those mainly in Colorado – and had to largely rely on what they told us to be true.
Everything in Colorado appeared huge. I could see why Dolly Parten would need all that hair, and I felt very small and insignificant. The airport at Denver was an overlapping series of the biggest, whitest tents I have ever seen, in the middle of the flattest landscape you could imagine, with the blackest, heaviest thunder clouds and the most striking bolts of lightning. From there we picked up the biggest car we have ever driven with the biggest armchair seats and the biggest cubic capacity engine we’ve ever harnessed. Those are the only two superlatives that the car can claim, however. Most are still reserved for my beautiful car which would be out of sight before the Pacifica had left the starting blocks.
I’ve gone a long way to avoid automatic gear boxes, but there was no way out in the US. I hate automatic gearboxes with a passion. They won’t accelerate fast enough, and they take control when the control should be mine, and they feel as if they are careering dangerously out of control on downhill slopes.
Even our outsize car was dwarfed by the environmental monstrosities of all the other guests at the ranch, whom seemed to have hired trucks, not cars, for the short trip from the local airport to the ranch. These honking huge gas guzzlers needed a step ladder to mount the cab, and parallel parking was only a dream in another universe. They were gross, but, God, did they represent power, maleness, success, or so their drivers thought …
Our first lunch on the drive up from Denver quickly followed on from our first foray into a happily located designer outlet village on our route. Now this I was in favour of. I could kit my children out with the labels they desired for the price of a sweat-shop T shirt from a bargain shop back home. So, Ralph-Laurened and Abercrombied up, we hit the micro-brewery. The Dam Brewery. Full of the biggest damn hamburgers and the best damn beer. My husband was in heaven. In Britain, beer is served in half pints and pints. Here, you could sample a huge array of beers in small quarter pint glasses, so that you missed nothing. Good job I’d mastered the nasty automatic gearbox by this point. The portions were enormous, which made us start looking at the size of people. Some were tall, but quite a lot were just overweight. I felt very small and insignificant as I crawled away in my not-quite-big-enough tortoise of a car.
Not that anyone at the ranch was overweight. The ranch was perfection. Because the dollar is weak, we can punch way above our weight and so spent the next week in the company of the very well off when we are only well off. One lawyer had flown his own jet to Steamboat. Another family of three siblings and spouses and lots of children could have built a house with the amount the week must have cost for them. We were the only non-Americans and were privileged to enjoy seven undiluted days of people-watching at breakfast, lunch and dinner and during the daily rides and hikes. That was when I wasn’t shielding my eyes from the glare of all those white teeth! It’s surprising that any of us spoke all week, so ashamed were we of our naturally yellow fangs. I kept meaning to buy the whitening strips, but forgot. Damn teeth.
On arrival at the ranch we were handed a list of the names and contact details for all the guests, which, no doubt, allowed those with internet access to google all the men. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do with this list other than annotate it with notes such as “fine white scar lines on upper arms and thighs indicate a history of self harm” … or “psychopath in the making – blame the parents” or “no visible botox”. But I’d missed the point, not having access to Google. And I am being cruel, when everyone was so kind. This was the beginning, for the men, of a week of intense competition, mental but primarily physical, with not a moment off for relaxation. Lots of muscle flexing and posturing. My husband, being somewhat competitive, was not going to stand by and watch. So, it wasn’t exactly a family holiday … his mind was on other things. At the final cook-out, my husband read out the poem he had composed to celebrate the week (a tradition foisted upon one “new” family in this week each year, we were told). He brought the house down, and possibly won the day if not the week (presuming they had all googled him too) … That, and his impending ascent of Mont Blanc next week. Oh, it is hard to be a man in a competitve world. Perhaps the women competed too, for different things, but I could not be bothered and, anyway, was much more interested in riding. I’m sure we competed through our children, if not through our jean size. My children are attractive, intelligent, kind and funny, so no worries there … I am very, very lucky.
Children are the same everywhere
There were about ten families. Among the children were six other girls of our daughters’s ages, so they both had both the constituents of a dream holiday – horses and friends. We hardly saw them all week as the wranglers kept them occupied from after breakfast until bed time. We watched them pretending to be cheerleaders in the talent show, and felt proud when – at the final cook out – our elder daughter was awarded the coveted “Future Wrangler” certificate for riding the fastest horse on the ranch and showing all the others how to do it. Several emails have already been exchanged – I was amused that one girl immediately sent photos of her (very impressive) house and demanded photos of ours in reply. Boy, it is hard to be a child too in a competitive world. Money buys houses, and parents earn money, so why would a child choose to define herself by the size of her house? Duh.
The convention was that couples circulated so that everyone met everyone else through the week. They were a very diverse bunch from all over America who probably had little in common with each other except very healthy bank balances. A couple of older men were on their second marriages. Most men were self-made men with their own successful businesses. Only one of the women worked and she was deputy legal counsel for a Fortune 100 company with a nice line in Missoni dresses. Oh, for someone interested in people and how they work, it was a dream on a plate. An anthropological field trip. I was even blessed with a resident psychotherapist who gave me his insights too.
A few things struck me …
Reluctance to criticise
First, people were generally very incredibly friendly, and seemed much more keen to include everyone in all the activities than a similar group would have been in the UK. This was a very good thing. They seemed to be challenged by the idea that someone might like to spend some time alone, bird watching, or just reading. The psychotherapist thought that this was because most of these adults were the product of summer camps in their youth and just slotted back into the appropriate behaviour of their childhood. That would explain the enjoyment of joint activities, but not the genuine desire to include everyone, especially the outsiders. There was a reluctance, which would be unusual in the UK, to voice any critical opinions. I found this frustrating as I was struggling to get at the “real” America. A fatuous example will illustrate my point. A wine tasting was arranged one evening with wines individually introduced and then served with complementary foods. In the UK, there would have been a great deal of discussion about the wines, whether they were any good, whether another wine was better, and whether the food did indeed complement the flavour of the wine. We tried to encourage this discussion, but our guests preferred polite, uncritical praise. How does change happen for the better, without criticism?
Similarly, there would be a polite refusal to engage in conversations about difficult subjects such as health care, Iraq, Mexican immigration, global warming. In the UK, guests would have revelled in an opportunity to discuss such subjects and a fairly trenchant exchange of views would have been normal – at least normal for us. This politeness means that there is no falling out. I can see the benefits of it. But it seemed to be inauthentic since I presumed that everyone did actually have an opinion on these subjects. To be fair, some guests did start to volunteer their views towards the end of the week, and these were the most interesting and illuminating discussions. The subjects were very difficult and I could not be sure whether the diffidence about discussing them was a reflection of hopelessness about every solving them, or a reluctance to face up to the fact that not everything was perfect, especially to an Anglo Saxon foreigner.
One thing I very much liked about the ranch was that it appeared that success was something that an individual could enjoy in his life time. In other words, the class system was based around individual attainment, and not entirely around your social origins (though I am sure this still counts for something). In the UK it is perfectly possible for someone from a lower social class to become very rich, but that will not ensure that he is accepted by those in the higher social class. In order to be accepted there, he will generally need to have been educated in one of the more elite public (private) schools and a good university. Since this is unlikely, the best he can hope for is that his new found wealth facilitates the education of his children who may, if they are lucky, be accepted. Three generations are normally what it takes. I did not get the impression that this was the case in the US. Nobody seemed interested in where they had been to school, or college.
One caveat, however. Only one of the twenty two adults was not Anglo Saxon in origin. His origins were Polish and he was married to an Anglo-Saxon. The list of names read like entries in a rural UK telephone directory, and it occurred to me that not a single president of the US had been other than Anglo Saxon. Paul Fussell (“Class”) was still right. I asked some of the wranglers whether they could remember any guests who were not Anglo-Saxon. They couldn’t. This may be a reflection of the main activity at the ranch being horse-riding. Perhaps it is mainly those of Anglo Saxon origin who ride? It would be the same in the UK. There are very very, very few people of minority ethnic origins who ride horses. There are very few who live outside large towns. There are very few who use the countryside. There is only one black farmer. So, it was not so much that it was different from the UK, but more that I expected it to be different … Why don’t ethnic minorities claim the countryside for themselves?
Why don’t they ride horses, when there can hardly be anything more satisfying than the symbiosis between a beautiful horse and its rider? And when there is so much beautiful landscape to enjoy most easily from the back of a willing horse. The horses were beautiful and well mannered. Mine even had a brand with my initials on his right shoulder (there is a God, after all) and shared a name with my daughter’s own pony. We rode up into the mountains to abandoned silver mines, the horses picking their way down again along rocky paths. We rode through lush forests full of flowers that here we only plant in our gardens … delphiniums, rudbeckia and asters, wild raspberries. We rounded up cattle and herded them into pens, we competed to show off our gate opening skills, and I spent an afternoon “joining up” with my horse until he would follow me, his nose to my jean pocket, around the field.
Western riding is still an activity a man could enjoy without appearing effete, and so boys and girls enjoyed it alongside each other. I gather that this is true only of the West, not of the East where very few boys ride. I cannot understand why men and boys do not take up riding more. It is more dangerous and requires more skill than riding a motorbike.
As we stood out on the decking looking over the lake one evening a bald eagle swooped in to land on a tree across the water. He stayed for three days on and off. The owner of the ranch had never seen one on the ranch in more than thirty years of ownership. How lucky we were. At lunch hummingbirds played around our food, drinking through their long beaks from hanging globes full of syrup. Deer wandered around our cabin. We saw an antelope mother with her twins on the hillside. We saw bear tracks. It was a blessed, beautiful spot.
I cannot think of an equivalent place in the UK, so beautiful and yet so physical. I think I’ve found one in Ireland, which I hope we might try sometime. There might even be a chance that the staff and guests are as friendly as those we found on the ranch.
None. Not in Colorado. Can’t remember seeing a single black people outside Denver airport, or even any ethnicities other than Anglo Saxon. And I did look.
We went to the rodeo. I think the rodeo has a similar social profile to motorcycle speedway in the UK. But for all the hot dogs and rain and litter, it was an amazing display of skill and funny too. Our vegetarian daughter shed a few tears but was comforted by her new friends. At the beginning the national anthem was played as a cowboy galloped round full pelt holding the Stars and Stripes. I wanted to cry for the pride that everyone demonstrated in their country. We were told that often this is followed by a request that all those stand who have served their country in the military.
Which brings me to another observation. Denver airport had separate waiting rooms for those who had served their country, and the older guests at the ranch told my husband that experience, or lack of experience in Vietnam, defines men of a certain age. There is something unspoken that they share (or not). There were other examples, which we noticed at the time, but I’ve now forgotten, of more respect given to those who have fought for their country. It is not the same here, sadly.
Finally, why did they all hate the Simpsons? We love the Simpsons, and finding a cinema to see Spiderpig was top of our list for San Francisco. But nobody at the ranch would admit to watching it, or allowing their children to watch it. Do they have any idea how funny, how clever, how perceptive, it is?!?
We were just tourists in San Francisco, so our experience there was entirely superficial. Except for the City Lights Bookstore.
Alcatraz was worth every penny and the smell of seagull guano, but San Francisco seemed very European, if a bit more hilly than our average city. It did not wow us, as Colorado had.
But perhaps we were already not noticing the differences.
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, constructs a five-point framework of factors which he believe contribute to a society’s collapse:
1. Environmental damage
2. Climate change
3. Hostile neighbours
4. Friendly trade partners, or absence of friendly trade partners
5. The society’s response to its environmental problems
The last factor, the society’s response, is – according to Diamond – always significant.
See also Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies and Tuchman, Barbara, The March of Folly.
It seemed from Tainter, and from Diamond’s own explorations of societies that collapsed that there was a common phenomenon, difficult to understand, of a failure of group decision-making on the part of whole societies or groups, which failure was also related to a failure of individual decision-making.
Four categories of poor decision-making emerged:
1. A group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem arrives
An example would be the introduction of foxes and rabbits to Australia in the 1800s. Another, that Norse Greenland did not (could not have) anticipate the effect that the Crusades would have in eliminating the market for walrus ivory by reopening Europe’s access to Asian and African elephant ivory, or that increasing sea ice would impede ship traffic to Europe. Even prior experience may not guarantee that a problem is anticipated, especially in non-literate societies where the problem occurred several life times ago.
2. When the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it.
This may be because the problem is literally imperceptible (e.g., leaching nutrients out of soil). Those who manage the problem may be very distant from it. Or, there may be a slow trend concealed by up and down variations. This trend is often called “creeping normalcy” or “landscape amnesia”. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of slight year-to-year changes before people realise with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards.
3. Then, after they perceive it, they may fail even to try to solve it.
There may be several reasons for this. One is so called “rational behaviour”. That is, some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behaviour harmful to other people. “The perpetrators know that they will often get away with their bad behaviour, especially if there is no law against it or if the law isn’t effectively enforced. They feel safe because the perpetrators are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated by the prospect of reaping big, certain, and immediate profits, while the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals. That gives the losers little motivation to go to the hassle of fighting back, because each loser loses only a little and would receive only small, uncertain, distant profits even from successfully undoing the minority’s grab.” (p427)
Another phenomenon which may prevent a society from trying to solve its problem is known as the “tragedy of the commons”, closely related to the “prisoner’s dilemma” and “the logic of collective action”. This may occur where lots of individuals are harvesting the same crop which is becoming exhausted. If the over harvesting continues the crop will decline or even disappear to the detriment of all the consumers. It would therefore be in the common interest of all consumers not to over harvest. But in the situation where there is no effective regulations of harvesting, each consumer would be correct (rational) to reason that if he does not harvest the crop, somebody else will.
One solution is for the government or some other outside force to step in to regulate the harvesting. A second solution is to privatise the resources, that is, divide it into individually owned tracts that each owner will be motivated to manage prudently.
Or, the consumers may recognise their common interests and design, obey and enforce prudent harvesting quotas themselves. Diamond says that this is likely to happen only if a whole series of conditions is met: the consumers form a homogeneous group; they have learned to communicate with each other, they expect to share a common future and to pass on the resources to their heirs; they are capable of and permitted to organise and police themselves and the boundaries of the resource and its pool are well defined. (p429)
Other conflicts of interest may arise when the principal consumer has no long-term stake in preserving the resource, but society as a whole does. Equally, a conflict arises when the interests of the decision-making elite in power clash with the interests of the rest of society, especially if the elite can insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. Tuchman says “Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as ‘the most flagrant of all passions’”.
Humans are prone to irrational behaviour. There is “persistence in error”, “wooden-headedness”, “refusal to draw inference from negative signs” and “mental standstill or stagnation”. A related trait is the “sunk cost effect”: we feel reluctant to abandon a policy in which we have already invested heavily. “It is painfully difficult to decide whether to abandon some of one’s core values when they seem to be becoming incompatible with survival” (p433).
“All such decisions involve gambles, because one often can’t be certain that clinging to the core values will be fatal or (conversely) that abandoning them will ensure survival” (p433).
Another irrational motive for failure to address problems include that the public may widely dislike those who first perceive and complain about the problem. There may also be irrational failures associated with clashes between short-term and long-term motives of the same individual, having a “90 day focus” for example.
Then there is “crowd psychology” or “group think”. Sometimes the stress and the need for mutual support and approval may lead to the suppression of doubts and critical thinking, sharing of illusions, a premature consensus, and ultimately a disastrous decision.
Diamond ends by highlighting the disastrous results of “psychological denial”. If something you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and grief. (p435). He gives an interesting example.
Consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream. Unsurprisingly the fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases with proximity to the dam. Surprisingly, however, it is those who live closest to the dam, the ones most certain to drown, who profess unconcern. This is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny that possibility that it could burst.
Religious values also tend to be especially deeply held and hence a frequent cause of disastrous behaviour.
4. Finally, they may try to solve it, but may not succeed
“Finally, even after a society has anticipated, perceived, or tried to solve a problem, it may still fail for obvious possible reasons: the problem may be beyond our present capabilities to solve, a solution may exist but be prohibitively expensive, or our efforts may be too little and too late.” (p436).
All of which reasons should convince us of the need to elect our leaders carefully. Diamond insists that his book is not pessimistic – if decision-makers understand the lessons of history, and the tendency to makes decisions on wrong rational or irrational grounds, then better decision-making should result, and societies should be able to solve their problems. He gives the example – as cause for optimism – of the contrast between the deliberations over two consecutive crises involving Cuba and the US by President Kennedy and his advisors.
“In early 1961 they fell into poor group decision-making practices that led to their disastrous decision to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion, which failed ignominiously, leading to the much more dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis. As Irving Janis pointed out in his book Groupthink, the Bay of Pigs deliberations exhibited numerous characteristics that tend to lead to bad decisions, such as a premature sense of ostensible unanimity, suppression of personal doubts and suppression of expression of contrary views, and the group leader (Kennedy) guiding the discussion in such a way as to minimize disagreement. The subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis deliberations, again involving Kennedy and may of the same advisors, avoided those characteristics and instead proceeded along lines associated with productive decision-making, such as Kennedy ordering participants to think sceptically, allowing decisions to be freewheeling, having subgroups meet separately, and occasionally leaving the room to avoid his overly influencing the discussion himself.” (p439)
Diamond, Jared, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, 2005