Our family was recently in the US for a week and a half of vacation. I love America: I have equal parts fascination and affection for that inimitable nation, and I follow its happenings more closely than is probably healthy. I feel much like Os Guinness, the English social critic and apologist who describes himself as an interested outsider peering in, inspired and at times horrified by what transpires in the world’s premier superpower. I agree with him that as the leading nation, it has outsized influence upon the West (and indeed the entire globe). Therefore anyone concerned with the present and future state of the world will pay close attention to the trends at work in the US of A.
But my purpose in writing today is not to tease out any of those world-shaping trends or big ideas. Rather, I just want to make some whimsical observations about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of America, something only an outsider can do. What follows is a series of scattered observations by a Canadian travelling through America.
Our trip to and from South Carolina included stops in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) and Washington DC, including many hours on the I-81 and I-95. After so many hours on the interstate system, the whole thing blurs together into a kind of American highway casserole. The McDonalds, Cracker Barrels, and Sheetz gas stations; the rest stops and truck stops; the vehicles abandoned on the side of the road with a shirt fluttering out of the window; and most of all: the billboards. Compared to Canada, America has really turned billboards into its own art form. One might say that first America managed to transform every message it values into billboards, and then the billboard reshaped American culture into its own image.
Where else can you see billboards fighting for the very souls of motorists? Where else are ultimate matters routinely addressed on giant wooden placards as one races down the road towards the dentist, groceries, or vacation? In Canada, motorists are mostly left to decide ultimate matters for themselves, and are instead presented with products to buy or, at times, public announcements. Here are a few examples of the messages presented to motorists in America. “Jesus is the Answer. John 3:16.” “After you die, You will meet God.” And then there are some that are even a little more blunt, if that is possible. One of them features bold red block letters on a plain yellowy-beige background and says, “FORGIVE MY SINS, JESUS, SAVE MY SOUL.”
And then come the counter-billboards, here to set people free from the benighted ignorance of these silly fundamentalists. “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” “Just skip church. It’s all FAKE NEWS!” Along similar lines are the billboards appealing to our vices. “Adult Fantasy Store, Exit 100!” And when we finally arrived to Exit 100, where the billboards had promised fulfilled fantasies and illicit pleasures, someone had put up a big billboard: “Life is short. Eternity isn’t. – God.”
Only in America.
The billboards waging spiritual war capture something about America: the reign of marketing. Of course we have marketing in Canada too, but in America it feels like everything is marketed. The essence of marketing is the marriage of image and slogan, logo and tagline, meme and hashtag. To market something means to commodify it, to sell it. And some things, sacred things, ought not be treated this way. Am I saying I wish there weren’t billboards calling on people to consider the truths of the Scriptures and trust in Christ? Not quite. I’m not sure how I feel about it. But something about it does make me uneasy. To boil down the message of Christianity to 6 or 8 words on a billboard is to do something to that message, even if I’m not sure how to express the nature of that something. McLuhan’s insight was that the medium is the message. So part of my uneasiness about the Christian billboards is the implication that Christ for your soul is the same kind of thing as Chick-Fil-A for your stomach or the University of Pennsylvania for your education. But one of these things is not like the others, and to treat them more or less the same seems to me a uniquely American phenomenon.
Speaking of billboards, what is the deal with lawyers and billboards? Do the billboard salespeople give lawyers a 50% discount? Are all these lawyers really getting lucrative lawsuits from these kinds of billboards? “Motorcycle Accident? Call FRED!” “Injured in a CAR WRECK? 1-800-GET-PAID.” I even saw one that said “BIRTH DEFECT? AGE 0-21. CALL ME!” This whole idea is foreign to me. I’ve been in a couple of car accidents, one of which was my fault; the other which was not. But never once did it cross my mind that there was anyone to sue. I’m left with myriad questions: Just who is being sued here? The other driver? The car-marker? The transport authority? I haven’t the foggiest. And what kind of accident would warrant a lawsuit? Do people rub their hands together with glee when they get rear-ended in traffic? Maybe if you were driving down the road and the steering wheel suddenly popped off in your hands you could sue your carmaker. Or what if I was driving down the road and was distracted by all the lawyer billboards and went into the ditch, could I sue the lawyers? Is there a lawyer somewhere specializing in suing other lawyers who put up distracting billboards?
On a slightly more serious note, this idea that I might be able to blame someone for an event and then receive significant financial recompense seems subtly insidious. It encourages the weaponization of victimhood. When bad things happen, as a general principle it is not good to fixate on the past and embrace the role of the innocent injured party who is crusading for justice. Of course in egregious cases this is precisely the thing to do, but I’m speaking of your typical accident. It seems to me that the promise of financial reward for being a victim creates incentives to twist the truth, leave out inconvenient facts, and generally misrepresent the case – probably in ways that may not even be obvious to the person doing it. That’s how incentives often work, on a subconscious level.
Speaking of the subconscious, it seems to me that Americans really do love everything to be bigger, especially vehicles. I have been a careful observer of what vehicles are on the road since I was a young teenager obsessed with cars. I worked to memorize every make and model, and thus I have a good sense of what is driving around. My son seems to have caught this bug, and he happily spent much of the drive looking to spot one of the hundred vehicles I put on a list for him (we found all but seven). Car companies typically offer a range of vehicles from most affordable and smallest to most expensive and large. So we have the Toyota Yaris or Corolla at one end and the Avalon or fully loaded Camry at the other; the Hyundai Accent and the Genesis G90; the GMC Terrain and the Yukon. In Canada the ratio is typically something like 15 or 20 most affordable vehicles for every most expensive one. In America, the ratio is more like 5 to 1 – a massive difference. Everyone seems to want the biggest thing available, whatever is on the last page of the brochure. “Fully loaded, top of the line.” “Super size it.” And inevitably the vast majority of the largest SUVs – the Escalades, Range Rovers, Suburbans – are driven by petite women with large sunglasses.
Herein lies another facet of that mysterious American temperament.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of our vacation was visiting the epic architecture of both the Pennsylvania State Capitol as well as DC landmarks, specifically the Capitol building, Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. My appreciation for architecture has been growing exponentially over the last few years as I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of how our architecture is vitally connected to our ultimate beliefs. So it was with a kind of awestruck stupor that I gazed up at the majestic scope and ornate designs of these buildings. They are beautiful. And more striking still, they explicitly connect their own grandeur and beauty to the loftiness of the ideals which inspired them. Inscribed in marble and written in tiled mosaics were Bible verses and quotes from past luminaries who spoke of the essential natures of justice, liberty, goodness, and truth. Enduring truths etched into stone.
I know that America has never lived up to its ideals, but it must be said that America, more than any other nation I know of, has most clearly and elegantly elucidated its ideals in its founding documents and core institutions. As my gaze moved from the permanent truths which were encoded into the very beams of those buildings to the politicized bumper stickers adorning some of the congressional offices, and as I thought of the raw partisanship and frothing polemics used by both American political parties, the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy on display among the ranks of each, and the general small-mindedness and incoherence of their political visions, I was left feeling that we are not worthy of this inheritance.
At the back of the Supreme Court building is written, “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.” The front of the building proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.”
These buildings, these institutions and ideals, they aspired to something truly noble. Like I said, they never achieved it in full measure, but just like hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, so our failure to live up to the ideals we embrace as a culture are a tribute to the fact that we have set our sights on something lofty. Increasingly it seems like we aren’t sure we have ideals, or if we should even have any. Instead of choosing something to define us, we avoid choosing by choosing to be defined by a hollow diversity. The West has by and large decided that the way to deal with its failure to live up to its ideals is to reject those ideals as well as the Christianity from which those ideals grew.
I love America, that land of searing contrasts, that paragon of both freedom and folly, liberty and license, virtue and vice.