Hungover and pondering the US experience

I have lost most of the day in a hungover haze, sat in a motel room watching dreadful American TV and pondering about this extraordinary nation.

Coming as it does with the news of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, courtesy of the United States’ president, and the state funeral of Gerald Ford, it strikes me that the US is repeating the same mistakes of the past but – and this is what amazes me about this country with its famed free-speech First Amendment – the media is fundamentally failing to say anything.

In fact, on CNN during the Ford funeral it was very interesting when a woman commentator remarked that while many of those in the Ford White House were again in power during George W Bush’s reign, they had changed alot and become alot more “hawkish”. She was being clearly critical and there is a strong case for arguing that coverage of a former president’s funeral should not stray into criticising the current president, but you could hear the main presenter panicking and doing a weak job of changing the subject.

How on earth do CNN of all people have a mentality which causes them to flinch when current affairs are being discussed?

Food and driving

But to get away from politics for a bit – I started pondering about the culture of this enormous country when I tried to get some food this afternoon.

I asked the motel owner who was extremely helpful and provided me with a map and a list of restaurants nearby. He also told me where there was an ATM as I didn’t have any cash on me. Except when I went to get both I ws starkly reminded that in America, the car is king.

First of all, I came across my first drive-through cash machine. I had to walk along the road to get there – because there was no pavement – and then stand in the middle of a car lane to use the machine. This was all the clearer when a car arrived to use the cashpoint and led to the somewhat bizarre situation that a huge metal object kept a respectful distance from me while I was tapping in the numbers.

Then, even though the restaurant was only five/ten minutes walk away, I had no choice but to walk down the freeway. Fortunately there was an unused lane – it would have been impossible otherwise – but even so, walking along a main road as traffic hurtles at you at 70mph is not a pleasant experience, especially when you are hungover. The car culture is so intense in the US that they simply do not bother putting pavements or pedestrian routes in.

This evening, I decided there was no way I was going through that in the dark, so I called up a Chinese restaurant and got them to deliver.

War war not jaw jaw

This completely ingrained car culture remains alien to me but it is also what is behind two of the US’ biggest mistakes in recent years – the Iraq War and the failure to deal with global warming. I don’t know but I strongly suspect that there has never been a single political candidate or even a government official in the US that had advocated raising fuel tax.

It is amazing how cheap fuel is in the US. I did a six-hour trip last time I was over here in San Diego and emptied the (enormous) tank. It cost $20. In the UK, it would have been at least $100. The reason Brits put up with it, the reason that Yanks would not, is because if you drive for five hours in the UK, you can cover most of the country – in the US, you might make it to the next city.

As such, it is hardly surprising that the US government is obsessed with oil. And that was the reason for the war in Iraq. Although, incredibly, people over here continue to buy the absolute nonsense that “Saddam was a monster” and so the US was morally obliged to get him out of power. I think a big reason why this and other assorted rubbish attempting to justify what was a personal quest by George Bush and Rumsfeld etc is because Americans realise how vital an oil supply to them is. Many chose to buy the spreading freedom and democracy line because it made the whole thing more palatable.

Hot hot hot

And cars are also the reason why this insane stance that the US has toward global warming manages to pass muster. It because Americans know that any attempts to tackle it will involve, almost immediately, a big change in car behaviour. It would be like banning tea in Britain. The Boston Tea Party in reverse.

Of course, Americans are starting to fight back against these two big errors – Bush, like Blair, will be forever remembered as the man who started a stupid war against everyone’s better judgement – and the scientific case for global warming is finally filtering through despite years of active attempts to undermine it.

None the less, I would posit that the extraordinary influence of the car in American culture is the reason behind both.

Lard arse

Anyway, so I went to a Wendy’s to get some junk food to scoff. And another element of US culture hit me – size. Size is everything in this country. I ordered some chicken thing and was asked if I wanted a small, medium or large drink. I was thirsty so I need medium and he pulled out this cup which in the UK would be the Extra Large. It was huge and I couldn’t finish it.

I have also eaten less than half of the chinese that I ordered this evening. It was an *enormous* amount of food and I had to order a vegetable roll to get it up to $10 so they would deliver. Big is good. Big is always good.


I’m getting tired and I have to get on a plane to Mexico City in five hours, but one other quick observation: capitalism is running out of control in the country.

I have *always* dislike the enormous commercialism of the US. I wince when I hear radio presenters going on and on and given their personal backing to whatever advertiser has paid them. And I particularly dislike the constant ads on American TV. At any given time, of you flick through the channels, at least half of them will be showing an ad. There seems to be more ads than actual TV. And they cut in all the time and take what seems like hours to end – the average hourly show over here must be 15 minutes shorter than in the UK.

And now they have started advertising other programmes heavily in existing shows. A huge moving banner appears taking up about a quarter of the screen just to tell you what’s coming up next. With commercialism completely accepted (witness the frankly shocking ads for drugs – “you won’t find this deal in any pharmacy” – yes and we know why), it is only a matter of time before advertisers are allowed to bombard the viewer while they’re actually trying to watch the programme.

Why is there no backlash to this? How can Americans not be driven completely insane by the constant commercial interests? Some programme called Duel gives the winner of each duel a heavily promoted product and waves it about it – the XBox 360 in several of them. This has nothing at all to do with the programme, it is completely unnecessary and distracting but Microsoft paid for it so in it goes.

Why do Americans stand for it? Because big is good, and money is the best. It’s the same reason that big companies are always seen as a positive thing, rather than a threat. I argue all the time that US journalists are inately biased for big business, something that they always vehemently deny, but it is true, and the bias is so pervasive that they just don’t notice.

I also can’t understand why they put up with the crazy security laws and hassles and Draconian laws pushed through in the name of the War of Terror and freedom, but that’s another rant for another day. This day is over, I have to get some kip and them start functioning when I get my 3.30am wake-up call.

Tomorrow night: New Year’s Eve in Acapulco.