The Second Version

23/10/10

Indirect Experience

In this post I'm going to write something critical of Americans in general. Just because I feel like it.

Americans as a rule do not have much first-hand experience of life in other countries. That is because there's enough variety of geography, climate and ways of life in the States that those who are not already xenophiles can have enough for a lifetime. But this condition of ignorance does not stop them from pontificating on how people in other countries should live their lives.

First-hand experience of another country means living there with the common people and among them, doing (more or less) what they do and (more or less) how they do it. Which is not an exhortation to “go native”; more like what is called full immersion in a different place and culture.

Experience of life in a foreign country is not visiting for a short time as tourists; that may at best give a superficial idea. Barely that, if as a tourist one does not venture much out of tourist villages or nice hotels.

Neither is being there as a member of armed forces stationed in a base (there are exceptions, tho). They spend most of the time among themselves and when they venture out is to get drunk and chase tails; the conflicts between foreign military personnel and civilians living around the bases have a long story.

But Americans still do pontificate about other countries. Europeans do that, too, but the difference is that Americans feel compelled to give their opinion loudly and anytime, whether requested or not.

When they do not have direct experience but still want to talk, they resort to indirect experience – often, books written by someone who has been there, in those faraway lands. Which in itself is not a bad thing, because knowledge recorded in writing is definitely positive. But as usual that can be taken to unhealthy extremes.

Even with the best intentions, an author cannot report every single thing, the smallest aspects and finest nuances of Life Elsewhere. Also for mere space reasons, because a 1000-page tome is not exactly handy, if you catch my drift.

Many authors, instead, have their own biases and narratives, and are prone to gloss over what does not agree with the narrative while insisting on what does. Some authors are even propagandists, and you know what it means.

I have already written about my dislike for Mark Stein, even if I think that a lot of what he writes seems true. But he depicts Europe as newly-medieval third world of misery and sufferance. Yet that is not the situation I observed with my very eyes in Europe. Maybe I have just been very lucky, but I doubt.

However, without direct experience to act as a reality check, it happens that many in the Sates think that Mark Stein(1) is 100% correct. And when I, in some online discussion, observe that things are not exactly like that, I get irritated replies like “Have you read Mark Stein?”. My retort should be that yes, I have read at least the condensed form you so kindly provided, but I found it not corresponding to observable reality.

Direct experience versus indirect experience, you see.

In any case, I have been avoiding discussion of that type for a long time now, because they go exactly nowhere and more often that not end in verbal brawling and insults.

(1) It's not a personal matter, just an author I am familiar with.

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