I grew up in in California, but I have lived mostly in Canada but also in England, Mexico, Micronesia, and Solomon Islands for the past 42 years. When I was a child, we were sometimes afraid — polio, earthquakes, communists, nuclear attack – but mostly people felt fairly safe. That gradually changed, first to the wild optimism of the early 60s, but by the time I left in 1967, young men were afraid of being sent to Vietnam and many people were frightened by the civil rights movement, student protests, assassinations, crime, drugs, and race riots.
I moved to Canada but I have kept close ties of family and friendship with the US, especially California. For the past two winters I have been a “rainbird” on extended camping trips in the American southwest. In some ways I feel very at home in the culture of California and the landscape of coast and desert. In other ways, I feel like a “stranger in a strange land.” I was an outsider when I lived there; that’s why I left.
Last year, and even more on this trip, I have observed a society that seems to be in a state of fear. To some extent this is also true in Canada (and the conservative government seems to want us to share this fear with our American neighbours) but the fear seems muted here.
When we cleared through immigration in Victoria and customs in Port Angeles, signs of the American fear of terrorists and illegal immigrants were everywhere. The officers wearing guns, the computer check on our passports, the suspicion in their questions. Much later, near the Mexican border there were checkpoints on highways, staffed by rude people armed with automatic weapons. In some places one can see a fence and towers with floodlights and motion detectors. Camped at a park 25 miles north of the border, we see low flying helicopters and SUVs patrolling the desert continuously. All this is an effort to stop illegal immigrants and perhaps drug smugglers and terrorists.
Traveling south, I noticed the paper toilet seat covers available in every public washroom. I don’t remember seeing these in Canada except in a few places catering to American tourists. At a California State Park (where they don’t provide toilet seat covers) I encountered a situation where a young child was using the toilet and his/her grandmother was standing outside the door, shouting, “Now whatever you do, don’t sit on the seat.” The fear of germs extends beyond toilet seats; some supermarkets had chemical sanitizers that could be used to disinfect the handles of grocery carts before they were used.
We stayed at a California State Park on the outskirts of Los Angeles and attended a huge family Christmas gathering. One of the men at the party commented, “I’m amazed you’re not afraid to camp there, with all the homeless people around. It would scare me.”
Shortly after Christmas, I went into a sporting goods store near San Diego. They were having an after-holiday sale, which included a 7mm automatic pistol for $29.95. That scared me.
Wherever we went, many people were drinking bottled water. They looked with amazement as we recklessly fill our water bottles from taps. Are they afraid of public water?
I wonder if the cost of the border operations is more than what it would cost to let all illegal immigrants collect welfare and to provide all the drug addicts with rehabilitation.
Fear of terrorists, germs, tap water, homeless people, drugs, and illegal immigrants seem to preoccupy many people in this country. While hiking one day we encountered a very large tarantula marching up the centre of the trail. Needless to say, we gave him/her a wide birth. I finally felt a bit of fear myself. But there is a difference. The general fears that permeate society all lead to economic activity accompanied, of course, by ecological destruction – the border patrol and its suppliers, manufacturers of toilet-seat covers, disinfectant, bottled water, guns, and helicopters, and the entire military-industrial complex depend on continuing fearfulness. There’s no profit in avoiding tarantulas.
Driving home on the I-5 and listening to radio evangelists, I am struck by how much of their preaching is focused on the judgment day, hell, the end of time, the Rapture, Armageddon, and related negative themes. There are a few mentions of God’s love, but not many. Mostly, listeners are asked to believe out of fear of the consequences if they don’t.
In rural Washington State we passed a huge billboard on the I-5 with a picture of Uncle Sam which said, “If you are unafraid, you are uninformed.”