Generalizations about Americans are generally ridiculous

My next business venture will be T-shirts saying "I went to North Carolina and got spots." What? You don't want to buy shares in the company? But I really did get spots, and it was great. Perhaps I should clarify. We were driving through coastal North Carolina seeking golf and passed a couple of signs saying "Fresh Shrimp and Spots." It sounded better than "Oysters Shelled or Shucked" with the implied, or inferred, subtext "Not necessarily all toxic." So once we located a nice friendly golf course whose remaining alligator was said to be hibernating, I asked the woman at the snack bar why exactly folks in those parts thought an offer of "spots" would prove commercially viable. She replied that they are a local seasonal delicacy, an ocean fish that runs in October (though some don't run fast enough, apparently).

She added spontaneously that her church was having a fish fry featuring spots that very day. And since she was having some brought over to the clubhouse she would happily save me some. At this I can hear noses wrinkling among the Canadian commentariat. But it is a mistake to assume these folks are unsophisticated just because they are friendly, patriotic, God-fearing and unfazed by alligators on the course that might be dozing.

For one thing, they had a telephone at the ninth tee linked directly to the snack bar so you could order up sandwich and coffee at the turn and hit your ball into the huge predator-enhanced pond on 10 without losing a minute. A truly sophisticated 21st-century golfing experience. Plus Wilmington has about the only nice airport I've ever seen and both it and our charming no-fuss seaside inn had a different sort of spot: wireless, hot and free.

Maybe not everyone would have enjoyed being given bread to feed the alligator whose idea of hibernation turned out to be swimming ominously about looking predatorial. Which made me wonder about the claim there was only one. But they all said if you don't bother them they won't bother you none, or words to that effect. Apparently the females (note the plural) get a little irritable in mating season but I wasn't planning to get close enough to an alligator to obtain precise data on either gender or disposition.

Spots were another story. So I called ahead to the clubhouse and, sure enough, when we finished with the ninth hole (or it finished with us) they had tender deep-fried spot waiting on a plate. Seeing as we all weren't from 'round there they offered us cutlery as genuinely nice people don't embarrass visitors. (When we mentioned the Freedom Fries on the ninth tee phone-booth menu they said they didn't dwell on it in front of "our Canadian friends" on the theory that everyone from Quebec City was a communist.) But as good guests we ate it with our fingers, following their advice on avoiding a mittful of bones. It was delicious. And I ask you: How many of the people pontificating about softwood in Canadian papers have done so, or would if invited?

It is curious that most Canadians with an interest in world affairs tend to take the same dim and distant view of "flyover America" as Noo Yawk City Democrats, despite believing the entire country is filled with Clampetts so stupid they vote for George Bush. I say these people's taste for home-grown tomatoes and home-grown values indicates greater wisdom than the average urban sophisticate can muster. But in any event it's an important socio-economic category, as a sociologist might put it, ("there's a lot of down-home folks there" is how it goes in English), and it's hard to have an intelligent view of America while regarding the country as full of exactly the sort of people one neither knows nor wishes to.

Some Canadian commentators on the trade dispute and other irritants in the relationship deplore the ignorance of foreign lands displayed by "Yanks," which is a bit much given that Yankees are only found in New England. The U.S. is actually very diverse and you would have to be quite ignorant, if deposited somewhere at random, not to know within five minutes whether you were in New England, the Midwest, the Deep South, and so on.

Everyone is no more of one mind there than here. But by its concentrated nature, foreign policy tends to reflect a discernable national character. To the extent that one can generalize, given that even the most industrious cultures have lazy members and we all share some of the deplorable qualities associated with the title of Human Bean, Americans are genuinely friendly, civil and decent. As the historian Henry Steele Commager noted, they "reversed the whole history of language to make the term 'stranger' one of welcome." But don't presume upon their hospitality, because they are not fools. And don't go picking a fight with them if you can avoid it because they are amazingly tough. The idea that our government can slap them around with a pinewood two-by-four is preposterous and if commentators got out more they would realize it. Especially if they could stand hitting their tee shot while a big old gator swims by.

Maybe I should sell T-shirts saying “Don’t tread on them.” I don’t know if they’d sell like spots but people here might usefully buy a few. Shirts or spots, I mean.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson