Returning to America, I find this once young country is growing old – Professor Joe Goldblatt

After 15 years of living in one of the most beautiful and progressive countries in the world, I have returned to the country of my birth for a two-month visit.

My expectations for a new and perhaps somewhat improved USA were immediately dashed and greatly diminished from the moment I stepped off the airplane.

The first announcement I heard in America’s busiest airport was not a warm welcome but rather a stern warning from multiple tannoys shouting over and over again: “If you are not free to leave, you may be a victim of human trafficking.”

This sobering warning was part of the beginning of my return to the nation of my birth following many years of pandemic-enforced separation. In 2020, I was invited to serve as a visiting professor at New York University’s Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality.

I have often described the many differences between the USA and Scotland by demonstrating how Americans greet one another with a broad smile and, when asked how they are feeling, grin from ear to ear and then confidently say “fine!” In contrast, we Scots are a more dour lot and often reply to this same question while unsmilingly saying “not so bad”.

The phrase “not so bad” is, in my opinion, actually more accurate than the casual and often insincere reply of “fine”. However, both my Scottish and American friends are carrying many of the same burdens today and the difference is that, due to its historic roots in independence, expansive geographic size and previous eternal youth as a nation, the people of the USA exude a confidence that we Scots are sadly lacking.

Both Scotland and America greatly fear the future impacts and consequences of the global pandemic. Upon my flight to a mid-sized Midwestern city, there were numerous warnings in mid-air that “wearing face masks is not optional and is a federal regulation. Any refusal to wear a mask and to cover your nose at all times may result in large fines and your permanent removal from the airplane”. I immediately hoped that my removal would only be activated once the plane was safely on the ground.

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The USA became more inward-looking under Donald Trump, who still has a sizeable following (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

America is famous not only for the size of its geographic area but also for the size of its meal portions. The American Midwest is, as the Illinois poet Carl Sandburg once defined it, “the hog butcher for the world”.

But still, I was amazed at the large platters of food that were continually placed before me; meal after meal, we hauled “doggie bags” home to be consumed later. US servers are also well known to be friendlier, seemingly because of their dependence upon gratuities for their basic income.

When I asked one joyful young server for his name, he actually spelled it slowly and proudly. “E E Y A N” he said, and then explained that his mother wanted him to have the Scottish name of Iain but she was afraid folk would mispronounce it as “Aye An” so she spelled it phonetically to avoid this.

I found that most Americans, despite their usual positive attitude, were deeply disgruntled, telling me that they were extremely disappointed with the way the Covid pandemic was handled in the USA and enthusiastically commenting on how they admired the high levels of uptake on vaccinations that Scotland has achieved.

They said, over and over again, that the early messaging in America from its leaders about the importance of vaccination was confusing and unhelpful.

I observed that, in both America and Scotland, these are two nations with similar historic values regarding the importance of education, tolerance, and compassion for others.

However, whilst America has turned inward in its thinking regarding collaboration with others, Scotland has a growing desire to work with other nation states, as evidenced through its support for staying in the European Union, and to build upon these shared values to create a better and safer world.

As my airplane rose into the blue skies above the endless golden prairies of the Midwest, I once again watched the pre-flight recorded video announcement and noted that all of the actors dressed as pilots and flight attendants were wearing face masks and attempting to use their eyes to intensely indicate that they were smiling confidently.

I wondered if this sense of lingering restraint, as evidenced by their masks, signified the harsh reality of the continuing pandemic infections in Scotland and the USA. I further wondered if the smiles behind the masks were designed to encourage caution or hopefulness or both?

In my view, the America of my birth has changed and not necessarily for the better. The country of my youth is now growing old and beginning to recognise its fragility.

Scotland may learn many grave lessons from America’s decline as a result of the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump and his never-ending fan boys and girls, as well as the global pandemic.

One such lesson is that when we reply, in our dour manner, with “not so bad”, we must now work even harder with our fellow citizens and others to make certain that our future is indeed not so bad as that being currently experienced by our American neighbours.

Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University and is serving for two months as visiting professor at the School of Professional Studies Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University in New York City.

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