Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Florida Thunder Storm

As has been noted by Rob at the Inconsequential Opinion, one thing about living in Florida, compared to Britain, is that the Florida weather is generally very predictable.  At this time of year, for instance, the day starts out warm and gets hotter and hotter and muggier and muggier.  In the late afternoon, it will often rain, as the sky has taken up as much moisture as it can hold.  The process then pretty much repeats itself the next day and so on.

There are occasional bouts of more exciting weather, however.  Every now and then there is a thunder storm, for instance, when everything goes dark.  And I don’t just mean the sky - sometimes the entire neighbourhood power supply is temporarily knocked out and we have to rely on candles for an hour or more, which always reminds me of the British power worker strikes that I experienced as a kid back in the 1970s!

Anyway, the storm normally announces its arrival with the menacing sounds and flashes of thunder and lightning and then the sky lets loose a heavy rain shower.  Man and beast scramble for cover at this point.  I took some footage of a grey squirrel sheltering under our porch by clinging to the outside of the insect netting, which I found both amusing and somewhat cheeky.

Friday, July 22, 2011

American Family Values (British and American differences)

Everybody knows the clichés and stereotypes when it comes to British and American differences: Americans are individualistic, the British are old-fashioned and resistant to change, Americans don’t do international travel, the British have bad teeth, etc. and sometimes there is a degree of truth in them.  But now and again you come across differences that do not feature in the cliché handbook, which, despite being subtle, are no less powerful.  One thing that is a bit of a shock to the system is that, generally speaking, there is a different concept of family in the US to the UK, which comes as a bit of a surprise, as you somehow expect that it is going to be in a similar Anglo-Saxon mould.

This is going to be a tough one to explain and put into words, but I will do my best.  In general terms, the USA is much more family orientated than the UK and their family values are different.  Families really are the building block of this young, immigrant country.  There are lots more family-orientated things to do and members of families are more interlinked and interdependent in the US.  The bonds also carry on throughout adulthood to a stronger degree. 

The obvious explanation for this from a British point of view is that the family thing is there for purely practical and sociological reasons: firstly the US is more religious and traditional in some ways and the churches emphasize family values and family life, and secondly, there isn’t much of a social safety net, or government help generally, so if someone gets sick or loses their job, they are dependent on their family much more than they are in the UK.  The “obvious” answer falls short, however, in my opinion and the true answer I suspect is a lot more complex and goes deeper, as many Americans relish the family structure and interdependence - in short I would say that the idea of family is a cherished part of American culture, as well as it having practical benefits.

British family values are different, I’ve realized.  British culture generally places a lot more emphasis on the idea of being “emotionally independent” (rather than the “practical independence” promoted in American culture).  In generalized terms, the Brits place more importance on individuals being able to cope emotionally on their own.  It is easy to buy into the stereotype of Americans being individualistic, but in terms of families, they are certainly not, methinks – certainly if you compare them to Brits.

My wife has talked to me a bit about British culture from an American perspective.  One thing that she mentioned was how alien the British public schools system seem to an American (confusingly, the term, “public school” in the UK refers to the elite fee-paying private schools), where the environment is influenced by ancient Spartan style deprivations that are meant to be character building.  I did explain to my wife that in the British class system, the public school culture is a minority one and seems alien to most Brits too – as most of us are educated differently.  But her point was still valid, I realized.  The public schools system is really just the extreme end of stream of thought that runs right through British culture.

I guess this is probably one reason why the Brits can seem aloof and reserved to other cultures and why Americans can seem a little schmaltzy to Brits (I probably shouldn’t mix metaphors by throwing in a Yiddish term, but there you go!). 

I don’t pretend to fully understand all this to be frank.  I cannot get inside an American head, at the end of the day, and most Americans have a limited experience of British culture firsthand, so they don’t necessarily know exactly where I am coming from either (my wife being an exception).  I could say that the American concept of family seems more akin to the Southern European one (e.g. Italian) than the protestant Northern European, but that wouldn’t be quite true either.  I guess the only thing that I know for certain is that the concept of family is not quite the same here to what it is back in Blighty and that came as a slight surprise to me.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Florida Animal Photos

I have been roaming around in the State Parks and woods again, snapping some more Florida animal photos.  The animal life here I find fascinating and it is certainly “exotic” when compared with Yorkshire and Cumbria, although the Yorkshire and Cumbrian landscapes, with their hills, valleys, moors, and moody weather, are possibly more evocative in some senses.  (Comparing Cumbria/Yorkshire and Florida directly is like comparing chalk and cheese, but as I called the blog: From Sheep to Alligators, I feel I have to make an effort sometimes!)

The animal photos here were taken at two of my favourite places.  The first few shots, including those of the alligators, were snapped at Lake Alice, Gainesville, which is situated in the grounds of the University of Florida.  The rest were taken when my wife and I thought we’d take a wander away from the picnic area at Rum Island and follow the riverbank downstream for a while in the hope of capturing some Mother Nature.  We weren’t disappointed.  The riverbank was teeming with life.  (So much so, that we felt that we had to turn back - too many big spiders, but more on that later.)

A bird struts along the banks of Lake Alice, Gainesville
Semi-submerged alligator (I have mixed feelings about some of these alligator shots.  Some idiot had decided to feed them bread and that is why there were several that came up to the bank.  The problem with feeding them is that they lose their natural fear of humans and have been known to attack children.)
Young alligator moves to shore
Is it just me, or does this alligator have a smug expression?
Buzzard.  Its nest is in the hollowed out tree trunk that it is perched above.  We disturbed a pair who were feeding on a dead animal.  The female flew off and left the male, who is pictured.

Enormous grasshopper!  Beautiful yellow and black markings.
This is the first time that I have managed to capture a photo of a snake in the wild.  I probably see about one snake a month over here, but I either don't have a camera on me, or they slither away before I can get a snap!
Big spiders in the woods.  There were so many of them, we decided to turn back.  After a while, you start seeing them everywhere and get neurotic about walking into one of their webs.  The last thing you want is a big spider on your head!
Another big spider with the river in the background.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

4th July Fireworks

The 4th July was a curious emigrant experience for me, standing in a field with 22,000 people, who were pledging allegiance to the American flag before the fireworks started.  It was peculiar being the odd man out. But then it was also strangely familiar.  Back in Britain I will generally stand up when they play the national anthem, but I never sing it, as the words of “God Save the Queen” have always seemed somewhat ludicrous to me, given that I don’t really believe in God or monarchy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom of speech in the USA (compared to the UK)

Here are some of my thoughts and impressions on freedom of speech after living in the USA as a British expat for a time (note that although there are many similarities, for the sake of comparison, I am focusing on British and American differences).

Anyway, generally speaking, I would say that freedom of speech in the USA is seen pretty much as an absolute and the vast majority of Americans are proud of it.  They are also scared of losing it, however, and many, if not most, Americans across the political spectrum appear to believe that freedom of speech is under constant threat and has to be defended.  Were freedom of speech to be compromised in any way, according to many Americans, it would be the beginning of the end of it. 

In the UK, on the other hand, people are genuinely proud of freedom of speech, but is seen as a slightly more relative idea and generally dealt with in a more pragmatic way.  British people also tend to just take their freedom of speech much more for granted than Americans do and there is no particular fear of losing free speech generally, certainly not in the way that Americans appear to fear its loss.  The idea that it is a free country and you can say what you like is deeply ingrained in the British psyche, I would say, but there isn’t a great deal of passion in relation to it generally - in fact the British attitude seems virtually apathetic compared to the USA. 

Metaphorically, I would say that Americans see freedom of speech as a very solid thing, rather like a canon ball (or maybe a brittle canon ball that can be broken if roughly treated?), and the Brits see it as something a bit more squashy, like a bean bag.

Hate Speech

One of the main ways that freedom of speech is perceived in a subtly different way in Europe, compared to the US, is in regard to extremist politics.  Pretty much all European countries have laws against stirring up religious, or racial hatred and people generally  perceive this as a necessary evil, rather than an infringement on their rights.  The reasons why these laws are there are fairly obvious, when you consider that historically so many European states were ruled by Nazi or fascist governments during the 1930s and 40s.  This means that there is an underlying fear of rabble rousers stirring up hatred against minority groups and causing social disorder or worse, especially in countries like Germany and Austria.  Britain has relatively mild laws on hate speech, but they are still there.

America was founded by people who had either experienced religious or political persecution, or wanted to do their own thing.  So American ideas on free speech are more shaped by that experience.  World War II also had a different impact on the USA to Europe. 

It is also true to say that the American constitution was a positive assertion of freedom of speech as a value, whereas in Britain it was an historical development, with freedom of speech being achieved by default through restrictions being gradually removed.  (Until the European Human Rights Bill was sealed into UK law recently).

Koran burning

Out of all the places that I could have chosen to live in the USA, by chance I happened to end up in Gainesville, Florida, where the notorious Koran burner, Terry Jones and his church, the Dove World Outreach Center are based (the group are actually atypical of Gainesville, which is a liberal college town).  It was interesting to see how the Americans handled the situation.  The first time round the media blew up a storm and top American officials ended up almost pleaded with them not to burn the Koran, with top army officers and even the president trying to persuade them of their folly and the potential damage they could do to US troops and US’s image abroad.  In the end, Terry Jones called off his first book burning.  The second time around, however, the media and officials more or less ignored the book burning and it went ahead with limited publicity. 

In the UK, on the other hand, when there was a similar book burning by extremists and film of it put on Youtube, the people who did it were arrested and charged with inciting racial hatred.  The differences in approach are pretty stark.


Overall, although I respect absolute free speech, I am probably still more at home with the pragmatic and relativist Brit approach at the end of the day.  Some parts of US culture are difficult for me to understand.  For instance, why the US allows publicity seeking hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church to operate directly at funerals of young soldiers who have died.  I accept that they should be allowed to express their view of the bible, no matter how distorted and disturbing they may appear, but why it is so essential that they have to do it so close to a funeral is difficult for me to grasp.  I mean if they were forced to demonstrate two miles away, rather than under grieving relative’s noses, would it really signal the death of free speech?  (Having said that, Britain has had its own problems with radical Muslims launching demonstrations at funeral homecoming parades held for British troops who have died in conflicts abroad.)

I guess the strength of the American approach to free speech is that because it is very nearly absolute, there is little room for it to be chipped away or reinterpreted in a way that reduces it.  The weakness of it might be (at least from a Britisher’s viewpoint) that it can appear to pander to extremist elements and publicity seekers at times.