An outsider's slice of America Book: A Briton writes about anger in the United States. To him, America is a ham and cheese sandwich.

Sun Journal

November 09, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- The way Gavin Esler sees it, Americans are angry.

They're angry about politicians, lawyers and big government. They're angry about race, abortion, crime and stagnant wages. They're so angry, so polarized, that they no longer are sure if the American dream works.

What makes Esler's perspective unique is this: He's an outsider, the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Washington correspondent from 1989 to 1996.

Esler has attempted to document this rage in a book, "The United States of Anger: The People and the American Dream." Esler broke free from Washington politics and traveled the country during his eight-year tour of America, discovering anger in nearly every corner of the country.

In Arkansas, he met "the country doctor of the 1990s, armed like a cop and drawing his gun like a cowboy."

In Minnesota, he attended an anti-abortion meeting where activists sold T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Intolerance Is a Beautiful Thing."

He talked to a commuter who lived in Ohio and worked in Florida. He spent an evening with a laid-off worker, holding on to his home and slice of the American dream in a self-built cabin in a frozen New Hampshire forest. He listened as a Mississippi teacher anguished about trying to mold scarcely literate children for a computer age.

A trip to Oklahoma City found Esler interviewing Kathy and Glen Wilburn, determined grandparents "on an unending mission for the truth" about the terrorist blast that destroyed the federal building in April 1995, killing scores, including their two grandchildren. The Wilburns tracked down hundreds of leads on the case. They have also carefully preserved their grandchildren's possessions, including a soiled diaper.

The Wilburns no longer trust their government.

Changes sweep America, Esler writes, "with a speed that leaves tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding taxpayers disgusted, angry and fearful that the most successful country in the history of the world is on the brink of cataclysmic failure."

He writes that "belief untroubled by reason" lies at the heart of the angriest people in America, such as the anti-government militias. Others have been driven to despair by a rapidly changed economy and technological change.

He blames American lawyers for helping foster a culture of whining and anger. There are too many lawyers in America, he says, writing too many laws and filing too many frivolous lawsuits. Thus, a country built on individualism has fostered a whining culture.

Despite his often dire assessment, Esler says he actually loves America. In an interview, he recalls growing up in Scotland, befriending an American boy and going to his house for lunch.

"In Scotland, a ham sandwich is usually two pieces of bread, a slab of butter, and one piece of ham," Esler says. "That day, I had a real sandwich. Piles of ham and cheese. Lettuce and tomato. For me, that's America. That ham and cheese sandwich."

Esler finally got to take a full bite out of the American sandwich in 1989, when the BBC sent him to Washington after stints covering stories in Russia, China and Northern Ireland. He discovered a country in search of itself and its place in the world at the end of the Cold War.

"I was amazed that there wasn't a sense of celebration," he says. "There was a sort of sense that things had gone wrong."

Esler kept noticing weird things. Like violence. He figured out that statistically, he was safer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the height of the terrorist "troubles," than in Washington.

Riots were different, too.

"Every riot I'd ever been to in Northern Ireland was a riot of purpose," he says. "But the riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King case were simply anarchy. People were trying to grab what they could. One person we got on film was arrested by the cops in Hollywood for stealing a bag of ice. This man was putting his life, his entire future on the line, for a bag of ice from a liquor store. This was not a rational act. This was just anger."

He also covered the 1992 presidential race, in which George Bush was heavily favored after the Gulf War victory. But while traveling in Iowa with Democratic candidate Paul E. Tsongas, Esler noticed that people weren't talking about the war victory. They were furious about the economy.

"People were asking, 'How come I don't have any health care? How come I can't plant crops this year because I don't know if I'm going to go bust or not?' " Esler recalls.

In his daily television reports from the United States, it was hard for Esler to tell this complicated American story to a British audience.

"Europeans have this bizarre view of the U.S," he says. "We see booming stock markets, the triumph of the Cold War, a country winning every Olympic gold medal, television reruns of 'Baywatch,' 'Dallas' and 'Superman.' Europeans think they know the U.S. But what they don't get, and what they don't quite understand, is the degree to which American society is quite different to Hollywood's portrayal of it.

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