I’m sat in the departure lounge at Dulles Airport in Washington after a thoroughly enjoyable but quite disturbing week in the USA. In Trumps 2nd week as President there is a constant stream of anti-Trump stories on CNN and the liberal (meaning centre-right) press are really on his case.
Despite the reports that he has the greatest disapproval rating of any incoming President, I’ve met plenty of people who think he is doing the right thing. The words I’ve heard most often are “he’s doing what he said he would do” and this is in the face of the evidence that, for example, that no refugee or immigrant from the 7 targeted countries has been responsible for any terrorist attacks or murders in the USA.
I met an Iraqi refugee, who is now a US citizen and a Houston taxi driver, who thought Trump was doing a great job and it was right to “pull up the drawbridge” even if I did put the words in his mouth. To be honest he seemed to like the phrase! My other Houston taxi driver was an Ethiopian refugee, and he too thought Trump was doing the right thing for US citizens, though by his own admission as a Christian persecuted in his own country he was pleased to see someone “sticking it to the Muslims”.
In contrast, the University of Sheffield Alumni I met in Houston were generally appalled by his election and what it might mean for the “liberal” city dwellers of the USA. They were even polite and engaging about my sustainability message, that fossil fuels were a historical anomaly, despite most of them working in the oil & gas industry.
Being polite, generally very hospitable and supremely nice is an overwhelming feature of my interactions with Americans, never more so than during the week I spent in Tennessee.
I was visiting the SNS (Spallation Neutron Source) where my old friend Wim Bras has just taken a job. I was joined by Chris Ober from Cornell and we were planning experiments that we will do to reduce the fuel consumption of ships. We hope to do this by using some clever polymers physics, preventing the growth of sea weed and barnacles by stopping their adhesion to the bio-film that is formed on the ships hull. This is currently done by poisoning. We will use neutron scattering to look at the surface structure of the films we make, and do it under a layer of bio-film(bacteria) that we have made transparent so we can see the (re)arrangement of the paint molecules underneath.
Running a laboratory that can do such things requires a lot of money and really talented people, so Oak Ridge has both. In the SNS the majority of the scientists are immigrants, in fact only one of the senior management team was born in the USA. Across the Oak Ridge National Lab there are people from every nation on the earth, Chinese and Russian, Iraqi, Iranian and Libyan. Some of them intellectual and economic migrants, some of them refugees, lots of them with security clearance. The economic engine of the USA relies on recruiting talent and labour from around the world. Which makes current events more astounding.
My friends Wim & Jose are understandably concerned about what their future holds as recent immigrants who have just bought a house in Knoxville Tennessee. But the people they will live amongst are genuinely lovely. In a restaurant parking lot a fella beckoned us over as we drove in to tell us “I’m just leaving, y’all, and I have a beautiful parking spot just waiting”. As Wim said “that could never happen in France”, the country he had just left.
When they wish you well here they mean it – really mean it – despite race, creed or colour. The problem is that this hospitality only really applies to individuals and not identified groups. Knoxville is the buckle in the bible-belt, so God help you if you are a gay couple, or on a team-building exercise from a family planning clinic!
So Wim and Jose will have a fine time, their neighbours will bring them food over when they move in and make them really welcome. But every time they turn on the radio and TV they will be assaulted by attitudes and values that are abhorrent to them (and me too) but those views will rarely trouble their personal interactions. And that is the most confusing aspect of being here.
Picture courtesy of Giuseppe Milo