Watching last night’s episode of Top Gear was a rather interesting experience. For those of you who’ve never watched Top Gear, it’s a British Car show which is currently watched by about 350 million viewers worldwide – over twice as many people as watch the Super Bowl – each week. The three hosts test cars, engage in silly challenges, and do crazy things in general.
Last night they flew to America to do one of their cheap car challenges. In the past they’ve bought Porsches for £1500, cars for less than £100, and even mid-engined Italian supercars for less than £10,000. Generally they end up buying cars that are old, break down, and are junky in general. This time, of course, was no exception. They were given $1000 to buy a car and then drive it from Miami to New Orleans, with a series of challenges along the way.
In general, the whole adventure was very funny, and a pleasure to watch. There were two parts, however, that made me cringe. The first occurred in Alabama, where they pulled into a gas station and were nearly killed by local rednecks. Granted, they partially brought it upon themselves by driving through the state with slogans like “Hillary for President” painted on the side of their car. When they pulled in, they were promptly accosted by the owner, who called “the boys” to come and settle the situation. Rocks were thrown at the television crew, and the presenters and the production staff ran for their lives, chased by a gang of hooligans in pickup trucks. Of course, all of this is caught on film and shown for all the world to see. The gas station owner was, of course, classic. “What do you expect?”, she said, “You’re in a hick town.”
As if that made assault and battery ok.
The irony, of course, is that this occurred in the South – what is considered (as was pointed out) the bastion of Christianity and conservatism in the United States. One of the things the presenters were jokingly poking fun at was the intolerance that is often associated with those two particular ideologies, and unfortunately it was proven in an all too dramatic fashion.
But as I watched, I thought two things – first, what does it say about the subculture in the “red states” that drives the perception of many people to assume that intolerant and bigoted attitudes are the norm? Many people will say, “Well, but it’s not really like that…”, and in many places I’m sure that’s true, but the evidence captured by the BBC was fairly convincing, and I don’t think they picked that gas station simply because they thought it would cause a stir. Intolerance is not unique to America, nor is it unique to the South, but there exists a (I think accurate) perception that many people in the South are far less tolerant of others than in other regions.
Second, it struck me as sad that this occurred in what claims to be the most Christian part of the nation, and the part of the nation with a mandate on moral values. I don’t know if the impromptu lynch squad was full of pew-filling Christians, but there’s a part of me that wouldn’t be too surprised to find out they were. Can we really justify intolerance to people who believe differently than we do to the extent that we threaten them with physical violence? We often try to distance ourselves from events like the Spanish Inquisitions and the Crusades, saying those were “back then”, but unfortunately I think there isn’t that much that separates us from the people we try to eschew.
The final segment of the show ended with them driving through New Orleans. They’d planned on selling their cars when they got there, but instead were confronted with a scene of massive damage and destruction, even one year out. In the words of James May and Jeremy Clarkson:
May: Finally, though, we made it to New Orleans, and my word, were in for a shock. We had seen on the news what Hurricane Katrina had done, but seeing the devastation for real was truly astonishing.
Clarkson: This is extraordinary… every house… I’ve been driving now for fifteen miles – there isn’t a pavement, there isn’t a building, there isn’t anything that isn’t smashed. It’s such a vast scale of destruction.
A year had passed since Katrina had blown through, and we had sort of assumed that after twelve months, the wealthiest nation on earth would have fixed it, but we were wrong.
How can the rest of America sleep at night knowing this is here?
I was reminded of the quickness with which we forget. How can the rest of America sleep? Because in a very real sense, we don’t know that it’s there. We don’t know it’s there just like we didn’t know about the tragic levels of homelessness and poverty and hopelessness that existed in New Orleans before Katrina hit. We are a nation that ignores what we don’t want to see because it helps us sleep better at night.
There are times when I’m proud to be an American, and there are times when I wish America were more worthy of being proud. Tonight was one of the second. I wish my country’s ideals were not only words on paper, but were modeled daily by her citizens, rich, poor, black, white, red, blue, Christian, atheist. There is so much here that is good, and no place I would rather live, but tonight I was painfully reminded that we have so far to go before America is a place everyone can be proud of.