About the people you meet over coffee
I suppose when big political events are looming – elections for example – people in all countries behave a little out of the ordinary. In the USA, right now, there’s a sense of almost hysteria setting in. People here take their politics very seriously.
So, I thought I would share with you a chance meeting and conversation I had this week. It left me partly bewildered, partly smiling, and partly shaking my head in despair.
The encounter happened on Thursday morning over a cup of coffee in a busy little café. I sat down across from a woman who I took to be in her 70s and who was reading a book. I had a newspaper and was hoping to have my drink, catch up on the news, and leave.
Above us, there was a television broadcasting a summary of the previous night’s Presidential debate between Trump and Clinton. After a few minutes my coffee drinking companion leaned across the table and asked if I had seen the debate. I replied that I’d seen most of the second half. Then came the six-million-dollar question.
“So what did you think of it,” she asked. In other words, who did I think had won? This kind of question is incendiary in 2016 USA. Obviously, I had no idea of this woman’s political leanings. So, I decided to tell her exactly what I thought of it.
The debate, I said, had been an embarrassment to America, and I thought Trump had looked like a beaten man at the end. I had to repeat this for her twice. And she looked away and fell silent. I knew immediately this was not what she wanted to hear. Sometimes I’m up for a good political joust with Americans but this morning I couldn’t be bothered.
Then she looked up and eyeballed me. Her comment, as close to verbatim as I can remember, was, “In that case we will have to rely on the good judgment of the Lord above because the only person who knows how to help us in our time of need is the heavenly father.”
Not the right time to bring up Donald Trump’s ‘pussygate’ comments then.
I was still trying to work out why god would be interested in the victor of a political debate in glitzy Las Vegas when the lady changed tack and hit me with another bombshell. She smiled and asked me, “So are you from England?”
When I said Scotland, she asked what I thought of Brexit. She liked to ask questions, this lady. I told her I thought it was a massive mistake and that the UK could be suffering for decades because of it. She then gave me the response beloved of at least 50% of Americans – “but surely you have your freedom?”
The next part of the conversation went something like this.
Lady: “It doesn’t help that Britain is run by a Muslim.”
Me: “A Muslim. Who is that then?”
Lady: “Johnson. Isn’t that his name?”
Me: “You mean Boris Johnson. No, he’s certainly not a Muslim.”
I told her the only Muslim I could think of in a position of power in the UK was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan but explained gently that the Mayor of London did not “run Britain”.
She was in full anti-Muslim rant mode by now. They (Muslims) were all “conditioned to think differently from the rest of us”. I asked what Muslims she meant, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims or what, but that met with a blank look. They were all terrorists, she said, and she didn’t want terrorists in the US.
I asked her if the Irish terrorists – white and self-proclaimed Christians – who had been active for three decades last century, should have been banned from the US, or was keeping out terrorists conditional upon their skin colour and religion? She very skillfully ignored the question completely, I was beginning to think she should have been a politician herself.
Then she hit me with the following: “In the UK they (Muslims) have taken over churches and chapels and turned them into mosques…and they have imposed Sharia Law throughout the country.”
I was trying hard but it wasn’t easy. Just as Jews had synagogues in the UK, I said, so Muslims had mosques. They didn’t need to take over chapels. And when I left the UK 18 months ago, Muslims were subject to the law of the land like everyone else.
Thankfully my coffee cup was empty. My new friend had a final rant about Hillary Clinton and how evil she was…emails…Benghazi, etc. US politics is tribal in nature, the opposition party is the enemy, simple as that. The phrase ‘point well taken’ does not exist in the American political vocabulary.
The lady who had regaled me for slightly less than 20 minutes was perfectly pleasant. She believed fervently in everything she said. She repeated many of the American prejudices we are familiar with. But beyond her sincerely held beliefs, she really had little clue what she was talking about – and I don’t want to sound too snotty when I say that.
Still, she brightened up an otherwise dull Thursday morning.