On our recent visit to the Deep South city known as The Big Easy, ‘Non Stop’ told us of driving a couple eight hours without stopping to Memphis, Tennessee so they could attend a family wedding on time.
When I asked him if he had stopped on the way back to see the famous home of Elvis Presley, he said, with his hands clenched on the steering wheel and eyes focused ahead, “No! I could not stop!”
Americans are known all over the world for their love of speed. After all, they are credited with having built the first-ever super interstate highways, which were actually designed by President Eisenhower to serve as landing strips for military air planes after the Second World War.
The concept of speed for Americans is perhaps motivated by the desire to be first in various fields including space travel. They do not always succeed, but this often just prompts them to go faster than ever. Speed is a value embraced by many of my 300 million fellow Americans and for nearly 300 years.
Whilst visiting friends and family in America for the first time in years, I have learned that despite the slowing characteristics of the global pandemic, Americans’ love affair with speed, getting there first, has continued, non stop. The question is now will this lead to a faster arrival at a better destination or a major crash.
Relatives told me they believe that America did not take time to consider the detrimental impacts of not slowing down when considering the dangers of the pandemic and the shockingly low vaccination rates in places like Louisiana (currently 60 per cent for the first dose, compared with over 90 per cent in Scotland) and other southern states.
I heard tales of close friends who refused to be vaccinated and became unwell. Despite their sudden brush with near death, some still refused to accept the proven scientific value of the vaccine and even told others that the federal government was conspiring against them.
A few local doctors told me they were somewhat suspicious of the rapid federal testing used to approve the Covid vaccines in the USA and therefore they hesitated to be vaccinated at first.
When I told those doctors of the much higher vaccination rates in Scotland, they countered by immediately saying “yeah, but because of socialised medicine, you have long waiting lists for cardiac surgery”.
I further explained that whilst we do have long waiting times for other operations, those with life-threatening conditions receive immediate attention. They still appeared to be suspicious of my assessment despite published facts confirming that in Scotland we have one of the world’s best healthcare systems.
By contrast, in America in 2021 ,over 31 million citizens did not have health insurance. Furthermore, the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the USA is medical bills.
One positive example of finding a solution to improve healthcare in America was when New York University, in 2018, received a $100 million gift from the billionaire philanthropist Ken Langone, which was used to make its medical school the first US institution to waive tuition and fees for all medical students, regardless of their financial situation or academic record.
According to the dean, the university recognised a moral imperative that needed to be addressed, as institutions were placing an increasing debt burden on young people who aspired to become physicians. By removing this financial burden, perhaps the quality and number of physicians in the USA may be increased.
However, many Americans in the Deep South have little knowledge of Scotland’s government and health and social care system. Those rare individuals who have visited our bonnie land often describe our moors, glens, mountains, and lochs as particularly beautiful, memorable and appealing.
One told me that the poor dental care Scots receive is evident because of our crooked teeth. Upon hearing this, I found myself pursing my lips tightly when I really wanted to smile broadly to display my gleamingly beautiful American-Scottish choppers.
My southern friends are deeply aware of the great divide that has been growing in the USA over many years. One successful young business executive told me that he was sick of the conflicting politics of red and blue (Republican and Democrat) states and was looking for a purple solution to this often vicious divisiveness.
Other relatives told me that they refuse to discuss political issues such as vaccination with their friends and family because it creates such strong and often hostile emotions.
One of the most positive emotional experiences I had during my recent journey through the southern USA was meeting, face to face, a man who bears the same first and surname as myself.
We met over a year ago on social media and agreed to meet with our wives during my journey to America. This Joe Goldblatt, whom I fondly call “Segundus”, because he is the second oldest of the three Joe Goldblatts I’ve identified, is a remarkable man whose career included a stint as a race car driver.
He even won some races and told me the only challenge in racing is stopping, confiding that sometimes stopping is a bad thing because it can be the result of a deadly crash.
As I continue my journey throughout the land of my birth and observe nearly 330 million Americans, I witness some of them speeding toward many unknown destinations and wonder if this will end in a crash such as a financial collapse due to an unwell, ageing workforce, or if they will finally arrive at a new destination that is better for their long-term health.
After all, the American pioneering way of life, whether opening the Wild West or exploring outer space, has always included exploring unknown territories.
However, one thing I have learned from watching these Americans at full speed ahead is that they are also becoming more thoughtful and concerned about the potential negative cultural, economic and environmental consequences of continually keeping their feet upon the pedal during an age of increasing global uncertainty.
Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University. He is currently visiting professor at New York University’s Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality.