SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – I recently finished reading a book called “A Long Way Gone” where the author, a 16 year old child-soldier caught up in a civil war in the African nation of Sierra Leone was brought to New York City by UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) to speak before the U.N. and explain the plight of children as young as seven and eight who were forced to fight either for the government army or the rebels. A sad situation indeed, but what struck me as particularly disconcerting was that when he was chosen to come to New York and tell of his experiences, his expectations were that he was being brought to a place full of violence, crime, and hedonism, getting that idea from the rap music he had been listening to and the movies he had been seeing.
I was hardly surprised, since it reminded me of an incident that I experienced 60 years ago when in the U.S. Army and on leave in Copenhagen, Denmark. This of course was well before the advent of computers which have made English the international language, so few Danes besides the girl I was with could understand what I was saying. Taking me to a local movie theater and being considerate, she chose a film that she thought was made in America since it had Danish subtitles, but which unfortunately turned out to be a product of the European cinema industry where each of the various actors spoke their own native language.
Since the plot was about a group of thieves from various countries, the only one I could understand was the chief villain supposedly from the U.S., who by the way was actually British. What did the Danish people know back then, for he could have been speaking Swahili or Japanese for all they cared since they had subtitles to read. What mattered to me besides the fact that I could only understand about 25% of the movie was that the only American in the story turned out to be the real bad guy. No wonder we have such a terrible reputation around the world.
But that’s not the only time such a thing was brought to my attention. After finishing the book about the kid from Sierra Leone I read a different book titled “Five Families,” a very comprehensive history of the American mafia. Now I was born and raised in Brooklyn, having lived mostly in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant but also in Bensonhurst for a few years, a middle-class community of decent, hardworking, law-abiding people. You would never know that from the book however, since almost every gangster and wise guy mentioned in the book lived either in Bensonhurst or Howard Beach, another middle-class area of unpretentious private homes. I’m sure that anyone reading that book must think the Bensonhurst streets are littered with dead bodies and everyone lives in abject fear of either being mugged or preyed upon for protection money. Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth.
America, and especially New York, have been given bum raps to the rest of the world by all the movies, books, and music that portray our culture as violent, crime-ridden, hedonistic, materialistic, and profane. In reality, we are the kindest, most generous, most innovative, and if anything, most puritanical society around.