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Paynesville Press - August 31, 2005

Guest Editorial

Journalist finds contrasts in American society

By Pilar Conci, World Press Institute Fellow

One of the reasons why I wanted to come to the United States was to appreciate with my own senses the wide contrasts that this country is known for. And although I've been here for only four weeks and I still haven't left Minnesota state, I have already had the opportunity to see many of those big differences firsthand.

The first contrast I noticed has to do with religion. And I have to say I was really surprised by how religious Americans are. I knew religion had always been important in the U.S., and I also knew its role had been growing in the last years. But it's still very impressive to see it with my own eyes.

Both in urban and in rural areas, I have found that religion is a key element in Americans' lives. I come from a country that has a very long Catholic tradition, but nowadays people are not very religious and only a small percentage go to church. In Minnesota, no matter if they're Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or Congregational going to church is a must for many people, and religion is a big deal.

But although in Minnesota different people from different religions and different backgrounds may have their religiousity in common, I also found enormous contrasts among them. In St. Paul, I went to a liberal Congregational church were they have gay and transgender ministers whereas in Cyrus, rural Minnesota, I attended a service in a Lutheran church where people viewed homosexuality as a sin and abortion as a crime.

Coming from a country where religious Catholic people share the same views and where other religions don't really have a say in society, I find that diversity of thought very interesting.

When I observed the United States from my hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was intrigued about the deep division between Americans over the figure of President George W. Bush. And now my travels around the state have given me the chance to meet people from all sides of the political sprectrum, which is helping me understand the situation better.

For example, in Minneapolis I met a woman who was so upset with Bush she wanted to move to another country just to get away from him. And although they might not go to the extremes as this lady, most people I met in the Twin Cities area oppose Bush and will openly criticize him.

Then in my homestay in rural Minnesota I also met people who were strong supporters of the president and of the war in Iraq, and I saw many signs and bumper stickers that called for support of the U.S. troops in that arab country. And people up in Ely, in northern Minnesota, are deeply divided, and I was able to talk to both strong opponents and enthusiastic supporters of the leader of the nation.

One thing's for sure: I didn't find people who just didn't have an opinion. It seems that everyone is either on one side or the other.

Wherever I went, the supporters would say he's a good president, that the Iraq war is fair and that a lot of the problems this president has were inherited from Bill Clinton's administration. The opponents would say he lied to fight an unfair war and are concerned about the economy and the increasing power of the far religious right.

In Argentina, it's hard for most people to understand how a president who led the U.S. to such a controversial war could still be so popular. But at the same time, here I have met many Americans that are against him. So I guess there's no easy way to explain such a complex division like the one the Americans are going through right now, and I will have to keep on traveling throughout the country to find my answer. If there is one.

Another contrast I encountered here is between Americans who are interested in the rest of the world and those who aren't. Often times, the rest of the world views Americans as people who only care about themselves and their country and who don't have the slightest idea of what goes on in other nations, not even their neighbors. And although I met people like that who didn't know that London is the capital of England or that think that in Argentina we speak Portuguese instead of Spanish, I was glad to meet a lot of Americans who impressed me with their knowledge of world affairs and politics.

For example, in Ely I was surprised by how much the locals knew about my country and the countries of other foreign journalists who participated in a forum hosted by the local newspaper. They asked questions that showed their understanding of other countries' politics, economies, and social issues. In the Twin Cities I also had the opportunity to meet Americans who asked such detailed questions about domestic issues in Argentina that left me speechless for a few seconds.

So in the four weeks I've been in the United States, I have learned that here you can find diversity of thought in every corner, and no matter how different those views are Americans as a society show an impressive tolerance about it, which I consider a very important achievement for a country.

Pilar Conci is an international news reporter for La Nación in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She visited Paynesville last week as part of the World Press Institute's four-month program.

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