It is a phrase used by foreigners ... and probably some Americans. It can be an expression of anger, amazement, resignation and wonder.
"Only in America..."
Lately though, I've been wondering if it is an entirely meaningless statement. Everywhere I look, there are people using it in strange ways.
Larry the Cable Guy, a Nebraskan-born comedian I know only through reputation from seemingly unhilarious movie fare such as Delta Farce and Witless Protection, has a show on the History Channel called Only in America, wherein he does activities like light off a heap of fireworks, fry all his food, go to demolition derbies and embed himself with the Amish.
The issue with this as "Only in America" fare is that fireworks are worldwide, as is unhealthy eating. Even pesky Europeans practise the crass act of the demolition derby and the Amish movement emanated from Sweden.
That fatuous CNN-gasbag Piers Morgan has a special "Only in America" bit on his news show; the one segment I saw showcased weird photobombs from the political campaign trail (the little boy kissing the girl on the cheek at the Obama rally, Josh Romney's quite amazing death stare, etc).
I'm pretty sure that photobombing is a worldwide thing. (Hilarious evidence: here.)
If you Google "Only in America" you'll come across a veritable landslide of punchlines: "Only in America... do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries and a Diet Coke."
But really, that joke is only making fun of Americans for being a little paunchier than some. New Zealanders order diet cokes at McDonald's... and could stand to watch their waistlines too.
Google also bought my attention to a music video for Only in America by Brooks & Dunn (off their album Steers & Stripes... get it? It is pretty good for a chuckle). The song's refrain talks about "looking out at the promise of the promised land" but again for accuracy's sake, awesomeness and patriotism aren't uniquely American features.
Every country is different with its own quirks, but decades into the spread of globalisation and the outward flow of culture from America, is there anything left that is actually only in America?
When I started coming to America in 2004, being here at least meant that you got to see movies before the rest of the world. I remember returning to New Zealand after that first trip and feeling self-satisfied when I looked at the movie listings at home to see a list of films I could've seen months ago.
This has eroded. Movies, such as The Avengers, have started to occasionally get to the big screen in New Zealand a week or so before they do in America.
Television shows have started premiering in New Zealand within days of their American airdate. Torrenting has started to make this differentiation irrelevant.
There are distinctly American products that I appreciate here in the US: Trader Joe's, In'N'Out, etc. But a hamburger and a supermarket by any other name (and in any other country) still taste as sweet.
There's an American attitude that while probably not globally unique is still not seen everywhere. It is birthed in the idea of a collective of great men who helped to expel the British many centuries ago and set out a roster of collective freedoms for the American people to protect at any and all cost.
This history can lend itself to an excessive libertarianism that is distinctly (but not only) American, and probably creates a lot of genuinely negative "Only in America" moments.
This has embedded itself in gun laws in states such as New Hampshire where the local government has declared it cannot find much cause to regulate the sale of weapons between two in-state residents (and where guns are often bought to be used in out-of-state crime).
It has found its way into the healthcare debate, with the revulsion toward the idea that for everyone to be covered and protected, the more fortunate will always have to be forced to help out the downtrodden.
It is right there in the unchecked corporate influence that dogs this nation (and probably others...).
This freedom, alongside the size and scope of America, creates much of what is truly, and sometimes positively, unique about America.
Take the mind-bogglingly huge Walmarts, where one can walk in circles slack-jawed for half an hour without hitting the same spot twice. Or a place like Costco, where TV screens come stacked like books and you can buy a slice of pizza the size of your head.
I'll always associate driving down intimidatingly wide freeways, staring out the window dazed at everything going by, as a genuinely American experience.
This scope, this freedom and this history, is at the heart of the abundant inventiveness, industry, ambition and often greed and gluttony on display in America.
"Only in America" was ushered by Don King in reference to himself. It is a phrase probably most literally correct when used to describe some of the people who, for good or bad, could only come from the US.
Only in Americans, I guess we could call them.
This unique set of attitudes, freedoms, arrogances and drive creates people: a Barack Obama, or a Jay Z, or a Donald Trump (the Ridges prove that you can create a Kardashian anywhere, I guess) could only come from America, for better and for worse.
But that is enough from me.
What does "Only in America" mean to you?
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