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Free to say anything, Americans choose to say nothing

I never knew how bad this place was until I left it. I don't mean Duke exclusively, although I certainly don't want to leave it out. I mean the societal situation in which we live, breathe and supposedly relate to other human beings.

Recently much has been said about student life here at Duke by many different people: we aren't intellectual; we are spoiled; we aren't considerate; we are alcoholics; we aren't this, but we are that. Without intending to, I find myself being a bit defensive about the situation on campus. Those who have heard me address this issue might find that a little surprising, but remember, being the good liberal I am, everything is relative.

However, you might ask, how does everything being relative save the Duke social scene? Well, don't get excited, it doesn't; but it does shed some light on the whole ridiculous situation. Lots of people know each other, but essentially, we have no friends. Maybe it's because I smell or something, but I certainly include myself in that sweeping generalization.

Now I've managed to insult the few people I do know on campus--but remember, I am a liberal, so stick with me; and, of course, I will qualify everything I say. I don't mean that we have no friends; I just said it to make a point. No, I didn't. Yes, I did. No, I didn't.

First my defense of Duke: Life here is not the problem but the symptom of a greater problem. That's not intended to make excuses to eschew responsibility, but to begin a conversation on the whole messy affair.

When I said "I never knew how bad this place was until I left it," I was referring to the three months I spent abroad this summer. It took leaving this country and culture to begin to begin understanding it. This understanding came when I, as an American, found myself charged with explaining status quo American society to some rather cynical foreign students.

As I sat in a little outdoor pub explaining what it was like to grow up in the States, it hit me: I would rarely if ever spend a weekend night back home sitting and soberly discussing the cultural forces that created the environment in which I was raised.

And why not? Not because it is an uninteresting conversation, but because it is not in the appropriate range of possible conversation topics. That sounds like a silly thing to say (and looks even dumber in print) but that's never stopped me before.

When I was sipping a glass of beer somewhere in the middle of Tel Aviv, anything was a possible conversation topic; however when I am standing up at a bar or in the middle of a crowded commons room, anything is not. The physical setting alone precludes such conversations from occuring, but the answer isn't as easy as just sitting down.

As my Israeli friends began challenging my ideas about America, I began to realize what it is they have that many of their American counterparts do not--an identity. Each person sitting at the table with me was drinking something different, wearing something different and, most importantly, saying something different. Through intellectual and not-so-intellectual discourse, I got to know each one of these people individually. There was no prescribed, secure image behind which to hide, no macho persona that had to be defended and nothing that had to be proven. We just sat around and talked.

I realize that this might sound like a bad version of the Brady's Christmas episode, but it's not. It happens, and it is actually fun.

After years of frustration with my monotonous social life back here, I finally had a new hope. I could return to Duke and recreate this stimulating social environment with my friends here. While I haven't given up yet, things aren't going as I had planned.

I never quite realized that while my Duke friends are people I live, work and have classes with, these are not necessarily people with whom I can communicate. I thought it would be easy: sit intelligent people down, say something really interesting, dumb, controversial or personal, and let the conversation rage. However, two weekends into the semester I am still trying to figure out why it hasn't been so easy, why I haven't sat at a table where everyone is drinking something different, wearing something different, and saying something different.

Last night I found myself writing to two of my Israeli friends with a new hypothesis on what it is like to live in America, a hypothesis that is almost as old as this country. In his visit to the United States nearly two centuries ago, the French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville described America as I now see it: a place where everyone is free to say, do, or think whatever they want, and yet where many unfortunately choose not to.

Mark Grazman is a Trinity senior.

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