People in the United States, especially people who haven’t really been elsewhere, tend to buy into the mythology that the US is the best country in the world, the only place where freedom actually exists, where a person can achieve something if he or she is motivated enough and persists enough, where life is better than anywhere else on the planet, where the national morality is beyond reproach, a country that is better in every way than any other country in the world.
Yet, as an American who has lived elsewhere and returned to the States after a number of years abroad, I have found this very wrong indeed.
Americans are often confused about how to gauge the quality of life, believing it has something to do with money. Well, no doubt money plays a role, for if you don’t have any at all, you’re not going to have a very comfortable life, struggling to get by. But you can find people in all Western countries with the same relative wealth é some richer some poorer é and yet how people live their lives is quite different from one country to the next.
I have found that the quality of life can be judged instead by the manner in which we live: our social interactions, our meals, our daily lives, our work habits, our home-lives and family lives, and many little details of how we live. In fact we are not speaking of the quantity of life (or wealth) but the quality of it.
In Europe, people take pride in old and even antique cultural habits. These habits involve everyday life, from how to make a coffee taste better, to appreciation of certain aesthetics. Many people take pride in how they dress, or fix up their house, or in their knowledge of things that don’t relate directly to their jobs. In Europe people work to live; in America we live to work. This I believe is the fundamental difference, but it has consequences that spread across many facets of our daily life.
Quality of life is not only judged by how polluted your city may be compared to another somewhere else, it is also judged by how people deal with each other. In America, with its history of individualism, there is a void that has grown larger with every recent generation, as personal gain has trumped any real social conscience. As a result, generally speaking, people don’t invite friends over for dinner unless there is some business at stake in the meal, some value to be gleaned from the occasion. Pleasure is derived from success, not from the social interaction itself. In European countries the café culture arose not out of trendiness but out of the desire to sit and enjoy life. Walt Disney discovered this and converted it into Disneyland, as he believed Americans needed to be outdoors more. But Disneyland reflects America’s bizarre twist on outdoor, social interaction. We have to be diverted, amused, entertained, distracted. From what? From ourselves? Because we have nothing to say to each other, so we prefer to be passive witnesses to big screens and rapid roller-coasters, where we don’t have to talk, except when we get out, so we can all say “Wow!”. We are like children, and in fact our culture is very immature. But we imagine that we are developed and powerful, like a child believes that he is immortal and the only thing that matters. In Europe, centuries of history and the evolution of their cultures has taught them otherwise, they know better and they have grown to become more concerned with social welfare, social interaction and social graces.
In Italy people of all types and sexes know how to cook. In America we know how to order out. In Italy men and women have rituals of courtship that are sophisticated, funny, pleasing and loving. In America we have laws of sexual harassment and entirely confused sexual mores. In Italy women in business and academia are perhaps more respected than their American colleagues, yet they maintain their femininity as few American women in positions of power manage to do. In Italy they take their lunch breaks calmly, eating good food slowly, perhaps with wine, and they get back to work a little later, stay a little later at the end of the day and have hours that reflect this siesta mentality. Their lives are not determined by the bottom line but by the quality of life they lead. If they make three lire less they don’t care, if the alternative is to hurry a meal and create indigestion.
In Europe this different focus is evident in both private lives and public policy. In England recently, during the election campaign, it was clear that the British cared more about getting good services from their government institutions and not about paying a little less tax. They believe that their government should help insure a better quality of life. In America we believe we alone are responsible for our lives; it is a dog eat dog world, and the first bite counts. The government should “get off our backs”, as if our government was not composed of and created by us.
But I believe that this sense of individualism run amok is only cyclical; it has always been a part of our history, but the extremity in today’s current popular positions about the role of our government is particularly insidious. I believe that hand in hand with this mentality and belief is a very dangerous isolationism, not only in our political world views but in our closing our eyes and ears to all that is not familiar. As a result our culture has become a culture of sampling, of copying, and of very little originality. Those exceptions, those artists and scientists and entrepreneurs who try to be inventive are most often failures nowadays. Commercial success in many fields is usually assured not when something new arrives on the scene, but when something familiar arrives. We have grown into a culture of mediocrity, where convenience out-values quality. As a result the quantity in our lives increases, while the quality decreases.
In America I eat worse, I enjoy less social interaction and fun, work becomes an end-all rather than a means to an end (life itself) and life itself is led more selfishly, less lovingly, and less inspired. We no longer make the time to enjoy our lives, for time is money in America more than anywhere else. Where that may be efficient, it is also robbing us of the capacity to enjoy our time on earth.
When I first moved back to America three years ago I found a very different country from the one I left in the late 80’s. Surely it was already on the road to being the country it would become é but the rapidity of the homogenization of the culture, the commercialization of the culture, the stupidization of the culture and the hypocrisy of the culture had surpassed even my wildest imaginings.
A Starbucks on every corner. A Food Court offering the same greasy food in every mall, filled with the same shops in every town. Mom and Pop shops closed down, bought out, gone. Funky cafés replaced by upscale restaurants with phony foreign cuisines (try finding a real Italian restaurant and not a hybrid haute cuisine and overpriced one).
But worst of all I found the people changed, hardened, colder, phonier, out for themselves as I had never remembered them being. I found friends defensive, careful, closed, suspicious, competitive. I found acquaintances superficial and judgmental at the same time, seeking out news from me not out of genuine human curiosity but to see how they could categorize me. I felt like the guy who had escaped jail and now come back to visit the inmates who all looked at me as a person who could not be trusted. I felt an absolute and utter frigidity from many people, masked by what appeared to be charming smiles.
I soon found a violence lurking beneath those same smiles, whether it was from people in my field or simple acquaintances. Americans are trained to say “have a nice day” while never giving a second thought to the wish they are conveying. It has become a culture of automatons, conventions determined by business practices, not by real human interaction. Business has taken over the world in America (and perhaps the entire planet before too long as American cultural hegemony spreads insidiously) and as such our style of life and social interactions are determined mainly by business policies and behavior.
As I said earlier, I have found it a rare occasion since my return to find people having casual, non business related dinner parties, as they do regularly in Italy where I lived. The friendly interaction one may experience at the supermarket is nothing more than good business policy, but could we really conceive of the cashier at the drug store sending us a post card when they heard we had moved to another state? (This did happen when I left Italy, as the lady at the corner shop got my address from the lady at the coffee bar across the street to send me a card saying she missed me). Can you imagine that happening here anymore? Once, surely, Americans behaved like this. No more.
Even my old friends for the most part had changed in these years, and I don’t think they had realized just how nasty some of these changes were. In keeping up with the societal transformations, they themselves had transformed, from fun loving creative souls, to scared people looking to make as much money as possible, and with far less to say about things. I also found people who were previously politically inspired either hardened in one extreme or another, or by now entirely cynical and apolitical.
But the worst thing I found was that I could not trust the smiles. People can say anything they like, and in the America of political correctness we have all been trained to say the right things; yet I found very little action to back up those nice words, in fact I found, and continue to find, people capable of very nasty and closed minded behavior when push comes to shove. In America today it is every man for himself, and though some right wingers may believe that this is a good thing that teaches individual responsibility I believe whole heartedly that it also teaches selfishness and alienates us from our fellow citizens, friends and family members.
The rise in homelessness in America during the Reagan years was not only because some mental institutions were closed down, nor was it only because the economy did not trickle down as predicted. It was also because, for all the talk of family values, families in this country abandoned their own members to the streets. There are failures in every family, be they drug addicts, alcoholics, mentally ill or just plain indulgent or evil people, in every country on earth, but only in America do our families give up on them to the degree we find here. Why? Because our warped sense of individual responsibility allows us to blame the weak for their weakness and feel no need to ensure their well being.
This is an extreme symptom, but it is a telling one. On a smaller, more common scale, this selfishness infects every aspect of our daily lives, and it makes our lives more petty, more miserable, smaller, and more pathetic. We have lost any real family values while pretending to care deeply about them. The only time a city’s inhabitants smile genuinely at one another is when their local team wins a championship. Days later the glum, sour faces return, predictable as the sunset, as each of us strives in our land of opportunity, to get our shot at success before our neighbor does.
Violence permeates American culture, from highway road rage to the well funded NRA and its influence in society. Many Americans do not share the love for guns their fellow nationals sport, but the 2nd Amendment of the constitution has been distorted and misread for centuries, creating the unparalleled gun culture we now have. As a matter of fact that right granted by the bill of rights speaks of a well regulated militia, the key phrase being well-regulated. Somehow, in all the discourse over the right to bear arms in the US, that key phrase is usually ignored. The right in the first place was written into the constitution in the context of a very different time, when arms were also far different and life was far different. We were a fledgling nation, recently embroiled in a revolution where the occupying forces tried to keep a rebelling populace from arming itself. Seen in that context, the framers and founding fathers believed that people needed the right to be armed in order to protect themselves against a ruling government that could come to power (if the revolution was somehow defeated). Hence they foresaw the need for well regulated militias. To them, the lack of any right to bear arms allowed for the possibility that a militant regime could oppress its people.
Today we have nothing even resembling that situation, no matter how much extremists might attempt to invent out of whole cloth a similar situation in events like Waco and Ruby Ridge. The government is not in the business of rounding up innocent civilians who need to be armed to protect themselves from the government. In fact the majority of gun owners do not own guns in the eventual need to use it against the government, but in order to defend themselves from some crime. Others like guns for sport or hunting. But it has nothing to do with the 2nd amendment and the reasons for its original inclusion in the bill of rights. Regardless, the NRA and gun lobbies continue to rely on that 2nd amendment as if it were the most sacred right we as Americans have. There is an innate hypocrisy in many gun defenders, who often are the same people (though not always) who do not defend many of the other rights granted by our constitution (like freedom of speech or the key concept that all men are created equal).
The US was not always a gun culture, in spite of the mythology. Before Samuel Colt came around people did not have guns in the US as a rule. Even in the famous Wild West, most towns had anti-gun laws; if you rode in on your horse, you had to disarm before being allowed into town. In the early 20th century the only people with guns were cops and gangsters.
Today we have more guns than people in the US. We have more murders and suicides by guns than any other country in the world. We have the highest crime rate of any country in the world (though it has dropped some in the 90’s in part thanks to tougher gun laws), rendering absurd any arguments that guns serve to deter crime. Once upon a time in America a husband and wife would fight and glasses would be hurled, a frying pan thrown, voices raised. Today a gun is drawn and it is over quickly. Today kids get guns and shoot their friends and teachers on a monthly basis. And in the name of supposed American fairness, gun advocates claim that law-abiding citizens would be the only ones to suffer more stringent gun laws, as criminals would always be able to get their hands on guns. The flaw in their logic is however that in many many cases crimes are committed by previously law-abiding citizens. Comedian Phil Hartman was not killed by a crackhead with a gun, but by his wife. Klebold, the kid who shot up Columbine High School was not a bank robber, but a student with a gun. Every day without exception in America a previously law-abiding citizen uses his or her gun to hurt someone.
It is the easy access to guns and the increased deadliness of these guns that has combined with the American sense of individualism and selfishness and alienation, to create the most violent society on the planet. Our entertainment, often blamed for helping increase our kids’ exposure to violence, is in fact successful not because it creates bloodthirstiness, but because it panders to an already existing desire for blood and violence. If it didn’t sell, they wouldn’t make it. And the reason it sells is the same reason we use our guns and love them so much in America. We are thrilled by blood, not scared by it. If we were truly scared of the violence we would change the laws, repeal the 2nd amendment, by now a relic of a time long gone by. Those gun nuts who claim delusionally that taking peoples’ guns away would be tantamount to Hitlerian fascism have it entirely and hysterically wrong. (As a matter of fact Hitler helped militarize his population, both mentally and practically). In demilitarizing ours, we would be taking a big step toward reducing the violence in our society. It is not the latest movie that provokes more violence in our kids; it is the pervasive culture of violence that infects every facet of American life. And though to some degree it is true that initially gun laws may have little effect on hardened criminals intent on getting a gun one way or another, the reduction in gun production would eventually lead to the overall reduction in gun availability, for law-abiding citizens and criminals alike. In addition laws that mandate background checks, making it slower and more difficult to obtain weapons have already helped reduce the crime rate and would continue to do so. Instead the GW Bush team is turning back the clock, as Ashcroft has come out in favor of making it EASIER, not more difficult, to get guns. When the NRA boasted that with W as president they would have their office in the White House they weren’t kidding.
Violence is not only practiced with guns, but in everyday life, in language, in entertainment and in social interaction. People drive like lunatics in Europe; there is less regulation of speed limits, and less adherence to the lanes and to the lights, yet I have never seen the absolute road rage I witness daily in America. I will expound further on this in the section on civility, but it is clearly a potent barometer of the violence in the hearts and minds of many Americans.
The top grossing films of recent years have generally been action pictures filled with spectacle, special effects, and blood. People die in our blockbuster movies left and right, shot up and shot down, thrilling us no end. Our local news shows are filled with horror stories of murder, rape, kidnapping and abuse. We read of military actions around the world by us and others with detachment. We don’t really feel, as a rule, the pain of these violent deaths, though many of us are outraged by them. For if we were to allow ourselves to really feel the pain of these horrors we would not be able to cope; so we have to detach ourselves, react to the statistical horror, not the human horror. As a result we are capable of incredible coldness, a coldness that only helps increase our insensitivity. Once upon a time in America, and not too long ago, a whole generation of kids grew up protesting a war, protesting injustice, espousing peace and love. These kids are now adults, concerned with their incomes, entertained by explosions, gunshots and special effects. Once we made movies that were full of wit, clever dialogue, sophistication. Now we are number one at making the biggest fireball. Once we prided ourselves on exploring space, expanding humankind. Now we want to put arms in outer space and we have limited our explorations though our wealth has increased.
America is a violent place, the most violent place on Earth. Is this something to be proud of? We should repeal the 2nd amendment, but I hear no leaders from any party who have dared utter these words to get us started away from the cycle of violence we have spiraled into. I have no doubt that the founding fathers are rolling in their graves when they look out at what that amendment has wrought. The very reasons for its inclusion are no longer applicable; instead it is defended by today’s gun lovers for entirely other reasons, with the consequence of producing more death, crime and suicide than anywhere else on the planet.
The flip side of this issue is how we deal with crime. Justice is supposed to exist in a society to deal with those elements that break the laws. The laws are created by the legislature and interpreted by the justice system (the courts). The intent is to limit crime, to make society more peaceful. We put people in jail presumably to reduce the level of crime and to deter it, by letting people know that they will pay for their crimes with time in jail, a limit to their freedom. In America it isn’t working. We have the largest inmate population on the planet, and no it is not because we have the biggest population. We do not. China has almost five times the population. India has almost four times the population we have. The EU has a larger population, yet none of these entities has anywhere close to our prison population. Many of our jail cells are filled with non violent offenders, drug addicts and others. Prison is not set up to reform anyone; in fact it can be safely said that a few years in jail will likely harden a person, not reform them. So in fact our system is not helping reduce or deter crime, nor is it helping reform criminals. It is simply putting them away. Yet the reasons the crimes are committed do not change.
People take drugs because they start quite young, because the drugs are available, they are fun, they are cheap, they are strong and their lives are boring or difficult without them. People steal because they need money and don’t have a sense of it being wrong, so wrong as not to do it. With easy access to guns, their crimes become simpler. Point a gun and someone will hand over what you ask most of the time. If you’re desperate enough you can shoot someone and not worry about it too much. After all it’s everyman for himself in this country; what greater form of individualism is there than self motivated crime?
In America we also have the unique status of being the only Western democracy with the death penalty. We share this distinction however with China, Iran and Sudan, countries we continually berate for their lack of civil rights. We execute criminals who committed their crimes as teenagers; we have executed people with IQ’s below 70 (officially considered retarded); we have executed women; we have executed minorities disproportionately (no matter how Ashcroft fudges the numbers with his W-style fuzzy math). We continue to execute people today. We kill people who kill. We say “you killed and you must not, so we will kill you.” We claim this is because we place value on life, that it is justice not revenge. But where is the difference? Does killing a killer bring back the dead? Of course not. Does it deter other killers? Of course not. Does it satisfy a sense of vengeance? Of course. Should the state be in the business of revenge? Of course not. No other civilized Western country uses capital punishment, though many others once did. They have simply matured beyond us. Those who argue that trends in Europe are moving back toward the US positions are simply wrong, quoting polls that are skewed and do not represent even a small part of the populations in European countries.
The death penalty is in my view utterly barbaric, whether conducted in a public square or in a private room with closed circuit TV for the victims’ families, whether it is by beheading, stoning, electric chair or lethal injection. It is rife with flaws, innocents are killed too often, and even the utterly guilty do not deserve to have their lives taken like those they might have stolen, for all it does it satisfy blood lust and put the state on the same level as the criminals. Study after study, statistic after statistic have shown over and over that it does nothing to deter crime. In fact, in spite of our death penalty, we have the highest violent crime rate in the world.
This barbarism is in total contradiction to the belief of most Americans that we are a moral and just culture. We are not. We are the most violent culture on the planet, with our crime and our punishments.
In the US at the moment we have neither a capitalist nor socialist health care system. Very few people pay for their own health care (which would be capitalist, leading to increased competition and service), using large insurance companies to do it for them. It is not socialist either, in which the state covers all our services, guaranteeing health care for all. We have neither system in place, and we have the worst of both.
Doctors make a lot of money in the US, and medicine is a business. The pharmaceutical industry is enormous, making billions a year. The insurance companies make billions a year. They are not non profit organizations out to help people, they are business with shareholders and CEOs out to make as much money as possible. So medicine is a business in the US. And as such the number one concern, no matter how these companies might spin it, is to make money.
When health care becomes a business, health suffers. Some things improve, as companies are compelled on occasion to compete and improve their service or come up with a newer, better drug, but since it is not a true capitalist system, this competition is limited and in no way compensates for the inadequacies in other respects.
If I don’t feel well, I will call a doctor. In the old days, I might have had a family GP, a kind old man who knew us all by name and knew how to make us feel better simply by popping over, pulling out his stethoscope, giving a listen, looking in our eyes, ears and mouth, feeling our pulse and saying some kind words. Those days are gone. Now I call a doctor, and his assistant makes an appointment. I go in and fill out a form. If I’m insured I give that information; if I’m not I hand over a credit card or cash. He sees me and determines what’s wrong. He advises tests. The more tests I get, the more money they make. No doubt some tests are important, but when the person advising the tests and prescribing the medicine can actually make more money out of it, how can we be sure we really need those tests or those drugs?
Today, some 50 million Americans (like me) have no insurance. If they do, they are likely paying thousands a year to have it, coming out of their paychecks. Even with insurance they will still have to pay something for their prescriptions (co-payments) and their doctor’s appointments. If they have to go the hospital, they will have to pay a part of those bills, either in deductibles or co-payments. Their insurance companies can help decide which treatment they should get (which costs less to them), and often people are hurried out of hospitals after interventions and operations far quicker than they should be, to save their insurers money. Those of us without insurance avoid doctors and hospitals like the plague, aware that if some catastrophe strikes us, it would not only be devastating physically but economically. Many Americans have sleepless nights worrying not only about their health, but about their ability to deal with their health.
In a country that believes it is a right to own a gun, we do not believe it is a right to see a doctor if you’re sick whether you can afford it or not. Those against universal health care often claim that the uninsured can go to an emergency room if they need to. But any doctor will tell you that prevention is better than any cure, yet the uninsured cannot afford to go for regular tests and checkups, so they don’t, and one day an emergency strikes, they go to the already overcrowded and under funded emergency room, where too few qualified nurses are working, and they wait, and when they are treated it is often superficially, too late, and far more expensive to the system than it would have been had they been able to maintain their health with regular consistency. A recent study has proven that emergency room visits are way up in the US, service way down, and costs skyrocketing.
In Europe people have socialized medicine and they do not look at this as a crime, as many Americans in their distorted and ignorant way often do. It is easy to criticize something we know nothing about, and too many Americans have been suckered into believing that socialized medicine is slow, ineffective, dirty, funky, lousy and primitive. The very term socialized seems to carry the onus of Stalinism or something of that nature.
My third day in Italy, when I was not even a resident there, simply a visitor, I broke my collarbone. A friend took me to a hospital in Rome and I was seen immediately. The doctors did not ask me to fill out a form before seeing me, though I spoke no Italian (my friend translated for me) and was clearly a foreigner. They realigned my broken bone after a set of x rays. They put me in a brace, and I had four follow-up visits over the course of the month of healing, as well as a series of x-rays. One month later I was healed. The total cost to me was $18.
Later, after I lived in Italy for some years, I found a doctor I would go to when I didn’t feel well. He got to know me personally, and made me feel better just by speaking to him, much like the old GP my family used to have when I was a kid. I paid nothing for these visits. In Italy the best doctors work at the public facilities; in fact private clinics, though often more luxurious in their settings, are not known for better medical service. In all of Europe an individual has the choice to go to public or private facilities. They pay higher taxes é but even with these higher taxes they pay less than we do in America. Health care costs are out of control in America, and service is markedly inferior, in spite of excellent technologies in America. Yes our system has created some remarkable technological advances, but it is patently false to believe that similar advances do not occur in countries with free health care. Advances are a result of research and development, and that has little to do with the overall system of health care. If I would have broken that same bone in the US without being insured, it would have set me back 1000 times more money.
Is that civilized? Should we have the right to own a gun with no questions asked, but no right to see a doctor no matter how much we have in our pockets? If you ask me it should be a HUMAN RIGHT to have access to free medical care. Medicine, health care and pharmaceuticals should not be a profit-oriented business. In America however this view is rare to find, and when Hillary Clinton attempted to promote universal health care she was berated and practically destroyed for her efforts. Why? Because there is much money at stake, so many companies fighting it, afraid to lose their billions. But who pays for their profits? We do, while we go broke trying to stay healthy.
I have touched on this issue in other sections, but civility is the other side of the same coin when it comes to the violence in our society. What is a civil society? The general concept is usually that of a culture that obeys the rule of law, therefore civil. But I would go further. We can have a society that obeys the rule of law and is still uncivil in the extreme. Just because you don’t steal or kill doesn’t make you civil.
When the lousy driver who cuts you off then flips you the finger, he has broken no laws, but he is certainly not being civilized. He is being rude. When rappers call their women whores they are breaking no laws, but they are rude. When your boss orders you glumly to tow the line and follow orders he is breaking no law, but he may be quite rude without worrying about it. When a waiter smiles at you he may appear to be quite friendly, but in fact he is only after your tip, and not at all the civil person he pretends to be.
Granted the US is not the only place on earth where civility is in short supply, but that doesn’t make it any better. And I would argue that where once Americans were rightly proud of their civil nature, that pride would be undeserved nowadays, and even the very discussion of civility is seen as old hat and pointless.
Though political correctness has infiltrated our conventions, it has not come with any substance. We are taught to not be rude to women, minority groups or the infirm, but though we have limited our jokes and butt pinchings, we have not changed the secret thoughts we harbor. I would argue in fact that the suppression of these words has only helped fuel the increase in those thoughts. The PC mentality has done nothing to increase our civility; it has however led to a backlash in which non PC rudeness is secretly admired.
We make fun of the Parisians for their rudeness, and in some ways they deserve it. But their rudeness is at least honest, out in the open, unencumbered by hypocrisy. Americans on the other hand will smile, say nice things, and deep down hate you with more vehemence than any Frenchman. I believe that this is just another of the unwanted symptoms of our individualist society. Since we put the most value in our own individual accomplishments, above and beyond any cooperative ventures, we have created a society that is far more capable of incivility than any other. And we see it every day, from the fellow flipping you the finger, to the increase of foul language in our films and music, to the diminution of true poetry and creativity in our culture.
Americans like to believe that the US is the only remaining superpower. There are those who believe that comes with responsibility (policing the rest of the world) and there are those who believe it should allow us to ignore the rest of the world (isolationists). Within both groups you will find members of the right and the left. I was surprised of late to find that supposed anti-war advocates come from both the far left and far right, like some strange configuration presciently predicted in John Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate”.
The distinctions of right and left when it comes to foreign policy ideals have been muddied since the end of the cold war. You will find rightists against intervention as we would have once found lefties against it earlier. I myself, though a life long lefty, disagreed with the Kosovo war by NATO, though it was supported by the left in the US and berated by the right to a large degree. I believe PM Sharon in Israel is as much a war criminal as Milosevic and though I would like to see Saddam arrested and tried for his gassing of the Kurds, I do not agree with sanctions against the Iraqis.
The world is no longer a black and white place, and in spite of American political mythology we have not always been on the right side. We fought aggressive wars of conquest, imperial wars as well as ideological ones and righteous ones. We helped prop up dictators and still do today; we choose to engage for “national interests” when all too often those interests aren’t national at all, but economic and corporate.
I don’t share however the isolationist view that we should put up a wall and ignore the rest of the world. I think Hitler showed us what well meant pacifism can lead to. We need to be vigilant, intelligent and elect leaders who know their history and global politics. Unfortunately our political system has created the opposite, where our candidates with any chance at election are often the worst, not best America has to offer. Our current president went so far as to take pride in a recent speech made to the graduating class at Yale University not for his wisdom and education, but for his partying days and mediocrity. With leaders like this, who needs enemies?
American kids know less about the rest of the world than anywhere else in the Western World. We are not taught other languages as European kids are. We are well behind in math and science. Our schools of higher learning remain quite good, but our elementary and high schools are pathetic. The recent efforts of the White House and Congress to “reform” the public school system consists of creating more testing, as if the diagnosis were equal somehow to the cure. We pay teachers miserably and wonder why our teachers are so lousy. We jam forty or fifty kids into a class and wonder why they aren’t learning anything. When Gore argued in the debates that we needed to build more schools to reduce class size, Bush mocked him. Now we have a president who clearly mangles the English language, knows next to nothing of the rest of the world, is in the pocket of major corporations and pretends to be “compassionate”. As a result we have arrived at the point where a speech substitutes for any real actions, where reform is confused with diagnosis and where that diagnosis itself is misguided.
I believe that there are several contributing factors in the stupidization of America and the decline of our educational system. Teachers have to be smart, and they are often not very bright at all. I went and took a test in LA county to qualify to be a teacher (at one point I thought it might be a good thing to do). I was shocked at how primitive the test was, at just how dumb you could be and still qualify. Add to that the overall cultural atmosphere in the country; kids watch TV a lot and what do they see? Who are their heroes? In my day we admired counter culture figures like John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Jack Nicholson etc. All of these people were artists, poets, creative souls. Today the kids are suckered into the marketing machines that churn out sampling figurines of ‘Nsync and Britney Spears, or rappers like Eminem and Snoop Dog. Poetry has been replaced by pop, idealism by rage. Finally, add to the mix an utter lack of inspiration from anywhere and you have the result: nihilism.
Teaching a nihilist anything is tough; the only way to break that pattern is to break the nihilism, to inspire. The only way to inspire is to have inspired leaders, who use the role of the government for truly smart actions, not just words full of hot air and phony morality. We could inspire the kids again by creating programs that accomplish something, by having leaders in congress who fight not just to win a fight but to legislate acts that make a real difference.
Once upon a time Americans believed in heroes that were truly adventurous. We admired Columbus for his daring and imagination. We admired Lewis and Clark for their spirit of exploration. As recently as the 1960’s Kennedy, launching the space program, inspired us with a new sense of adventure and exploration. We thrilled at John Glenn’s orbiting of the earth and we sat in awe at the moon landings of Apollo. Kids in the 60’s were inspired as nothing else before or since by the amazing feats of NASA in successfully creating a whole set of new systems and technologies that allowed us to land people on the moon. Those kids were inspired to learn their math and science (engineering and science graduates doubled in those years) and have rained gold on the US economy when they grew up and created the computer and digital revolution. These are Apollo’s children.
Nothing could inspire kids today more than a program to send people to Mars. Mars is a planet rich in resources, a planet that could be made entirely habitable within two hundred years, a place where people could wander around in domes and without space suits in a matter of twenty years with a serious program of colonization and terraforming. Nothing could inspire a segment of the young population more to learn math and science and become well educated than the bait of being able to help pioneer a new world.
There are those who would argue that the cost is too high, that we have other priorities that need to be addressed first. But experts agree that the cost to send people to Mars, in an initial ten year program would be less than 1% of one year’s military expenditures. In other words, we could have people on Mars spending less than $3 billion a year for ten years, whereas we spend over 300 billion (and Bush wants 10% more this year) each year on the military. In 1961 when Kennedy got up and launched the moon program we had a military opponent that was pointing thousands of nukes at us in an ideological conflict that today does not exist. The weapons have been reduced and are going to be further reduced; the ideological war is over; the weapons have been pointed away. Our enemies today operate differently, not with large-scale missiles but with boats and vans laden with small bombs, with anonymous terrorist attacks that do not originate in any one country. We still have enemies today, yes, but they are smaller and the approach to deal with them must be different, and certainly need not cost what it cost in the midst of the Cold War. In 1961 our GNP was on third what it is today, our social problems were far graver, with riots in the cities that were practically burning down. In the sixties we were involved in a major war in Vietnam that showed no sign of ending in our favor. When Kennedy made his speech in 61 we knew very little about the moon; we know far more about Mars today then we knew about the moon then. Our technologies were Stone Age compared to what we live with today. Take one look at the Lunar Module they flew in at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and it is amazing to see how primitive it was. Yet Kennedy believed we could do anything if we set our mind to it. He was right. And the payoff was enormous, not only in terrestrial and space science we gained, but in intellectual capital, those children of Apollo who have grown up and paid us back millions of times over with technological ideas and advances in almost every field imaginable.
The spirit of adventure, of pioneering, was sadly linked in the past to conquest of indigenous people who were displaced by European settlers. On Mars we will displace no one, simply launch a new branch of human civilization. Instead of further militarizing the Earth, like Bush’s ideas of NMD (Star Wars) would do, we could use the same companies and technologies for peaceful, international cooperation to go to the red planet. And again, I repeat, nothing at all could serve to give a boost to the educational system and fight the rise in nihilism among young people as giving them something to get excited about like a program to send people to Mars. And we would not be going to Mars just to go there. Mars is a rich world, not a barren rock in the sky. It may harbor forms of life older than anything we have ever found on Earth, and it can serve as an outpost for further exploration of space, leading eventually to human exploration of the moons of the outer planets, the asteroid belt, the Oort Cloud and even finally planets circling stars in the nearby region of our galaxy.
The universe is a young place still, and human life even younger on a cosmic scale. It will continue to exist as a universe as we know it for trillions of years, but humanity has only existed out of East Africa for some fifty thousand years, i.e. nothing. We are in our infancy. Though writers have proclaimed that we are at “the end of history”, I believe we are only at the beginning and history backs me up on that, unless we foolishly blow ourselves up before we mature out of our infancy.
It would be irresponsible of us to ignore this calling, and the further away we get from our history and spirit of adventure the harder it will become to muster the force and resources to move forward. A society that does not move forward stagnates and eventually dies, as the Romans did in the ancient world, and as the Ming Dynasty did in China in the 1400’s. The culture that stops exploring, preferring to stay home, put up walls and keep its garden neat will soon have no garden to worry about, and those walls will come crumbling down before too long. We are seeing this already, as our society becomes more vapid, as the youth becomes more nihilistic, as education is replaced by entertainment, and as we elect certified ignoramuses for our leaders.
It is our duty to stop this pattern before it is too late. Nothing could do this more than re-launching the space program back to one which features human exploration. The costs would be marginal compared to our military expenditures, and the cost of not doing it would be far greater.
In addition there are other scientific and social programs that could be launched to also help inspire kids to get excited about something, to feel proud of something, to make them want to learn and improve themselves. We could have programs to explore the oceans, to rebuild our cities, to develop renewable energy sources, and a host of other programs that could also inspire and move us forward. The costs of these programs would be trivial compared to the waste we toss out every year to the Pentagon to maintain our militant and anachronistic arms budget.
Few people in America want to talk politics, even among the intelligentsia. At the rare dinner party one may go to, it is considered gauche to bring up politics, unless you know you share the same viewpoint as the others. The rule is don’t talk about politics or religion. But this is not the case in Europe, where there are far more parties and factions within the society as a whole. It is a rare party indeed in Italy where you don’t talk politics and the likelihood is that you won’t agree with everything everyone says. There is fun in polemic discussion; there is pride in debating, there is respect, even among raised voices, and there is no fear of social consequences. Yet in America, where we supposedly pride ourselves for our right to free speech, there is not in fact free speech at all, for it is conditional: say the wrong thing in the wrong place and you are seen as a bore, too serious, too opinionated, too political. You won’t be invited back, you’re too polemic. So conversations are limited to the latest episode of Ally McBeal or Sammy Sosa or Shaquille O Neal.
We just went through a hotly contested election that finally was decided for the first time in our history by the Supreme Court when it decided to stop counting the votes in Florida, thereby giving the election to Bush (though he lost the popular vote and the Florida vote was closer than the margin of error admitted by the companies that made the voting machines). When it was over it seemed that the country would remain fixated on this issue, and rightly so, for months if not years; the news media prepared to count the votes and finally let us know who would have won had they been totally counted. But it died as a story, replaced soon after by a new fixation é then another: first it was the Clinton pardons, then it was something else, then something else still. Americans forget quickly; they fixate on something, thanks to the 24 hour media, then just as quickly and massively forget about it and fixate on something else. The result: no development at all, we learn nothing at all from anything, and we repeat our mistakes, taking nothing seriously at all except perhaps the new record for most home runs in a season.
No wonder we elect (or appoint) idiots to the highest offices in the land. No wonder the presidential debates remind us of middle school show and tell sessions, analyzed not for content but for style. No wonder most Americans know nothing of the rest of the world and don’t care either; no wonder most Americans have completely misguided ideas about the role of government or its place in the community of nations. Americans, thanks in great part to the transformation of news media into TV entertainment, have extremely superficial views on most issues, yet they believe themselves well informed, as if listening to Bill O Reilly qualifies them as experts in any field. As a result we have a deeply polarized society, yet it is not polarized because of deep understanding from differing points of view (though there are of course scholars on both sides); the majority of Americans, though holding deep convictions are generally poorly informed about the very arguments they feel so deeply about. Issues are often reduced to sound bytes for the simple minded, and these bytes are enough to take a position on. When someone wants to discuss these things more thoroughly, they are social pariahs, bores, tedious.
This tendency is America is another symptom of our stupidization, simplification, and arrogance. It is only through intelligent discourse and polemics that a culture matures, that its people mature and learn and grow and become more sophisticated. But those who try to paint things in black and white tones, to dismiss the gray scale entirely, like to portray people with a taste for polemic and detail as the “intellectual elite”, as if it were some kind of four letter word. When being intellectual is a crime, is it no wonder we elect (or appoint) a man who can’t speak English and can’t tell Slovenia from Slovakia?
The fiasco in Florida, no matter who you might have preferred elected, was a disturbing event, as the Supreme Court justices acted entirely in a partisan manner to decide a case, thereby throwing into utter disrepute the one branch of government that had somehow avoided the cynical criticisms bestowed on Congress and the White House in recent decades. Now our very elections are put into question, the very heart of our democracy. And what is the result? Not much. People have already forgotten about it.
We hear a lot é especially on Fox TV these days é about the need for honesty and integrity. George W made a case for it in his run for office last year, promising to bring it back to the White House, after Clinton’s peccadilloes. But let’s be honest ourselves here:
Let he who casts the first stone be without sin. Anybody out there?
Bush himself was caught out on his drunk driving charges right before the election. Tales of his youthful indiscretions (up to the age of 40) abounded and were never confronted head on; in fact the supposed left wing media gave him a free pass on the well founded charges of his earlier cocaine use in college. His Veep, Cheney, was a director of the company Haliburton, that had subsidiary companies that sold things to Saddam Hussein as recently as last year. The truth in that story? Covered up. Karl Rowe, Bush’s campaign chairman and current advisor numero uno, has been accused of profiting in his dealings with Intel and other corporations. Bush’s energy policies clearly favor the energy companies he used to do business with and who remain his buddies today. His efforts to re-launch a missile defense shield would benefit companies he has had personal dealings with. Many of his efforts to appear “green” é like his Everglades program é are deeply cynical attempts to appear to care about conservation while the details é too complex for most American readers é reveal entirely other plans. Over and over again this administration says one thing and does another, using words to hide actions, and the media, again supposedly a bastion of leftists é says nothing, allowing him to snowball us, until something utterly indefensible é like arsenic in the water é cannot be ignored any longer.
So who is without sin? Where is the trust and integrity? This lack in fact goes well beyond our national politics. We pretend to be a moral country in our international dealings, but in fact we are dishonest to the extreme and often lack integrity entirely. We supported Pinochet, we armed Saddam before we decided he was our enemy, we created Noriega, we supported the Shah, and later the Ayatollah himself, we trained right wing hit squads in Central America. Today we continue to support dictatorial regimes in Asia and Africa when it is politically or economically expedient. We praise ourselves for causing the circumstances that led to the arrest of Milosevic, while inviting the barbaric Ariel Sharon to the White House for consultations. We shake hands with Arafat though he was in part responsible for the murder of athletes at the Munich Olympics and for blowing up airplanes and airports in the 60’s and 70’s. We pretend to care about human life in intervening in Kosovo, yet we sat still in Ruanda and still do nothing at all for 40 million Kurds without a country (though we and England promised them one as far back as 1940) and even helped in the capture of the Kurdish independence leader so he could face capital charges in Turkey (which never faced the consequences of its acts in obliterating Armenians in the past century). We pretend our foreign policy is moral when it is anything but. It is simply random, based on political convenience and expediency, and our “national interests” are often anything but national, but rather corporate or economic. Our international foreign policy therefore is not honest nor is it at all with integrity. So neither our leaders nor our policies are honest é yet these same leaders spend more hot air on these terms than any others, only reinforcing my conviction that the more you hear someone talk about honesty and integrity the more that person probably lacks it.
One thing I hear all the time is that Archie Bunkerism, that refrain that if I despise America so much why don’t I just leave?
Well, I did. And I came back, and being my right as an American to live in America no matter what my feelings or beliefs are, I am entitled to be here. And though this simple minded and instinctively fascist approach to criticism is old hat and identified with flag waving zealots, it is in fact more deeply seated in many normal Americans as well. When I criticize certain American tendencies even to intelligent thoughtful people here I find, if not this suggestion (get lost if you don’t like it) but something very close to it (like “why did you come back then?”).
What these folks don’t seem to understand is that I probably have more love for America in my wanting to see it improved than they do in keeping their mouths shut and accepting its decline. I want to see America regain its spirit of adventure; I want to see America’s democratic institutions reinforced; I want to see America’s talents at entertainment restored to the wit and sophistication of earlier times. I want to see Americans learn to be unafraid of political discourse of substance; I want to see Americans become more aware of the rest of the world and more responsible with this power it has with its wealth and arms. I want to see America get away from the culture of violence, hypocrisy and superficiality. I want to see America’s schools be safer and sources of inspiration, not nihilism. I want to see teachers be more intelligent; I want to see the media be genuinely sophisticated and in depth rather than loaded with sound bytes that fixate on one story and beat it to death until its replaced by another and another. I want to see leaders of real intelligence have a chance in a political system that is by now entirely victim to moneyed interests. I want to see intelligent people be respected not decried as bores and party poopers. I want to see the people care about something other than their own personal well being, learning that the well being of their neighbors has something to do with their own quality of life. I want to see a development and maturation of our culture, in many facets. I would like to see the day when Americans get good health care, no matter if they have money or not. I would like to see an America that loses its love for guns and repeals the outdated and misinterpreted 2nd amendment. I would like to see an America that leads the world, not with arms and armies, but with accomplishments, like leading the way to Mars and into space, like developing cures for diseases, electric battery run vehicles, supersonic aircraft, solar and wind powered energy sources and advanced technologies that can help humanity. I would like to see America wise up, and become a sweeter, warmer place, where the competitive spirit is tempered by the cooperative spirit, where people learn again how to be friendly é genuinely é and warm and affectionate, where political correctness is replaced by true respect for others. In other words I wish to see an America that the founding fathers dreamed of.
If this is impossible, I may very well leave again, to choose a life somewhere else. Everywhere has problems, there are fools and evil people everywhere. The problem is that in America most Americans don’t want to admit these flaws. In Europe, they’ve been around so long, people know their flaws and harbor fewer illusions. I still have hope for America, though sometimes I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because, for all its flaws, America still produces people of unsurpassed optimism. That would be great if it could be used for good purposes, and not corrupted by greed, selfishness, and ignorance.
We can only see what develops, but my fear is that we are entering a period not of progress but of regression. The coldness of our behavior even with respect to friends, colleagues and family members, the lack of any consistent culture of respect to others in our society is the clearest symptom of our increasingly psychotic and disaffected society. It is a terrible shame that with the wealth and opportunity this country possesses and represents, the people of this country, in believing themselves more sophisticated, have become more simple minded, more narrow minded and selfish, helping us become a country on the verge of decline. Only time will tell.