Monday, December 5, 2011

Explaining America to Europeans

Here's an interesting experiment: the next time you're discussing politics with someone, try to do two things:

  • Assume they know nothing about the subject you're talking about
  • Try to be fair to all sides

For example, when a European asks me "why do Americans like guns?", there's a huge amount of background there and aside from a polite nod to the Second Amendment, I doubt there are many Americans who have an interest in politics who can either discuss the history and meaning of the Amendment or are willing to try to be fair in explaining the point of view of those who disagree with them on this topic.

As I'll be moving to France soon, I'm girding myself for the inevitable "defending the homeland" talks. The USA has a lot of problems but when all is said and done, it's a much nicer country than many people give it credit for. That being said, sometimes it gets really, really difficult for me to find any way to put a positive spin on some things. Witness the Republican presidential primary.

Presidential Debates for Morons
Photo by Mike Licht
In a upcoming Presidential debate where we have a Michelle Bachmann, who can most politely be described as as "odd", Herman Cain¹, a politically inexperienced businessman who won't allow Muslims in his cabinet or government because there's a "creeping intent" to introduce Sharia law into the US government, Rick Santorum, a homophobe who wants to let states criminalize gay sex and compares it to "man on dog" sex, we have Ron Paul being excluded from the same debate for his "extreme views." Seems he wants to end US foreign aid. That includes aid to Israel. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the debate in question is hosted by a Jewish group which apparently doesn't see "man on dog" conversations as being extreme enough to exclude someone.

We have a later "Presidential Debate" being hosted by a real estate billionaire and reality TV star and the press worry that candidate John Huntsman is unelectable because ... drumroll please ... he acknowledges both climate change and evolution. Meanwhile, the front runner, Mitt Romney, perhaps the platonic ideal of Republican "family values", has never been entirely trusted for reasons I can't quite grasp (psst ... he's Mormon) and it now appears that Newt Gingrich, the thrice-married adulterer who led the charge against Clinton for his affair, may be anointed the standard bearer of this increasingly right-wing Christian party.

While I disagree with many of Ron Paul's views, shouldn't the voters be the people who decide whether or not someone is has "extreme views"? And honestly, Donald Trump hosting a debate? This is simply embarrassing. So much of US politics appears to be a dog and pony show while the need of the US people to have intelligent, informed discussion is simply being ignored.

So can someone tell me how to spin that in a way that doesn't make the US sound absolutely ridiculous? I can't figure it out.

1. I wrote this before Herman Cain announced he was quitting. Voters had no problem with his idiotic tax plan of the fact that he had no idea that China had nuclear weapons. It was the accusations of sexual impropriety which derailed his campaign.


  1. To try to keep everything neutral, I'd call it a positive-feedback loop. Each cycle we have to top the previous cycle. There is backlash against the political turmoil (the occupy movement and other protests), and though the volume on the insanity may seem to be up past 11 these days, it really is business as usual. The current president holds many centrist viewpoints, so everyone who disagrees has to be extreme about it.

    Mostly, I would say people are angry and scared. When they're angry and scared they are easy to lead around with promises of free candy and pleasant dreams.

    I can think of comparisons to make, but comparing our current class of politicians and pundits to the former Iraqi Information Minister, or the Quebecois who want to secede from Canada, or any other sound-byte-oriented world politics might not make the right argument.

    Maybe you can read some local news and see if there are political groups in France you can compare to?

    This is also relatively early in the game, so the theater is wide open for any crazies that want a shot at the Oval Office. Give it time and the crazies will self-immolate, like Cain.

  2. "So can someone tell me how to spin that in a way that doesn't make the US sound absolutely ridiculous?"

    No. Because it is ridiculous.

  3. You're going to a country where a person like Le Pen not only has been a presidential candidate, but even made it to the second round of the elections. I don't think it's *you* who has to defend presidential candidates.

  4. @Abigail: you are right about Le Pen, but the issue with Le Pen is more complicated than it appears. That was a strong protest vote by the French people. They people were not voting for Le Pen. They were voting against the system. They were doing so in the first round of the French elections when people casting a protest vote for Le Pen knew that he could not win. The French were so horrified by the result that Chirac beat Le Pen in the second round in the biggest landslide win in modern French history.

    That being said, while he's remained a sad force in French politics, I'm more concerned about his daughter, Marine Le Pen. She appears to be more popular than her father and because she's slightly toned down her speech, she may prove to be the real threat.

  5. By definition, about half the people (anywhere) have an IQ below 100. Some of those with double digit IQ's WILL have learned to think, though they may do so slowly and make some mistakes along the way.

    Of those with IQ's 100 and above, some will be lazy and refuse to think. Some will not have bothered to learn to think and some will think proficiently yet hold differing opinions.

    A US politician's job is to get votes. Getting the votes of those who can't think usually consists of showing those people that they have something in common with the politician ("He's just like me!"). Getting the votes of those who refuse to think usually involves figuring out what they want and promising it to them, even if what they want makes no sense. Getting the votes of the remainder that can and do think regularly is an exercise in diminishing returns....

    I'm sorry, I'm making myself sad.