Friday, September 14, 2012

America Versus the World

US Flag
By PS-OV-ART Patty Sue O'Hair-Vicknair, Artist
Disclaimer: this an opinion piece which won't help you find a new country to live in. Feel free to disregard.

America is a fantastic country. Despite the naysayers, America does have a strong, proud culture. We're individualists. We experiment. We have a very "can do" attitude. We believe passionately in the freedom of speech. Hollywood, despite those who like to criticize it, does a smashing job of putting out fantastic films along with the crap. There's a reason why American films are so popular around the world and it's not just because everyone is pining to move to America.

On the other hand, there are some other aspects of American culture which aren't that great. Perhaps the most pernicious is people who know nothing about the rest of the world who nonetheless insist that we're better than the rest. I have heard all of the following canards at one time or another:
  • People in Europe are struggling under the weight of crushing taxes
  • Europe is becoming a Soviet super-state
  • Socialized medicine rations care and effectively leaves people without health care
  • People in South America live in tin shacks on a few dollars a day
  • Everybody in the world wants to live in the USA
  • US expats are all rich and greedy
There's plenty more and I would assume that most readers of this blog have a somewhat more knowledgeable worldview, but there's really no way I'm going to be able to convince the rest of America that the world isn't exactly as they imagine it to be. When you have an America where some Republicans feel Governor Romney deserves more credit for killing Osama bin Laden than President Obama, you're just not going to get through to some people. There's a concept called "motivated reasoning" whereby some people only assimilate information in relation to a goal or belief and don't reassess the belief, regardless of said information. From the article linked above:
Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and Jason Reifler of Georgia State ran experiments measuring whether partisans who read news articles with correct information that ran against their ideological views were likelier to hold the right factual beliefs. They found the opposite effect — correcting people, in other words, doesn’t inform them, it creates a backlash.
(To be clear, the article stresses that both conservatives and liberals fall prey to this)

While musing about this, I stumbled across an article with a very provocative headline: To Make America Great Again, We Need to Leave the Country. The article makes two points very clear, both of which I can personally attest to. First, non-Americans are turning away from the US, being far less likely to point to the US as a model for how to run the world. Second, Americans have no idea what's going on outside her borders. Many Americans can't understand the rest of the world because they've never been to the rest of the world. The assumption is that as bad as things are in America, it's as bad or worse everywhere else.

The reality is that for the rest of the world, sometimes it's as bad, sometimes it's worse, and sometimes it's better. "Better", of course, is a terribly subjective term. For many Americans, living in a country with five weeks of vacation time, universal access to health care, and shorter work weeks would be an abomination because the unemployment rate is marginally higher than that of the US, or because the president of that country is a Socialist.

Just as the rest of the world shouldn't engage in the knee-jerk reaction that all of American culture is bad, neither should Americans assume that the rest of the world is worse than America. However, watching the health care "debate" in the US puts everything into perspective: by no objective standard could it be argued that any other major industrialized nation has a worse health care system than the US, yet that was the argument often made. Further, the Republicans made the individual mandate the centerpiece of their health care reform for two decades (after all, it's a giveaway to insurance companies), before the Republicans turned rabidly against the individual mandate when it was included in Obama's health care reform in an attempt to compromise with them.

In a telling quote from the "Leave the Country" article:
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 17 percent of Americans believe our national government possesses the consent of the governed. These numbers may not seem shocking, because they've been low for so long. But not always. In 1964, Pew found 77 percent of Americans expected their government to do "the right thing" most of the time.
I won't write my thoughts on that because, like a koan, you need to contemplate that for yourself.

At the end of the day, so many outside the US have strong opinions about the America, usually based on the political mess back home. But like Americans who have no ideas what the rest of the world is like, too many non-Americans are quick to pass judgment on America. It's worth reminding them that when natural disasters strike around the world, the US is one of the first to come forward, offering to help, often with large amounts of aid.
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