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.


  1. Excellent article with many good points, and I didn't see anything to disagree with. However, I find the last line to be a bit disturbing:

    "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."

    Normally, this would be a great thing, but with America's 16+ trillion debt, I want for America to be the last one to offer any financial aid abroad until it solves its massive debt problem.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Regardless of whether or not one thinks it's a good thing, it's still important for the rest of the world to keep in mind that America does try to reach out and help others. Perpetually painting the US as the "bad guy" misses the point.

  2. You said: "Many Americans can't understand the rest of the world because they've never been to the rest of the world."

    That got me thinking that the reverse is probably true as well.

    And, as you know, it's not about visiting a country so much as living there for an extended period to understand culture and values -- which is hard to do on any mass scale.

  3. Oh, I've been an expat long enough to know that even those who live elsewhere don't often understand. To quote Mr. Twain, "Familiarity breeds contempt...and children." :)

    That being said, bits about the taxes and the healthcare are true in some countries, e.g. Finland. If 40% income tax combined with a 23(or 24 as they raised it this year)% VAT on all purchases isn't considered crushing, I'm not sure what is. And I only had 2 weeks of vacation time (though I think after 10 years it went up to something like 8 weeks). Yes, they have a a very orderly society from the google earth level, but once you live there you start to understand the flaws.

    Sure, you get 'free' (it ain't free, you pay for it, just not at the point of service) healthcare, but you might wait a year for a dental appointment unless you pay out of pocket to see a non-gov provider. It won't leave you destitute, but you aren't going to get the same kind and same level of care that you might have gotten through, say, Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the US.

    The US isn't paradise, but neither is the EU, particularly if you don't have a spouse from the EU country that you're living in. Wait a few years until the boomers really start retiring en masse and those kids who are unemployed now will be expected to pay their's going to be interesting to see how it goes.

  4. Curtis – two points.

    First, America’s generosity in sending help to foreign natural disasters... We should all bear in mind that the American people do not vote in a referendum to send help. The help is arranged by faceless government officials (the State Department, is it?), whose motives are not always pure. Not often pure, perhaps. The US citizenry has little or no say in the US’s interventions for good or evil.

    Second, the growing worldwide resistance to America’s charms ... This can be attributed to America's arrogance. There is plenty of charm in individual Americans, but far too much arrogance in their imperial government and its officials. Americans good: Amerika bad.

    Tribal instincts and attitudes (“my country right or wrong”) are generally weaker in the expat world than in the homelands, and thank God for that. Expat Americans will save their country, if anyone can.

    My blogsite contains several recent posts covering these topics, and I hope I'm not out of line to mention that here. I have manfully resisted the temptation to quote at length from any of them.

    1. Hi Gordon. You've got a great blog and no, you're not out of line mentioning that here!

      Also, note that a lot of the US natural disaster aid comes from charity groups trying to help. Witness the Haiti disaster, for example. That's certainly not government aid, that's American generosity,

  5. I love the insight on your blog and the information you provide on many different countries. I definitely appreciate America and the freedoms it provides. However, the more I find out about how our government handles domestic and foreign policy on a daily basis, the more I become disheartened and dismayed by how far it's fallen.

    Lately I've had this fascination with Russia and its culture. Judging by the propaganda that the U.S. seems to put out there regularly on Russia as well as other countries, its difficult for me to filter the information and find out if it is worthwhile to put forth the effort to study the language and pursue employment there.

    What is your opinion on Russia and is it a good country to be an expat in? I'm also interested in Germany as well and was wondering what your thoughts are on these two countries. Any insight would help. Thanks!