May 3, 2006

American Introspection

Posted in Rants and Ruminations at 9:02 am by jyesis

I have been trolling the internet again, paying particular attention to international forums in various subjects, and I have noticed a marked increase in traffic critical of the United States. As I read these posts, I tried to form rational arguments in favor of the United States, but came up short on many fronts. While I was able to laud America's contributions to the world over the past two centuries, I found that current American action, speech, and policy was much harder to defend. A recent article on slashdot about a study comparing UK and US health statistics resulted in the forum being flooded with responses critical of multiple aspects of American society including healthcare, economy, lifestyle, global perspective, and more. Even after filtering out confrontational (troll) responses, several educated arguements remained that challenged the prevailing self-opinion of America at large.

Now let me insert a disclaimer here. I realize that no opinion, action, etc, can be attached to a group on account of the presence within that group of individuals with dissenting or alternative opinions. I speak of the self-opinion of America, therefore, based on the expressed opinions as portrayed by the type and content of articles in the mainstream media, the responses of the vast majority of Americans in the forums I have been browsing (excluding the small handful of worldy Americans with well thought out responses), and the opinions of fellow students and coworkers who have astounded me with their lack of perspective. I have the deepest respect for those citizens who have made the effort to expand their perspectives, including those who are able to form a cogent arguement contrary to my own opinions. This post should in no way be applied to them. It should, however, be applied to that mass of people who believe themselves to be exempted by the above disclaimer but who couldn't find the Ivory Coast on a map or who give confused looks at a question on the merits of a parliamentary system.

Returning to the matter at hand, I will endeavor to summarize some of the broader critiques of the U.S. presented by those living elsewhere. As the article referenced above is healthcare related, let's start there. A common critique is that healthcare in the US is prohibitively expensive and results in a poorer overall national quality of health. For the amount of money the US spends on healthcare each year (ranked among the highest in the world), the quality of US healthcare is abysmal by comparison (one of the poorest of "industrialized" nations) according the the WHO. One poster took this a step farther and questioned the economic model that has led to America's market-driven healthcare system. While his comments are insightful, they offer little in the way of alternatives. Many of the American comments in the same thread indicate a preference for Canadian-like socialized medicine, or UK-like government medicine. I personally think that the German system would work well with a few modifications. All these systems have weaknesses, but I agree with the WHO that healthcare is a right not a service. Unfortunately, too many US responses among fellow students with whom I have discussed this simply shrug and say "we're still the best," or blame it on "statistics skewed by minorities." Ahh….future leaders of America.

One of my other favorite anti-American critiques is brought up in a subthread of the slashdot article which indicates that Americans know little to nothing about other countries in the world. I am ashamed to say that I agree with this sentiment. I'm a year from graduating here at the University of Iowa, and most of my fellow students still can't distinguish Iraq from Iran on a world map. Hmm…..that explains a lot, I think…. One thread offers an explanation (excuse?) for this phenomenon. I can think of NO EXCUSE for this ignorance, particularly if Americans wish to involve themselves so pointedly in the affairs of other nations. Not all of us have to major in geography, but we should be able to locate the Red Sea without Google or Wikipedia. Don't even get me started on American multilingualism. While the US dollar and the logistical power of the US military act much in the same way as the British Navy of old, they do not give America carte blanche to do as they will heedless of future consequences. There is a fine line between the catastrophic collapse (a la Ottoman empire) and graceful decline (a la UK) of a global "superpower". No influence, whatever it's ideals, lasts forever. The US cannot rest on the laurels of WWII any more than the UK could bask in the defeat of Napoleon. The world keeps turning, and constant change renders what was once a revolutionary idea a commonplace concept.

So what's my point in all this? Mainly to draw the attention of "my fellow Americans" to the consequences of willful blindness driven by complacense, righteousness, and arrogance. I also submit that a handful of hard-working citizens who have made an effort to expand their horizons can do much to change the course of history. We must not rest on our laurels either, confident in our education and ability and contributing little to society in return. With education and perspective comes responsibility, and it is our duty to ourselves, our families, and our world to introduce new ideas that contribute to humanity as a whole. 300 years ago a few courageous forward thinkers introduced the (as yet imperfected) concept of individual liberty. 300 years later, it is time for us to introduce new ideals to the world that will forward the cause of compassion and humanity. Once again, I call for change inspired by our daily actions and examples.


1 Comment »

  1. Norman said,

    Regarding the situation in the US about foreign languages, the situation certainly is deplorable. I live in Seattle, WA, a city crawling with immigrants, yet very few Americans value picking up an additional language. I’ve been here for 30 years, and I’m the only one at various jobs that showed any interest in foreign languages at the workplace. First it was German, spoken by a couple of Austrians. In a crew of up to 40 I was the only American who showed any inclination to BS with them in their own language.

    Later on, it was the same with the Cambodians. I took it upon myself to start at the bottom and learn the pleasantries. At first they all laughed at my pronunciation, but no matter, as I’ve been laughed at before. I certainly cannot claim that I’m anywhere near being bilingual in Cambodian, but at least I can ask and give directions and have simple conversations entirely in the language. Education has nothing to do with the attitude. My most recent job included plenty of people with BA degrees, yet I was the only one who showed the slightest interest or inclination to speak anything outside of English.

    Americans just don’t get it. Jabbering away in a different language means everything. The humor is different; the exclusivity and privacy are a riot. One can say the darndest things with impunity and only a select few are privy to the joy and frequent hilarity. In the sense of the here and now it’s pure, unadulterated entertainment.

    Me, I have a BA in History from the University of Colorado, including what amounted to a Minor in German. Within a year of graduating, I found myself on a Kibbutz in Israel, where I learned nuts and bolts Hebrew, which is considerably more than happens with most Americans. Back in the US I took a few years of night school and learned a lot of Russian. These days I take advantage of the sizable collection of Russian language novels in the Public Library as well as numerous websites in Russia, where I get to read different, often contrary views about world politics and culture.

    Why should I be so different?

    Norman Smith
    Seattle, WA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: