Friday, July 13, 2012

Pax Americana

I’m usually not particularly impressed with columns and posts and treatises and pretentiously idiotic monologues on half-baked pay-TV series that detail exactly why the Unites States sucks. I’m not a full-on, balls-to-the-wall nationalistic patriot: I’m proud of the country I live in, but part of that pride is because I know that we live with huge problems. I’m under no illusions that America is perfect, and anyone who says so is kind of a moron.

That said, I’ve always believed that the quite specific form of government we have is the best at distilling these problems, so even if we're not perfect we have mechanisms to fix them that other national identities don't. Sure, it’s clunky and messy and frustrating, but it’s important to remember that this is how it was designed. We don’t want an efficient government. We want consensus joined with a baseline level of liberty. Any time you think to yourself that the two-party system is hyperpartisan, just remember that the alternative is that one party always gets what they want.

Anyway, so when I came across this screed by Mark Manson about “Ten ThingsAmericans Don’t Know About America,” I was initially ready to write it off as yet another down-with-America post. Yet when I read it, I realized that while I don’t agree with his overall conclusion, his specific assertions are actually not far off. 
Go ahead and read the link above, and I’ll give my thoughts on each of his ten points:

1.       Few People are Impressed By Us: Sounds fairly accurate. I think it’s a little unfair, though: we only hear about the people that care about us, so obviously our bias is going to think that’s the case across the world population. There’s no headline in our papers stating “Majority of residents in Latvia don’t give a shit about you.” Still, the point is valid and makes sense.

2.       Few People Hate Us: Pretty much the same as above; we only hear the bad stuff. 

3.       We Know Nothing About The Rest Of The World: Guilty as charged. However, I’ll offer a defense: For other nations, they really only need to know about three or four nations besides their own (The US, China, a major European nation or two, and their neighbors). America has to keep tabs on almost 200 different nations in order to not be accused of global ignorance. If we only have, say, ten in-depth news articles to read in a week, we’re never going to make it down the list to Zambia or Belarus. That’s one of the many drawbacks of being on top.

4.       We Are Poor At Expressing Gratitude and Affection: I agree. I just chalk this up to cultural differences, though, so I have no real problem with it.

5.       The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great: This is one  point I don’t agree with. His point is that only those of great intellect or talent rise to the top, while everyone else is crowded in the slums. Despite the current class-war rhetoric, this isn’t even close to being right; except for the most extreme poor, everyone is living much higher than the worldwide level of standard comfort. Plus, America is a historically competitive nation, and I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing; it's part of what made us a legitimate superpower.

6.       The Rest Of The World is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us: While I agree up to a point, there’s also a lot of extreme poverty in the world that even the poorest on our nation aren’t at. The writer holds up examples such as Norway and Singapore, but those really aren’t the problem areas we’re thinking about. I don’t think there are a whole lot of people claiming that Europe or even Asia is some weakened kobold scraping by (although you may want to skip any articles about Greece or Spain if you’re trying to prove this)—in fact, it was only two decades ago we were worried about Japan “catching up,” and now it’s China, and three or four decades ago even South America was on the economic watch list. So I think that Americans only think parts of the world are slum-ridden shitholes, and the parts we’re thinking about otherwise are fairly accurate.

7.       We’re Paranoid:  I generally agree. I think that security theater needs to be reduced, and a lot of our angst is generated from our lawsuit-driven legal system. As far as being paranoid about tourism, the writer is probably right, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to feel like you’re a target when you’re an American abroad.

8.       We’re Status-Obsessed and Seek Attention: Very true, although I think it’s more to do with the medium now than any drastic increase in narcissism. We have the ability to instantly tell everyone exactly how we feel via social media, and there’s hundreds of television stations instead of just four or five. And for the first time pretty much anyone can make music or film something and instantly be available for the entire world to see, so the capability to put ourselves out there has dramatically changed in less than a decade. We’ve always been this way, it’s just easier to do it now. Still, I think there’s just as much status-seeking in plenty of cultures in the world; it’s just American culture is remarkably global.

9.       We Are Very Unhealthy: Also true. However, his assertions about the reasons our health care and prescriptions are so expensive are off a little. (For example: health care isn’t “cheaper” if you’re paying higher taxes that pay for it.) I won’t go into it much right now simply because it’s outside of the scope of this analysis. There are plenty of reasons outside of simply eating poorly (for example, we spend a lot—I mean a lot—of money in the last years of our lives, while the culture of most other nations treat this stage of life quite differently.) But it’s certainly a problem.

1       We Mistake Comfort For Happiness:  I don’t necessarily disagree with this point, but I also don’t think it’s a huge issue—different people are happy about different things. I guess my thought on this one is “so what?”
While I agree with nearly all of these points (albeit perhaps not as strongly), I think the overall conclusion is wrong. America has undoubtedly been the most successful nation in nearly all metrics for about three or four decades after World War II, and for three or four decades after that still the overall winner if not first place in all relevant categories. And I think we were successful largely because of these differences listed above, not despite them. Being status-obsessed and comfortable (#8 and #10) also made us competitive. Our perception of how others view us (#1, #2) and how we view them (#3, #6, #7) are a by-product of our success, not a cause for our downfall; by being the best, our perception is skewed. And the drawbacks we have (#4, #5, #9) are, relatively speaking, not that bad. The problem with comparing nations is that each nation has a trade-off that doesn’t show up on the balance sheet.

Americans could improve on nearly all of these points. My own list of grievances would be much more geared towards our expectations of society to the individual (and thus much more boring). Still, it may be a touch of jingoism in my blood to think that someone who claims that the average Joe in, say, Columbia has it just as good as an America is flat-out wrong.

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