Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Oh, Oh, Amerika

 I just read the book by that title, written by the Dutchman Charles Groenhuijsen (2015).

The premise of the book is similar to that of Rick Nieman’s What we Can Learn from America: An Optimistic Story about the Promised Land (2015), which we reviewed a few months ago (see What we Can Learn from America). While it provides a detailed critique of most of America’s many flaws, its basic theme is that the country is on the road to progress, and that it enjoys many advantages over Europe. In other words, it is one more optimistic and sympathetic analysis of the USA coming from the Netherlands. Interesting.

In this article, I will summarize Groenhuijsen’s book, and conclude that (1) the author is overly optimistic and that (2) his prognosis might have been more negative if he had written the book AFTER Donald Trump’s election rather than just a few months before.

First, what is good about America, according to Groenhuijsen?

● For one thing, Americans are becoming more liberal in their lifestyle. Gay marriage is now the law of the land, more and more jurisdictions are legalizing recreational marijuana, the country is becoming more secular; church attendance is declining, etc.

● With Obamacare, America finally joins the rest of the civilized world in providing (near-) universal health insurance.

● America’s economy is vibrant and incredibly innovative. Silicon Valley (Google, Apple, Facebook) and other giants such as Starbucks and Uber dominate the world.

● Immigration is vigorous; America remains the world’s primary destination for emigrants.

But what about the bad news?

● America’s income and wealth inequality has grown to a shameful level. The country’s poverty and homelessness are by far the worst of the industrialized world.

● All the same, the government refuses to provide an adequate safety net for the working class, be it unemployment compensation, sick leave, parental leave, or paid vacation.

● Thus, Americans work much harder and longer hours than the rest of the developed world, and they enjoy lower quality of life.

● Criminal violence remains far higher than in comparable countries. This is due to the extremely high rate of gun ownership - twenty-five times greater than in the Netherlands and most of Western Europe.

● At the same time, the criminal justice system dispenses little justice and no rehabilitation. America has the largest prison population on earth. Its police force murders several thousand citizens each year, many of them defenseless, half of them black.

● The country’s priorities are out of whack. The US spends as much on its armed forces as all other countries combined. Donald Trump gave a recent speech on the new aircraft carrier Gerald Ford. This ship’s unit cost was $13 billion, and its program cost was $36 billion. This is the equivalent of Arizona’s annual budget, and more than the budget of the University of California.

Another example: It costs the taxpayer $30 million per month to secure the Trump Tower in New York. That is more than the budget of the California State University in Sacramento, with its 30,000 students. But we can’t afford to fix our roads and our schools, provide health insurance and an adequate safety net for the entire population.

● Our political system is undemocratic: Due to the electoral college and the bi-cameral system, we do not have one-man-one vote. Politicians are often elected by minorities, not majorities.

● Race relations: Judging from rates of inter-marriage, America’s most prominent racial divide - black vs. white - seems to be lessening, even though the total percentage of black-white marriages is still under 10% (Interracial Marriage). However, it is not clear that the country is any more “post-racial” today than it was in the 1960s. The “Black Lives Matter” movement attests to this, as does the enormous discrepancy between black and white income and wealth. African-Americans’ average net worth is one tenth (!) of that of whites. Groenhuijsen’s analysis of this problem is the book’s only major error: In Chapter 3.3 and again at the end, the author puts far too much emphasis on blacks’ “self-destructive” behavior, as contributing to black disadvantage. He quotes people like Bill Cosby, who have often talked about peer pressure among black youth that derides scholastic achievement and studiousness as “acting white.”

He also brings back Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s half-century old indictment of the single-headed “matriarchal” black family as a root cause of black crime and poverty (see The Moynihan Report). However, sociologists have shown (for example Lee Rainwater) that blaming the female-headed family for black delinquency is a flawed argument. There is no scientific evidence that the traditional father-mother bourgeois family is the only model that guarantees proper socialization. In Scandinavia, for example, the two-headed bourgeois family has long ceased to be the norm, yet the rates of delinquency there are minimal. There are many ways to skin a cat - and to raise children. By focusing on blacks’ alleged self-inflicted shortcomings, Groenhuijsen here is blaming the victim. American racism is institutional and attitudinal. Groenhuijsen is right in pointing out that the younger generation - the millennials - seems to do better in this regard.

● The most worrisome item on the negative side of the ledger is Donald Trump’s unforeseen election. With the prospect of Obamacare’s repeal, a crackdown on immigrants and a host of other retrograde measures, all bets about American progress are now off. Statements by the author such as “obamacare is here to stay” (p. 353) remain to be seen.

Therefore, I was NOT left with optimism after reading this book. A couple of years ago, a Dutch friend (or maybe a frenemy) of mine said to me: “What an awful country you live in!” This sort of narrow-minded anti-Americanism by smug European intellectuals used to drive me up the wall. But now? Was he right?

Groenhuijsen even provides statistics to support my frenemy: Surveys show that the US ranks rather low on happiness scales. People such as the Danes, the Dutch, the Swiss and other Europeans rank much higher.

So here is my take:

Yes, there are many deplorable conditions in this country. Many Americans are unhappy, angry and nihilistic. Many social and economic conditions are bad. Furthermore, things are getting worse, not better. But am I just engaging in one more anti-American diatribe, another cheap shot from European intellectuals (Groenhuijsen and Kando)?

I hope not. I am stuck here. I made my bed and I have to lie in it. The one intangible good which attracted me to America, and which hasn’t disappointed me yet: A sort of general FREEDOM which comes with this country’s unique culture, diversity and history. I don’t mean the legal and political freedom of which there is more in places like Holland, with its extremely liberal policies on drugs, euthanasia, sex and just about everything else. I am talking about the fact that in America, you are free to act, look and BE whatever you wish. You are less likely to be harassed, criticized, messed with. American culture is nonchalantly tolerant. It is also more SPONTANEOUS - both for good and for bad. Yes, there is much conflict and violence, but there is also a great deal of Good Samaritanism. 

America remains a vast project. Now, more than ever, it requires a lot of work. We had eight good years under Obama. We can get back on track. There is hope. America is not a lost cause. And the American project is important not only for America, but for the whole world.

Two of America’s most dangerous weaknesses are:

1. A kind of “international ignorance.” Americans think that the world stops at the country’s borders. This ignorance in a rapidly shrinking and globalized world will lead to many errors - economic, political and military.

2. (This is one of Groenhuijsen’s main points): Americans don’t trust “government:” They deny the possibility of a benevolent and problem-solving government. Thus, the country’s communal, national problems are unlikely to ever be tackled collectively and efficiently. It was not always so. During the New Deal, the Johnson presidency and at other times, there was no such inordinate distrust of government. It has spread as a result of relentless propaganda emanating from the corporate world. A strong anti-government corporate culture exists elsewhere too, but in the US it has come to dominate legislatures and much of public opinion.

It is nonsense to grandiloquently call America the “most powerful and most modern country in the world” (e.g. p. 297). This is tired, overused and incorrect. America happens to be BIG. But “Big” is not synonymous with “Best.” There are other big countries - Brazil, Russia, India - and they are a mess. China is also very big, but it is not very nice.

Perhaps the most optimistic and probably true thing Groenhuijsen writes, is that no single individual, no President, no Donald Trump, has the power to turn the clock back (pp. 354-5); that no matter what, America will remain in the 21st century. Trends such as secularization are irreversible. In other words, even Trump won't be able to ruin things. Let’s chill, and get to work to make sure of that!

© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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