Sunday, January 18, 2015

Is the U.S.A. Off Its Rocker? Most Other Nations Believe So

Scene at an astronomy workshop for secondary school teachers in Georgetown, Guyana in August, 1978. After each session I was peppered with questions about the U.S. its foreign policies and educational system.

To anyone born after 1996 or so, it is unlikely the nation would appear to have "lost its marbles" (although older citizens should have seen warning signs from the Reepos' impeachment of Clinton for a sex act, and Bush's sleeping  (errrr, sitting, reading a child's book) on the job when the 9/11 terror attacks struck  - then using it as an excuse to pump up the defense -security enclave to monstrous proportions while also repealing habeas corpus in the Military Commissions Act of 2006).

But though the evidence may be marginal in terms of a recent time perspective it is in so-called "neon lights" for those of us who've been paying attention to the national scene since the early 1960s.

We've watched the United States  slowly deteriorate in terms of its quality of life (from the time only a single parent had to work to support a family) to now when even two wage earners can't earn enough for decent housing, food and utilities.  We've seen the decaying infrastructure all around us as once grand bridges - as well as water and sewer systems built in the 1950s-60s - are now coming apart literally,  with no effort to replace or maintain them. In the intervening years we've also seen the nation- spellbound by rhetoric-  unravel its already flimsy safety net, fail to replace it even as organized labor has been diminished. This coinciding with the erosion education in most of our schools. Let' not even get into how our national legislature  has been brought to a standstill, and create the greatest degree of economic and social inequality in almost a century.

As I also learned when I worked for 20 years in Barbados, Americans who live abroad — more than six million  worldwide currently-  also face hard questions about our country. We're peppered  by people we live among, whether Europeans, Asians,  West Indians or Africans, who ask us to explain everything that baffles them about the increasingly odd and troubling conduct of the United States.  Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, complain that America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality” have gone on for too long to be considered just an adolescent phase. Which means that we Americans abroad are regularly asked to account for the behavior of our rebranded “homeland,” now conspicuously in decline and increasingly out of step with the rest of the world.

Questions I've had to confront over two decades have included:
* Why do so few average Americans understand science?
* How can your people speak of the rule of law when your presidents break international laws to make war whenever they want?
* How can American voters cede the power to blow up the planet to one lone, ordinary man with a 'football'?
* How can Americans throw away the Geneva Conventions whenever it suits your fancy?
* Why do you Americans like guns so much?  Why do you kill each other at such a rate?
* How can so many average Americans still be so blind to the reality of climate change?
Often my attempts to address such questions, whether in college classes, cocktail parties (at the British High Commissioner's) or even following astronomy workshops at the Harry Bayley Observatory, were met with stark skepticism. For example, I'd say: 'Well - it just happens that America possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and when a person becomes President he "inherits" the responsibility for when to key in the 'football' should the Russians, or whomever launch a first strike.'

At other times - such as the first question and last - I'd simply admit the  inferiority of the American educational system in most cases, to the British,  which system is still used in the West Indies. I'd also refer to the power of local school boards which were directly responsible for doing their own thing and omitting critical areas (say like evolution in biology, or large civil protests in American History) if they didn't like them.

But to many foreign citizens,  since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, the most baffling and important question of all is: Why do you send your military all over the world to stir up more and more trouble for all of us?
Most West Indians, including Bajans, saw no point or purpose to our involvement in Vietnam, for example, and didn't see it as our business to intervene in an Asian civil land war. (They also thought the 'Domino theory' to be an excuse to butt in, like the "Bush doctrine") Others are still seething over the involvement of the U.S. in blowing up a Cuban airline (CU-455) r off Barbados' southwest coast on October 6, 1976. The bombing cost 73 lives and was the bloodiest terror episode in the Western Hemisphere before 2001.

The other event which riles people no end is the assassination of a "good and decent American president", John F. Kennedy, and most foreigners are well aware of the background of the CIA's involvement and don't buy that "one lone gunman" did it. They concur it was a conspiracy and plausibly forged by our security state in league with the military.  They also are convinced it paved the way for our future psychosis - since the truth has been kept concealed by our officialdom - who refused to even release key files 50 years after. See also:

Did I resent the barrage of questions? Only some of them, and some of the time. But mainly it indicated the extent of curiosity about the U.S. but also that most Americans have no idea just how strange we seem to much of the world. As noted in the link above while we were in Germany two years ago, those German observers were far better informed about us than the average American is about them.

We already know this is partly because the “news” in the American corporate media is so parochial and so limited in its views both of how we act and how other countries think.  And while our people can afford to keep their noses in smartphones, Ipads and remain deaf, dumb and blind to external reality, foreign citizens can't be so cavalier. After all, who knows when we will threaten  to be at war with the next enemy of the moment? America’s belligerence alone, not to mention its financial acrobatics, compels the rest of the world to keep close track of us. 

Most unnerving to me, in Barbados visits-  especially last year and in 2010, and in two European visits (in Austria and Germany in 2013 and Switzerland last year) was the subtext of American "insanity" that lingers on the tongues of many. Our actions then, speak louder than our principles and words and often contradict them - indicating at least a cognitive dissonance, but to many being out of touch with reality.
For example, as my German friends Reinhardt and Elli put it:  How is it ordinary Americans in startling numbers have been persuaded to dislike “big government” and yet support (by their votes) representatives, bought and paid for by the rich?  How to explain that?

And as one Bajan friend who'd recently visited the U.S. put it: How can we allow our roads and bridges to collapse while we hail each new high in the DOW? Is that not insanity? Are not the roads, bridges needed for transport and the water mains needed for water conveyance more important than an artificial number that can change any given day? I have  had no answers for such questions. So I have had to admit (from their perceptions)  the country is indeed off its rocker.

Others have pointed out that we spend more on our health system than any other nation yet are ranked below Slovenia in assorted charts? Is that not insane? Well, uh yes, I guess so. I do point out that the ACA (Obamacare) has made a dent but not nearly enough and many states (like Texas) won't even accept a key part of it, Medicaid.
Some other writers along these same issues have opined that  "crazy may be too strong a word, too broad and vague to pin down the problem" but I am not so sure.  Yes, it is possible Americans are merely “ill-informed,” “misguided,” “misled,” or “asleep,” and could still recover sanity.  But I still keep returning to Einstein's fundamental definition of insanity: doing he same thing over and over, while expecting a different result.

And that description fits the U.S. to a tee: starting new wars and military adventures but expecting a different outcome each time - but it never comes; playing loose with the financial markets and almost bringing them down with swap derivatives- then five years later passing a law to make it possible again. Allowing infrastructure to crumble year after year while we chase the magic numbers in the DOW - and are no better off with our basic property. And opining how we have 'advanced on race' but always seem to revert to what we were, as in the 1950s, 1960s.

The country as a whole needs a head check and needs one soon. I am sure few Rwandans in 1990 saw the signs their nation would unravel and suffer a massive breakdown and genocide in 1994, just as I am sure few Germans saw it in 1933, just after Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor simply on the basis of getting a plurality of votes. 'Why worry about that guy?' they joked. 'What can he do?  (Big business, meanwhile, like Krupp - believed they could manipulate him to their own ends). They soon found out otherwise and that der Fuhrer had his way with them.

Hopefully, our people come to their collective senses - meaning sanity - before they make similar mistakes. Say like electing Ted Cruz and Chris Christie next year as Vice-President and President, respectively.

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