22 November 2010

Just How Lucky We Are

I have recently come to terms with just how lucky I am to be an American...

Before I explain what I mean, allow me to explain what I don't mean. While I am most certainly proud to be an American, I am not going to sit here and proclaim that America is the greatest country and that all others should bow in our presence. Sure, there are lots of good things about America, most of which even those who claim to be anti-American must admit. For instance, America has long been known as the land of opportunity, a place where millions of people from around the world dream about as their ultimate home, many of whom never actually get the chance to make that dream a reality. America has all of the latest gadgets, an advanced postal system, a government that, while dysfunctional most of the time, does not directly persecute or otherwise seek to harm its own citizens, and an economic system that has pushed the world to new heights (yes, I am aware that capitalism is controversial and even hated by many people, but the point is that the American system has allowed for advancements and developments in the world that otherwise would only have been possible in the very distant future, if possible even at all.) America also has a judicial system that, while not perfect, is leaps and bounds ahead of any other system on the planet. Like I said, in many ways, America is good.

I am also willing to admit that America can be quite bad. The aforementioned and lightly praised economic system has lead to a disparity of income that in some cases is knocking on the door of human rights violations and in all cases is an embarrassment to the legacy of the country. America's public education system fails to provide a modern, relevant education to its children and leaves minorities in the dust at every turn, and while whites are far luckier and more privileged in the current system, the education that it provides this majority group isn't much to be applauded, either. The American people are also incredibly wasteful, comprising only 6% of the world's population but producing about 50% of the world's trash. A recent New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope cites that American's waste 25-50% of all the food that is produced in the United States. Beyond that, many Americans are arrogant, tribalist creatures who are unwilling to entertain the idea that being American doesn't, in fact, make them any better than anyone else.

The point to all of this rambling is to say that America is both good and bad, and while many people will angrily argue either side of that coin without actually ever listening to the other perspective, that is not the debate that I am trying to ignite. The idea that I want to promote is the notion that instead of arguing about America's greatness or terribleness, US citizens should be talking about just how lucky they are to be able to carry that label around. Allow me to outline this concept...

First of all, it is important for me to initially note that not everyone in America benefits from being an American. I am aware that there are people (mostly rural poor) who benefit very little from their homeland's identity, but this group is quite small when compared to its percentage of the overall population. That is not to say that those people don't matter or that since they are such a small minority that they don't count. Instead, I mean to acknowledge that group while making a qualifying statement that the remainder of my points do not necessarily apply to those people within it.

The overwhelming majority of Americans benefit greatly from the happenstance of their birth, and many of them don't even realize it. The debates about same-sex marriage, gun control, educational reform, and economic policy are often inundated with claims that America is the sovereign-entity incarnation of the devil, himself, while failing to recognize that America is one of the only countries in the world where such debates are even allowed to be had. Americans don't fear governmental punishment for the expression of opinions. Individuals and groups alike can march up and down any street they want holding signs, banners, and toting bullhorns to protest or support any number of causes, free of charge and free of persecution. While our school system is floundering and does not compete with the top-tiered nations, the fact that we have a public education system in which boys, girls, rich, and poor are all allowed to participate sets us apart from a large portion of the world and makes us the envy of millions. While race relations in America are not where we think that they should be, the reality is that they are far better than most places in the world, even in so called progressive Europe, where in many cases, African, Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants are treated like second class citizens, not seen as equals, and given little opportunity to advance themselves in societal systems. (Many Europeans would disagree wholeheartedly with the previous statement, but just a few weeks of observation with a fresh perspective will prove this to be generally true.)

In the overwhelming majority of cases, poverty in the United States doesn't even begin to compare to poverty in the rest of the world. Yes, poverty is an issue in America, and there are many who struggle on a daily basis, but it is the definition of struggle that makes Americans different, and lucky. Poverty in America often means receiving governmental assistance, wearing clothes that are old and dirty, not receiving adequate preventative healthcare, living in an area with a higher crime rate and a lower level of education, having a glass ceiling to cap off social mobility, being subject to a cycle of poverty that takes generations to dig out of, if ever. Poverty in much of the rest of the world means not eating at regular intervals and succumbing to malnutrition, being subject to diseases like malaria and cholera that are unable to be contained due to lack of resources and expertise, no running water, no electricity, widespread illiteracy, unreliable emergency services, outdated medical care (if any), fearing violence at the hands of renegade militant groups and corrupt government officials who kidnap, rape, and kill their own people.

Ultimately, we Americans should be proud of the problems that we have, because in many cases, they aren't even really problems at all. Yes, our economy seems to be fading rapidly, BUT our GDP is still much higher than any other prosperous nation. Yes, we have a healthcare system that underserves its people and costs hundreds of times more than it should in many cases, BUT our people aren't dying from epidemic-like, curable diseases that run rampant due to a lack of knowledge and/or resources. Yes, we have a government that is no longer for the people and that makes decisions on a daily basis that are seemingly leading to our demise as a superpower, BUT no one fears that the government is going to raid his house in the middle of the night, raping his wife and children or taking a machete to his neck. Yes, blacks, latinos, women and homosexuals do not stand on an entirely even playing field with the white American male, BUT those minority groups have the right to express their opinions, fight for their rights, and make progress, even if it is slow progression. The fact that there even is a "race debate," "educational reform," "healthcare reform" and a "Prop 8" shows that people are discussing, arguing, working and pushing for a better America. Those sorts of things don't happen in most other places, and even in the places where they do happen, they don't happen to the degree that they do in America.

The beautiful thing about all of America's problems is the realization that many of them are a result of the standard to which we hold ourselves. For many years, America has been seen as the benchmark on several topics, human rights, economic progression, creativity and business marketing, social equality and mobility, healthcare. These are all things that Americans expect to execute perfectly, things that are not perfect anywhere, nor will they ever be. With great power comes great responsibility, and with great success comes high expectations. Americans should be mad at themselves for a lot of which goes on in our country, not necessarily because they are so awfully atrocious, but because they could and should be better. Americans should expect more from our society in lots of ways, not because our society is lacking or disgraceful, but because it is seen as the example to the rest of the world and should comport itself as such. I, for one, am proud of the high standard to which we hold ourselves. America is not a terrible place; it is a place that has the capability of being better, and its citizens know it.

In order to put into perspective this series of high standards and expectations, Americans just need to realize the foundations and purposes of their arguments and discussions. Turning on the TV, one can see any number of channels hosting talking heads that are discussing various issues, many of which are important. The problem is that these talking heads are often talking for the wrong reasons. Listening to the debates, one can easily detect within a few minutes that the participants aren't even really talking about the issue(s) at hand. Instead, they are trying their damnedest to prove the other person wrong at all costs. Instead of discussing their own opinions and working to a compromise, they yell at one another in a blind rage, only concerned with making a fool of the other person and fundamentally forgetting the fact that such a public debate is one of the beauties of American society. It is the same with political debates. The issues are no longer at the forefront, but instead, the chance to prove someone else wrong and by default one's self right. Politicians and political pundits are rarely concerned with what is best, but instead, with what they want personally. For Americans, these sorts of debates and decision making tactics are pointless, because they just create more strife and often cause a circular debate that never comes to any sort of conclusion.

Americans must put their issues into perspective and attack them accordingly. Instead of worrying about whose fault the problems are, we should be talking about how we can fix them...together. Instead of claiming that America is the devil and that all that it does is evil and unfair, we should look at our problems in comparison with the rest of the world, take a deep breath, calm down and create a plan of action that helps the most people in the shortest amount of time.

We just need to realize that we are lucky. Yes, we have our problems. No, we are not perfect. There are lots of things that the US could and should do better, some of which we are making little progress with; however, there are also many on which we are progressing quite nicely when viewed through the lens of the comparative world. In many ways, most Americans have it pretty good, even those who in American are perceived to have it pretty bad. The point is not to trivialize the struggles of Americans or in anyway discredit their problems or issues. The point is to view these struggles, problems and issues with the right frame of mind, a lucky one.

1 comment:

  1. We enjoyed your insight and thoughtful views.
    We agree and think many young people need to
    read this. Will share!!
    merci!! Happy Thanksgiving to you.