Tuesday, 7 November 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A review I have written for Pride and Prejudice in R-Views has earned me some feedback from one Wicked Little Critta (who oddly enough looks a lot like Amelie). During our exchange of comments I said something which, to a patriotic American (as in someone from the USA) might sound offensive; I promised to elaborate on the subject of my attitudes towards the USA, so here goes.

Up until not that long ago - to be accurate, up until some four years ago, when I started digesting my move to Australia - the USA has always been the place I looked up to. If asked where I would like to be the most, the USA would have been the answer. Today, however, my opinion is quite different. I can't point my finger to one specific reason - it could be George W Bush, it could be this "war on terror" that's driving the world crazy with its fear campaign, it could be the way things look from Australia, and it could be my own experience with unemployment that led me to apply active cynicism towards capitalism. I don't know exactly what it is, but I feel like my eyes have opened with regards to the way I view the world's most powerful nation.
There is a lot to be said in favor of America. As far as a source of influence is concerned, most of the books I read are/were written by Americans. Most of the films I watch are American. A major portion of the music I listen to is American (although in general most of my favorite musicians come from the UK). Most of the people I look up to in this world which are not family or friends are Americans (a brief look at this blog would show names like Asimov, Bryson and Sagan popping up quite frequently). But it is also quite interesting to note that some of these very people - people like Bryson or Chomsky - are also amongst the biggest critics of the USA.
There is definitely a big contradiction to do with America: It has by far managed the biggest achievements humanity has ever managed - putting a man on the moon, sending a spaceship out of the solar system's planet area, for example - but it has also done some nasty things to humanity - say, McDonald.
Last time I was in the USA before migrating to Australia (1999) I kept on admiring it for being a land of possibilities, a place where anything can be acquired and everything can be found. The last time I've to the USA (2005) I felt totally insecure the minute we stepped out of our taxi next to our hotel in San Francisco only to be seemingly surrounded by several characters of a suspicious appearance; the impression I've had from my last visit had mostly to do with the gross difference between the rich and the poor in the USA, a difference that makes you think twice before you go to the street.
So here is my current take on it: I think that the USA is a place that has been contaminated by its elites. Instead of sharing the prosperity that came with being the most successful nation on the planet, the rich seem to be abusing their position in order to get richer. The USA is a place where people's entire lives and goals revolves around the acquisition of money; people will not smile at you if you don't tip them. Just like the leaders of the Communists in Russia have betrayed their people by abusing their position to bestow those close to them with benefits the others couldn't get, the richer people in the USA betrayed their comrades by building this mechanism that supports them in becoming richer and richer. Terrible crimes have been done to this planet and to many of its peoples in the name of increasing company share values, and most of them are American.
Oil companies, cigarette companies, food companies, guns and ammunition companies, technology companies - they are behind most of the bad things taking place here. I think Al-Qaeda is basically the extreme manifestation of hatred towards the bad things coming out of America (note I am not saying they're nice people; I'm just saying I can see what causes their existence).
America is supposed to be the land of the free, the land of all possibilities. But in reality it is a land where you're free to do what you want if you can afford it; you will certainly not become the president unless you have a lot of money backing you up. It is a place where the difference between the rich and the poor is the biggest; I do not think this is a recipe for a healthy society.

So, am I anti American? I don't think so.
Yes, I don't think too highly of the way things go there. I think the dumbing down of the people and the putting of a price tag on everything are pretty bad; but I criticize these because I care and because I want it changed, not because I hate.Read my blog and you will read a lot of criticism about Australia, but I will also tell you that I love Australia and I think it's the best place; I certainly don't hate it. And I think the same applies to Bryson and Chomsky: when they bother to criticize, they do it because they would like to improve things.
I would like to see an America that cares for its people. A place where economic growth for the sake of economic growth is not the holiest of shrines. A place where people matter, where health services and education are available to everyone.
And the main reason this matters to me is because I believe the dominance of the USA will mean that these values will trickle down to the rest of the world.
Sadly, I don't see this coming. What I do see is continuous cynicism towards the USA, materializing in the form of basic hate and contempt towards Americans. Most of the people I know already think Americans are stupid. I disagree; I've seen plenty of stupid people wherever I went, and I also know that most of this world's scientific achievements come from the USA. But with the way things are currently going, the USA is not gaining much popularity in this world.


Stormy Pinkness said...

Hello, I am a colleague of Wicked Litlle Critta and I would have to say that I don't find your entry about the USA offensive at all. You seem to echo a lot of the thoughts that I have had about my own country. I grew up in America and I am proud to be an American, but I feel like we are getting too cocky for our own good. As someone who has studied history for years I have seen what happens to nations that espouse their supremacy and develop unhealthy nationalistic tendencies, and seeing the reflection of that in my own country is kinda scary.

Dr. Worm said...

Hey Moshe,
You might recognize me as well from They Might Be Critics. Wicked Little Critta pointed me toward your blog.
Anyway, I just wanted to log my view that, as an American, I don't think your views are anti-American at all. Your complaints about America are very mild--heaven knows there are worse things you could have said about the country.
The problem, as I see it, is that as long as people are imperfect, societies will be imperfect. You're right in pointing out that America's rich often care more about getting richer than helping the poor--a lot of that comes from our Puritan work ethic, which believes (falsely) that if you're hard on your luck it's because you deserve to be, and if you're industrious and hard working you'll be fine.
So what's the solution? I don't know, and I don't know that anyone does. It seems, from where I stand, that little by little America is waking up to the inequities of the world--many of which we've caused--and demanding justice. Will the voice of justice ever drown out the voice of selfishness? I don't know, time will tell. But in the meantime, I'm sure I speak for many, many Americans when I say that I don't mind hearing how the rest of the world views our country. It keeps our pride in check.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Wow, I've been mentioned in someone else's blog! I feel famous or something. And yes, my resemblence to Amelie is quite striking, especially considering that we both love cracking creme brulee with a spoon.
Now, on to your comments on the United States: I have to laugh, because it's impossible to be offended when a number of my fellow Americans hate America more than you. Your comments are based on facts that no one can really deny, and you also take the good into consideration with the bad. Overall, a quality, well-written critique.
I agree with you. I think we all know of instances when a plan seems great, almost fool-proof, only to realize after the fact that a great potential for "bad" can result.
At the same time, there's a lot about the US that is great and admirable, but these things can also be taken too far. There are organizations all over the place to change the way things are (e.g. www.one.org), but in the end, if most people remain complacent and disinterested in things outside of themselves, then no change happens. The oil companies will still influence our politics, putting environmental concerns on the back-burner. The tycoons and billionaires will continue to do whatever they want with no consideration for people who can't even feed their children.
I myself have only recently begun to take some action in my own life and try to stay informed. It's way too easy to sit back and let everything else happen, especially in the middle to upper classes. Unfortunately, most times it's only when times get tough, and things like unemployment come along that people "wake up."

Moshe Reuveni said...

Wow! At least three people read my blog!

More to the point, it gives me great pleasure for my criticism to be taken as an attempt at creative criticism rather than blunt words of anger.
It's actually quite rare for my words to be taken this way. As I previously mentioned in my blog, if I had a dollar for every time my criticism towards the Australian way ended up with a comment along the lines of "go back to where you came from" I would have probably been able to afford eating out much more often.
Some times these intolerant replies just make me laugh, as in the case of hearing this "why don't you go home then" comment from someone who keeps on complaining that society is intolerant towards her because she is gay.
But anyway, thanks.

I do have to say that I think I went a bit too far with my words.
For example, no American is pointing a gun at anyone in Australia, ordering them to eat McDonalds food. Australians that eay there do it because they choose to do it; their choices are heavily influenced by cultural messages received from the USA, but it is still their own choice.
Second, why do I pick on the USA and not on places that are obviously way worse - did anyone mention human rights in China? I did complain about not hearing enough from ex-Chinese in the past, but more to the point it is my love for the USA and my admiration for the things I have which came from there that drive me to give it a harder time.

Oddly enough, in the morning after writing my post I stumbled upon the following article in Scientific American, which sort of relates heavily to the point I was trying to make:
I find it funny to see that the things I care about can now have some scientific backing (albeit quite a controversial one, I'm sure).

And talking about Scientific American, one point I forgot to mention was that I subscribe to three magazines. All of these are American magazines, and all of which have Australian competitors; yet I still stick with the American ones, simply because I think they're significantly superior.
However, Guns and Ammo is not included in those three magazines.

I'll finish by saying I'm a big fan of creme brulee myself (you can see that if you look at the way I'm gaining weight lately). But more to the point, I suspect that age difference aside (I'm 11 years older than Wicked Litta Critta), we would have probably gotten along very well if chance had us living at a closer proximity.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I really enjoy learning from people, especially those far enough to merit the learning as a miracle of modern science. I am quite proud, actually, to be able to mention someone like you in my blog.

Moshe Reuveni said...

More to the point, after thinking more of your answers (my previous comment was entered during work):
I agree that things do feel like a "fall of Rome" syndrome, the way Stormy Pinkness describes it.
And I even agree more with the Dr on his appraisal of the American state of mind that says that if you're unsuccessful there must be something wrong with you. That's not a quality reserved for Americans only; my mother keeps on hassling me for not being able to afford a big house like my brother's; but it seems like the USA is the capital of such notions.
As for what can be done, I cannot say I have a definitive answer. I think things can only change if enough people want them to change. For example, Australia has been quite ambivalent about the environment, until this year when record levels of dryness were recorded and suddenly people realized we have no water; throw in Al Gore's film, and until the next rain comes along the public wants action on the environment.
My way is to try and stir as much emotions as I can to show people that an attitude of "what can I do, I'm only one person" is wrong. I hope my blog is one small step in that direction, but it cannot be said that I am under any major delusions about its success rates. From time to time, though, I seem to create some small storms.

Anyway, thanks again - I really appreciate your feedback. Next time you're in Melbourne, the creme brule is one me.

Wicked Little Critta said...

If Stormy Pinkness had her way, we'd be in Melbourne tomorrow.
In any case, it's a valid question for any society: how do we change things? I think there are a few things each of us can do in our own lives that, while we may not change everything overnight, at least make some ripples. We can fairly easily stay informed, stay flexible, talk to people, and take action. I think all of us have, to a degree, been striving for this. Moshe: keep blogging and getting under people's skin! Pinkness and Dr., way to vote in yesterday's elections! And I can keep cheering all of you on! ;) We're that much closer to a perfect world already.

Stormy Pinkness said...

I had never actually put a label to my thinking but that is an extremely apt way to put it, so thanx, and I also feel somewhat ashamed that I did not think of it before. And WLC is right if I had my way and resources I would so be in Melbourne ASAP, I think i could manage the 15 hour flight again if I had ageeable company.

uri said...

I hate to lower the level of discussion, but I have to say that:

1. I like McDonald’s (I even acquired a taste for Sausage McMuffin).

2. Starship Troopers one of the best movies ever?! It’s not even the best Verhoven one. And don’t get me started on the Movie/Book thing.

3. Conscience & mastership.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I'll answer in reverse:

1. Didn't get the conscience & mastership part.

2. As for Starship Troopers, I believe we've had that discussion before. I think your problem is that you're too loyal to the book. I agree that overall the book is superior as far as imagination and plot are concerned; however, as far as making a statement on our society the way it is today, the film is better. Just look at George W and compare it to the film - you can match his war on terror word for word. As well as the results of the war in Iraq.

3. I used to like McDonald too, until I saw Supersize Me (and the DVD supplementals) and realized that I really feel like shit after eating it.
That aside - my main problem with McDonald is to do with the way they treat stuff: employees, kids' brains, and the environment (where I include chicken and beef). It's one thing to eat beef, it's another thing to treat it like shit.

4. Good voting indeed, but there's a long way to go... I hope Australia will wake up as well. Here people vote only for their own pocket's sake.