Phew! The return of rationality to America?

I’m sure I must be the only person in the world blogging about Obama today…

I just wanted to say what a relief it is to see someone with an IQ over a hundred back in power. And, what’s more, mentioning both science and atheism (or at least, “non-believers”) in the inaugural address, no less. How often does that happen?

I’ve lived in the US for two years now and I have to say, this is quite a sick country. Don’t get me wrong – the American people are the most delightful race I’ve met. They’re almost universally generous, honest, open, friendly and diligent. I have a very high regard for them as individuals, but for some reason the country as a whole doesn’t reflect the character of its inhabitants.

The medical services are excellent, but only if you can afford them and only if your insurance company doesn’t find a way to dump you in the gutter. The teachers try hard yet the education system still sucks. Here in Louisiana over a quarter of the adult population can’t read or write, and the  progressive education revolution of the 1970’s seems to have passed the state by completely. The degree of poverty is staggering to behold in such a rich country. Government at all levels is sickeningly corrupt and yet nobody seems to find this surprising. Nor does anyone seem troubled by a murder rate tens of times higher than most other nations. A longstanding and perhaps understandable lack of awareness of other countries and other cultures has been compounded by the fortress mentality following 9/11, as if the best way to stop people hating you is to become even more ignorant of them and antipathetic to them. The TV networks mostly churn out drivel in short bursts between great swathes of the most outrageously unregulated advertising, especially for drugs. People routinely leave all the lights on and the a/c cranked up, apparently because they’re genuinely unaware of the true cost and consequences. Cars seem specifically designed to consume the maximum amount of fuel per cupholder, and the manufacturers actually get away with making this sound like a feature. Nobody seems to see the irony in building drive-thru pharmacies so that fat people don’t have to get out of their cars and take a moment of exercise. Racism is rife, even when in the guise of political correctness. Religion, in particular fundamentalist Christianity (which seems to share very little with traditional Christianity in a politico-moral sense) controls things to a degree not far short of Muslim fundamentalism elsewhere, and yet everyone believes themselves to be uniquely free.

I can only conclude that the lovely, delightful people of the United States have been insidiously, if perhaps unintentionally,  brainwashed for years by big corporations, churches and a supposedly “light touch” government that in some ways makes Soviet-style socialism seem hands-off. They are taught that the only possible alternative to capitalism is communism. They are told on a daily basis that America is the best at everything, and so they naturally assume that life can’t get much better than this and they’re glad they don’t have to live in backward places like, say, Sweden. The place is plastered with national flags and children are taught to be patriotic as if this is somehow better than being cosmopolitan and globally aware.

For a long time I’ve thought America, and hence the western world, was headed into a dark age. But maybe not. Maybe Obama will succeed in making macho, gun-wielding, ignorant, nationalistic, superstitious, bigoted, dogmatic thoughtlessness seem as silly, childish and embarrassing as it really should, instead of holding it up as a role model in the way that Bush did. Most of the people I’ve met here are nice, well-meaning, thoughtful folk – it’s not their fault that they’ve been hoodwinked and taught to keep their real views hidden for fear of sounding unpatriotic. McCarthyism is still very much alive and well here. But let’s hope we’re entering a new age of reason and enlightenment at last. So, congratulations Mr. Obama, and good luck.

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

9 Responses to Phew! The return of rationality to America?

  1. Mass says:

    Wow, that was the most negative, ranting, and wildly ignorant post that I’ve seen on the Internet in months.

  2. Phil Carson says:

    Definitely ranting and negative, but not ignorant, or incorrect.

    I felt the same way when I lived in West Virginia. While I don’t disagree with much (except that there are other countries who enjoy sport to excess — Irish football clubs, anyone?) when you get out of a place like Louisiana you can start seeing the better side of the country more clearly.

    I say give Massachusetts a try, see how you like the US yankee style. We have a version of universal health care, certain regulations on what must be covered by health care, decriminalized possession of marijuana, better social services, gay marriage, and pretty decent public schools. Oh, and we do have corruption, just a bit less than LA.

  3. haig says:

    The US is so diverse that your viewpoint over in Louisiana might as well be from a different country when compared with, say, san francisco. I see more differences from city to city here than in whole countries in the EU, despite the supposed monoculture.

    I don’t understand how anyone can talk about ‘America’ or ‘Americans’ as if one homogenous sample point. I live in the Los Angeles area and would find myself as much in a foreign land in the US south as I would in a foreign country.

    • stevegrand says:

      I grant you I’m making sweeping generalizations, although I do have some experience of life in California and other states too. The West coast is different from the East coast, and both are very different from the Mid-West and the South. But we do all share the same federal government, as well as TV output and many other common cultural factors that are characteristic of the whole US. My culture shock comes from observing national factors more than Southern life per se, although I found the latter much more shocking than my many other trips to the US had ever prepared me for. This may well be biasing my views, but the South is far from being the exception.

      I take your point that US cities can vary as much as European countries, almost down to the languages, but the US en bloc is substantially different from Europe en bloc, particularly in terms of health care and social welfare generally, and I think it’s fair to describe Americans as a unit, in much the same way I’d describe Europeans as a unit whilst recognizing that Irishmen are quite different from Bavarians.

      By the way, I’m not saying that my fellow Europeans don’t have their own problems. In England, unlike the States, many of the problems are not a result of institutions but the mood and general outlook of the people, imho. It was foreign travel that showed me how miserable and cynical we Brits can be a lot of the time. Maybe I’m just being characteristically British now, I can’t tell.

      Anyway, I’m happy to absolve California and Massachusetts from many of the things I ranted about. Both states have held more enlightened views than most for many years and I’d be very happy to live in either of them. I certainly can’t wait to get out of Louisiana, like a lot of Louisianans clearly do too.

      I’m really only saying the same things that the new president is saying, though. The country is sick and needs healing (often by taking advice from the more enlightened states – e.g. the appointment of Steven Chu from CA as energy secretary. Of course, many Republicans will disagree with me as much as they do with with President Obama, but that’s their prerogative.

      I guess my rant comes from an explosion of relief that some of the inland and foreign policies of the past eight years may at last be reversed. I’m not the only foreigner who feels that the US had lost its way. In my home country my politics are middle-of-the-road, but over here those same views are generally regarded as left-wing. I’m no advocate of a nanny state but the state of social welfare over here (with, I accept, some exceptions) has been hard to square with a civilized country. Michael Moore has more to say on that, and he’s not a foreigner.

      (Btw, I’ve edited out the bit about sport, because I couldn’t really explain what I meant in a sentence)

  4. Pius Agius says:

    Dear Steve,
    I had to come in on this blog. I am a reasonable person, or I would like to think that I am. I find that you are correct in your observations. I have been to the US and the people on the ground are truly wonderful.
    However it is sad when millions of americans cannot get basic health care because they have no insurance. Almost after one hundred and fifity years after the civil war the race question is still there. You see the racism in this country and it is hard on the spirit.
    I can see this because I was born and raised in the cold north part of the continent. I heard in a recent radio interview that you were down there and wondered how you take to living in the deep south. I always found it too hot.

    I am so happy to see you back and want to wish you the best, take care.

    • stevegrand says:

      Thanks for the good wishes, Pius.

      I like to think I’m a reasonable person too, and it saddens me what I see in this country. I wouldn’t have dared say what I thought after a mere 20 or so visits to the US – I needed to live here long enough to absorb things but not so long that it all starts to seem quite normal, so two years seemed like a reasonable qualification. And for the first time in years it has became politically acceptable to say such things out loud.

      I think you have to be an outsider looking in, or a citizen who’s spent significant time abroad, to really see what’s happened to this country (or any country, including my own). I don’t mean to offend by saying that I think people have been brainwashed or hoodwinked – everyone everywhere is brainwashed by their culture. What we grow up with we rarely question, and it’s hard to see the distinction between what’s right and what we’re just used to. I think that aspects of American culture, especially unrestrained marketing, have subtly shifted many people’s perceptions of what’s normal and acceptable. And the last two administrations have been very bad for the country. I’ve traveled quite a bit and my sense is that the USA has gone from being revered to reviled throughout the world within the past decade, even amongst her allies. People here wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the true depth of this from watching TV – obviously it’s not going to be spun that way.

      As an example of this subtle brainwashing, Michael Moore points out in “Sicko” that the national fear of “socialization” makes the idea of a national, free health service seem very un-American. And yet, as Moore says, America has already socialized its fire service, its postal service and others. So why not health? In most Western countries everyone – everyone, including the homeless and foreign visitors – gets free health care. The rich pay for the poor. Of course there are problems with it, but at least it doesn’t have the effect that it so often does here, of bankrupting entire families for generations because they had to spend everything they had to keep granny alive. Nobody here has to let their house burn down because they can’t pay the fire crew, so why is health so different? It’s different because it is controlled by pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies, who act (quite understandably) in their own interests. Surely it should be controlled by government, because the sole purpose of government is to act in the people’s interests? Surely that’s the neighborly thing to do? Surely that’s what people would do if they understood better that The American Way isn’t always going to be the best way, that what they’re used to and encouraged to think by self-serving institutions isn’t necessarily the only way that things can be done, and that there are big and important gray areas between rampant capitalism and rampant socialism.

      Anyway, I think my post was actually a positive one. At last it’s ok for Americans to take a good look at their Union and say what needs to be done. All those great virtues of the American individual – neighborliness especially – need pumping into the collective, and Obama seems to be rallying that energy.

      Sorry, I’m ranting again…

      Yes, the South is VERY hot. I think I probably prefer that to what you have to put up with in a Canadian winter, and certainly to the gloom and rain of England. But apart from the climate I love Canada and the Canadian people (and your enlightened social welfare). Louisiana is a surprisingly depressing place to live, for me anyway. I married a Louisiana girl, so it’s all worth it, but I can’t wait to get away to somewhere with more than one place to go hiking, some variety, some forward-looking intellectual culture and a lot less racism, boorishness and religion. For every two people who move to Louisiana, three leave, and those tend to be the more educated ones, so I’m not alone in my impression. It’s a shame.

      Thanks again for the good wishes.

  5. Phil Carson says:

    100% agreed that our government had lost it’s way, not that a significant minority didn’t try to change that in 2004. And of course the government’s behavior is “the country’s” behavior, as far as the world is concerned.

    I almost understand Bush winning in 2001, but by ’04 even the swing voters should have known what they were voting for, and yet they did it again anyway. I guess Kerry was just that weak.

  6. stevegrand says:

    > I almost understand Bush winning in 2001, but by ‘04 even the swing voters should have known what they were voting for

    Yeah, we foreigners couldn’t believe our eyes! Around that time I was sharing a London taxi with some American scientist friends and I asked them about it. They seemed perplexed that I felt anything surprising had happened. That in turn perplexed me, and it still does.

  7. Phil Carson says:

    I suppose it was not surprising if you have zero expectations for the US and it’s people.

    There’s a documentary about the founding of the liberal talk radio network, Air America, that covers that election. Everyone there was devastated and that pretty much sums up my feelings and those of my friends at the time.[SHIVER]

    I do have high hopes for Obama but I also distinctly remember mumbling under my breath for much of the 90’s about something Clinton did or didn’t do that pissed me off.

    Oh well, onward and upward! Let’s see what executive orders Obama has out today.

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