Saturday, July 5, 2014

What makes 'Murica, land that I love

Most Americans have never left the United States, and those that have, usually to Canada or Mexico. Most Americans do not even have a passport. To understand America, as an American, you must understand how exceptional this fact is, especially among developed nations. Indeed, Australians are arguably even more isolated than we are, geographically, yet they are massive world travelers.  (And Aussie tourists are loved pretty much the world over.)

As a Midwesterner by culture (technically part of the South) who now resides once again in "flyover country" after having lived and traveled abroad extensively, I can tell you that having been abroad does not carry with it here the same cache as it would on the coasts.  Nay, here it even breeds some suspicion.  For instance, I can remember a hysterical family member asking me at Christmas, "Why do you hate America so much?" I was shocked and bemused. I guess it was because I had chosen to live abroad for so many years, and, at that time, I had been a vocal opponent of Dubya's administration and especially his foreign wars of choice.

I say all this as prelude, to establish some credibility, but also to make a point: We call ourselves exceptional but most of us don't know, or care to know, what we are exceptional to.  We have never gone out and seen the rest of the world.  What we know about the rest of the world we learn second- or third-hand, unfortunately. But this is mostly an accident of geography -- the same accident that has lent much to our greatness, granted. So it's a double-edged sword; but one edge gets sharper as the world gets more global... more on that later....   

This is not about me saying I'm superior. The fact that some Americans don't quite know what makes us great doesn't negate America's greatness; it's more of a pitiful lack of self-knowledge, really. And  I include myself in that group.  I feel the pull to travel not only to discover the world but also to patch over my ignorance and, more importantly, to re-discover my homeland. Regarding the latter, anybody who's spent significant time abroad knows what I'm talking about....

(I digress, but when foreigners start asking sincere but specific questions about your hometown, your home state, your country, your history, and suddenly you realize you cannot answer them well or completely.. you feel immensely foolish. You feel like you let your entire country down, like a flunky ambassador.  Here they are asking out of sincere interest and... you cannot answer them. This has happened to me so many times I can't tell you. But the truth is, you don't know what you don't know until somebody asks you to explain it.)

Nevertheless the bottom line remains: Americans don't need to be global citizens to be themselves, to be a great country. Our country is what it is.  On the other hand, what irks me is: We could be even greater if we did know.  More on this later....

So now let me get to the nitty-gritty. Why is America great?  Forgive me if I tell you what you already know....

1. Stuff works in America.  For all the complaints you hear about this or that in America, about inefficient government, lazy people, terrible customer service -- stuff gets done here. Things work.  And they work for the good of most people.  I'm talking about both the public and private sector here.  If you make a noise in America, stuff gets done.  Somebody reacts.  We take that as simply the way it should be, but it's definitely not the case in many countries.  Notice that I said, "If you make a noise."  Things don't always work like clockwork on their own. But Americans are responsive; and we have institutions that respond. Yes, we complain a lot. Thankfully there are people whose job it is to listen and react to those complaints. The mere fact that somebody sometimes must complain is often taken by us as a sign of disorder or neglect, but... compared to many other countries, I can say with 100% certainty this is not  the case. 

(An aside: many Americans simply don't know, or don't feel empowered, to complain and stand up for their rights as a citizen or a consumer; this is true more so for the poor, minorities and immigrants. It's a cultural thing, a parent-to-kid thing, and it's a shame because being capable of complaining effectively is a very important part of being a fully-fledged American!)  

Indeed I often cite this to foreigners as one of my favorite aspects of America. A cavernous pothole that is covered with a branch for 6 months while nothing is fixed; or an elected official who is obviously corrupt yet nothing happens to him; or a complaint to a reputable business yields nothing -- these are all cases when I've told my foreign friends, "This would never happen in America."  

2.  Americans are results-oriented, not process-oriented or hierarchy-oriented.  This gets back to point #1. And again, if you're an American who hasn't traveled much this won't make much sense to you, but believe me, many cultures/countries put much more value on process, hierarchy and consensus than on actually solving problems and getting things done.  I can't tell you how many foreigners have complimented me (well, Americans) for this aspect of our culture. Even they get frustrated with the slowness and tediousness with which they analyze and tackle problems, especially those foreigners who have visited America or worked in U.S. companies.  

This also jibes with our innovative spirit. You can't be innovative if you always adhere to strict procedures, hierarchies, castes or established ways of doing things.

Another point: In Eastern Europe, with which I'm most familiar, the adjective "democratic" is used in the sense of egalitarian. When a company or group or even an establishment is described as democratic, that's almost always a good thing, it means everybody's treated equally, and there's no putting on airs.  The mere fact that this needs to be said is significant.  In America, capability, expertise and hard work are accepted as anybody's pole -- if you are able to hoist it -- to vault over class, money or geography.  And almost everybody accepts this as right and just.    

3.  Most Americans are optimists.  I may sound like Rush Limbaugh here, but it's true: almost to a fault, Americans are optimistic about the future.  In many countries, pessimism is taken akin to being wise, street-smart or realistic. But with each new American generation, despite the f**k-ups of the past, Americans retain their optimism about better days to come. Sometimes, frankly, I don't get it.  Yet I'd much rather live among hopeful optimists in a mostly hopeless, pessimistic world, and the U.S. is one of the only countries where you can do that.

4.  Most immigrants to the U.S. want to, and do, assimilate.  If you listen to talk radio or watch Fox you might doubt this fact, but compared to many developed countries, where immigrants live for generations in segregated ghettos and never participate fully in the economic, political and cultural life of the country, America is light years ahead of Europe and the rest of the world. The reasons for this probably merit an entire book or anthology, but the fact remains: Our immigrants want their children to learn English and "be American" as fast as possible. Thankfully, our public schools, libraries, charities and other institutions offer them myriad types of assistance to do this. I can vouch for it firsthand. My daughter was an ESL student in first grade who couldn't speak proper English. In second grade she was one of the top readers-writers in her class. That wasn't my doing; that was her school and the "specials" (special classes), including summer classes, that they offered her. And it was all free of charge. Amazing. 

5.  We have professional, contract-based armed forces.  Before you say duh, remember this wasn't the case until after Vietnam. Granted, most other Western countries also have professional armies, but our armed forces offer our troops what could only be described as socialist Big Government benefits: free education, health care, housing, disability insurance, etc.  Plus we have a federal system of employment preferences for veterans.  This makes us a country that takes men and women who might not be very well educated or disciplined in their teens or 20s and turns them into great leaders, great team workers, great students and, when they return to civilian life, great workers, technical specialists and managers.

Before I have criticized those conservatives like Michelle Malkin who, when pondering America's greatness, always cite the world's most powerful aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and the like -- as if our military might is what makes us great.  Firstly, it's our economic might that allows us the luxury to spend about a half trillion dollars a year on such military might. But secondly, and more importantly, its a very patriotic class of people who sign up voluntarily to fight and get killed or maimed overseas, often in the pursuit of doubtful political ends conjured up by feted and comfortable politicians back home.  This is not the case in most Western countries; there is not a very good chance you'l be sent into combat to die, unlike in America. And yet the fact that those Americans have not become, frankly, fed up and disillusioned with America and the politicians commanding them into battle is comforting, gratifying, humbling, mystifying and challenging.

So let me take this chance to say that "supporting our troops" with ribbons, a pat on the back or kind words is not nearly good enough. Our first and most sacred responsibility to our troops comes at the ballot box, and after that, in pressuring or elected leaders to send our troops into harms way only when it's absolutely necessary to defend our values and interests. To pretend otherwise is patronizing and disrespectful to our troops.

6.  Geographical diversity.  Many times I have heard foreigners describe their trip to America, and it's always so different. Cities, beaches, deserts, farms, borderlands, coasts and thriving metropolitan hubs.... Many foreigners visit a few places, most often New York, Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, maybe the Grand Canyon, then draw conclusions from what they've seen there. Their conclusions about the U.S. are all valid; but they are incomplete. America is a vast and great country, geographically, by any standard, and extremely diverse culturally. It's all "America," but it's hard to generalize from just a few places. It's just as hard for native-born Americans to generalize about their country. That's OK.  That's our strength -- and our challenge. Bi-coastal, Southern, Midwestern, Western, Plains, Rockies, Appalachian, Red State, Blue State, urban, rural... It's all part of the great American pageant. The closest country I can think of in sheer size is Russia, (albeit much, much larger), but Russia is much less diverse, or at least, that diversity is much less accessible to the casual traveler.  

This always leads to the curious and interesting discussion, "What is the real America then?" Foreign visitors want to know. They want to experience it. It's a legitimate question. TV, popular culture and chain-franchise consumerism have certainly made America much less diverse (think what you'll find on any Interstate exit across the country). Yet the truth is there is no one answer. This is America's charm -- and its challenge. For just as visitors struggle to grasp its vastness, so do native-born Americans. For simplicity's sake we too fall back on geographical or political generalizations, yet the truth is much more rich and complex.  This question merits a whole series of books in and of itself.  The upshot is that there is no one "America." America is less a melting pot and more a patchwork quilt.  The charm and the challenge in understanding America is in understanding the stitches that bind that quilt together. And only Americans can tell that story.  

It also bears mentioning that America invented the concept of national parks and nature preserves, during the Progressive Era.  This has since become an accepted norm all over the world. This is something America contributed to the world.  

7.  Faith in technology and science.  This is becoming the norm the world over thanks to the Internet and globalization, but let's not forget that this was America's contribution to the world. Almost to a fault, Americans believe that technology can or will solve all the world's problems. Thankfully, we have very smart and daring people -- and an infrastructure of universities, government-funded basic science research, government-protected patents and IP, and venture capitalists -- who bring that technology to the world.  

8.  Great colleges and universities.  I'm not going to trot out statistics here. It goes without saying that, despite Americans' moaning about the decline in standards of education, American higher education is still the best in the world, both in terms of teaching quality and research (including government-funded basic science).  And many of them are public, land-grant universities.  The Internet was invented on an American college campus, the same with Facebook.  Need I say more?
9.  America is a work in progress.  This is true in so many ways: legally, culturally, scientifically, morally.  The true greatness of America is that it's not a country set in stone; it's a set of ideals in pursuit of their perfection and ultimate realization.  Most Americans share the same values, even if we express those values in different ways. This is how we are able to move the country forward, even when we disagree with one another. For instance, modern civil rights leaders appeal to Martin Luther King; Martin Luther King appealed to the Founding Fathers; and the Founding Fathers appealed to European Enlightenment thinkers and Greeks and Romans like Cincinnatus; and so on.  

Although some (a minority) in America would constantly call us to hark back to some mythical Golden Age that never existed; the tradition in America is to take older ideals and adapt them to present and future realities.  Hence America is more flexible than just about any other Western democracy.  "The past is prologue" applies least to America than any other major Western power.  

10.  Americans want to be liked.  This gets us in trouble sometimes ("We will be greeted as liberators" anyone?), but overall it's one of our great strengths. We don't want to rest of the world to fear us, or simply to respect us, we want the rest of the world to love and emulate us. Not always have we behaved in a way worthy of emulation; nevertheless, unlike most countries, the U.S. thinks in those terms. We see ourselves as a "shining City on a Hill." Maybe we have not always been a shining example; nevertheless, to be such an example is something we strive for.  

Now that we've enumerated our strengths, how can we augment them, and make America even greater?  That's how we should think and strive to be exceptional.

There are many more things I could add to this list, but these are the major points that come to mind. You're welcome to leave your own comments. 

I'll update and edit this list as time goes on. Peace out and happy 4th of July!

No comments: