• The United States has less than five percent of the total human population, yet locks up nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners (the majority for non-violent offenses). That’s 2.3 million people behind bars – the most of any country on Earth and by far the highest per capita rate – almost five times that of Britain, eight times that of Germany, and a whopping twelve time that of Japan.
• The U.S. also emits twenty-five percent of global carbon dioxide emissions – the second highest of any nation in both gross tonnage as well as per capita.
• The gap in pay between CEOs at some of America’s largest companies and their average workers stands at a ratio of over three hundred to one – the largest of any developed country.
• There are nearly fifty million Americans without health insurance (sixteen percent of the population) despite the fact that many of them work full-time. The percentage of workers who receive health insurance through their employers continues to fall, currently approaching a measly fifty percent.
• The U.S. spends more annually on the War Department (as it was known before the official implementation of Orwellian doublespeak following World War II, which renamed it the Department of Defense) than it does on education, welfare, police and fire, transportation, arts and sciences combined. Incidentally, this is more than the defense budgets of the next fifteen countries added together.
• According to the latest OECD comprehensive world education report (based on student test scores in over sixty countries), the U.S. ranks 14th, 25th, and 17th in reading, math, and science respectively, lagging behind Canada, Japan, and South Korea among others.
As grim and sobering as these facts may be, what’s almost worse is the seeming inability of so many people on both sides of the political establishment to a) acknowledge them, and b) to sit down and engage in a rational discussion as to what ought to be done to try to fix them. Ever since September 11th, free discourse in this country has been held hostage by a curious mixture of jingoistic patriotism, hyper-partisanship, and a sort of self-righteous indifference that permeates every level of society.
You can see these factors play out in many difference arenas. Sarah Palin, for instance, likes to talk about “real Americans” – a category of person that is conveniently limited to white, rural, God-fearing, evolution and global warming-denying luddites, who wish for a return to some mythical, Leave It To Beaver, cookie cutter Pleasantville where everyone does exactly as they’re told with no questions asked – a segregation that necessarily leaves vast swaths of the population in some vaguely defined limbo of “un-American”-ness.
Add to this, the blatant hypocrisy of Eric Cantor, who disparages the Occupy movement as, “the pitting of Americans against Americans” after having earlier heaped praise upon the Tea Partiers, describing them as “fighting on the fighting lines of what we know is a battle for our democracy.” “A battle for our democracy”, yes; well-phrased, Mr. Cantor, but wildly misdirected. If bringing to the nation’s attention, the massive and ever-increasing income inequality that’s leading us directly to plutocracy is not fighting for democracy, I don’t know what is. But who am I to say?
Well, not that genealogy should matter in the least, but just to dispel some of the xenophobic pomposity of these self-proclaimed guardians of patriotic sentiment, I feel obliged to disclose that I happen to be an eleventh generation American. My family can trace its lineage directly back to a soldier who fought against the British in the Revolutionary War (which makes us eligible for membership in the Sons and Daughters of Liberty organizations) and then even further back to a woman aboard the Mayflower. How’s that for patriotic street cred? The only reason I mention it is to show just how irrelevant it is. A “real American” is simply someone who believes in freedom and democracy. Period. Beyond that, opinions are like, well, you know.
As former New York Mayor John Lindsay said in a speech at Columbia University back in 1969 (often mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson), “We cannot rest content with the charge from Washington that this peaceful protest is unpatriotic…The fact is that this dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” The right to disagree is the beating heart of any healthy democracy. Without it we are little more than obedient ants, marching to the beat of the pundits, special interests, and corporate media drummers. If you have any doubt, just look at what happened to George W’s fellow Texans the Dixie Chicks after they had the temerity to speak out against the War in Iraq.
While such petty denouncements and divisive name-calling are to be expected from the likes of Palin, Cantor, Gingrich, and other misguided minions of the new McCarthyism of the far right, what I find truly perplexing is the resistance to honest criticism that seems conditioned into so many ordinary men and women of all political persuasions. It seems that as soon as anyone dares to point out any of the very real problems facing this country, unless those grievances are shared by the corporate power structure and the mass-media empire they’ve come to control, then such a person is immediately treated with suspicion, disdain, or outright contempt.
Case in point: The first time I traveled to Europe, upon my return, I was telling a friend about my visit to Amsterdam, saying how cool it was to be able to walk into a shop, buy some bread and cheese and a bottle of wine, and then sit in a public park, eating and drinking without fear of being harassed or arrested for violating “open container laws”. His immediate reaction was not one of admiration, as I would have expected, but rather of hurt pride and reflexive lashing-out, replying, “Well if you like it so much better in Europe, why don’t you move there?” This was someone close to me and I couldn’t understand what could trigger such an immediate, defensive sentiment. After all, I was only mentioning something different that I thought was good. Would it have been the same if I’d said how tasty the French fries were?
Since then, it’s happened again and again in a variety of settings, when, after having suggested possible improvements that could be made to various aspects of the status quo, or merely mentioning the way things are done elsewhere, I’m presented with this same knee-jerk response, or its slight variation; “So what? America is still the greatest country on Earth.” I continue to be stumped in trying to make sense of this recurring, baseless belligerence. I just don’t get the reasoning behind it. Apathy, I could understand, by why the hostility? It’s not like I’d engaged in a personal attack, or an assault on the moral and intellectual failings of any one individual.
Even allowing for the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance – that muddled thinking that comes when the facts no longer align with the rhetoric that’s been ingrained in every American since childhood; when it gets harder and harder to mesh reality with cherished notions of “the land of the free,” place of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and home of “freedom and justice for all” – even if one can somehow ignore or look beyond the laundry list of evils listed at the beginning of this article, and see them as something other than a betrayal of our founding principles and an everlasting stain upon the country’s honor and reputation – even pretending for a moment that we are, in fact, the greatest, freest nation ever to grace the face of the planet; it still wouldn’t explain why we shouldn’t strive to be even better yet. Isn’t that what America is supposed to be all about – being the best at everything we do? Isn’t that the American Dream – working to make the world a better place than we found it; giving our children better lives than our own? Have we somehow reached the pinnacle of excellence and now any further development can only lead to ruin?
Our nation, and for that matter, our planet, has arrived at a difficult juncture in history. The population is growing at a pace that far exceeds the available resources for maintaining a harmonious and sustainable quality of life. Our finances are completely in shambles and our state of employment and tax structure increasingly unfair. Our national leadership is paralyzed with partisan bickering and inaction. Our atmosphere is warming, our biodiversity diminishing, our health declining, our infrastructure crumbling, our education lagging, and our sense of peace and security succumbing to fear-mongering and mutual distrust that serve only to strengthen our enemies and erode our civil liberties. These are serious problems that require serious and concerted efforts to address. But how can we ever begin to correct them if it’s considered unpatriotic to even acknowledge that anything is wrong? It’s been pointed out that no one has the right to create a “clear and present danger” by stirring unnecessary panic amongst the populace, but hasn’t the time come for shouting “Fire!” before this crowded theater of a country is completely engulfed in flames?