Sunday, June 17, 2007


Despite what anyone says, there are a lot of nice things about living in the modern United States. People can be as disappointed (or as angry) about the gap between our promise and our reality all they want, but at the end of the day, the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is one of the sweetest deals around. Let's face it, how many people are risking life and limb to go south into Mexico these days?

One of the great things about the U.S. of today is that if you're roughly in the middle class or better, life's pretty good. Hell, even when life SUCKS, life's good. Don't believe me? Given a 747 and about thirty minutes in sub-Saharan Africa, I'd have an entire planeload of people who'd kill you to take your place - on the WORST day of your life - without a second thought. (Actually, I'd be impressed if they bothered to give it ANY thought.) Compared to the vast majority of the world's population, most of us live like kings. My mother was relating to me the trials and tribulations that go with being post-menopausal, and I was attempting to put a positive spin on the whole thing, so I said to her: "Well, look at it this way - in Uganda, you'd have died of old age already." Put ten "average Americans" in a room and I'll bet you that at least three of them would have died already were it not for medical care that we now consider routine - but is beyond the wildest dreams of many of the world's poor. Even if you aren't middle class, you're doing better than people in many other parts of the world. I was listening to the radio one day, and a commentator made an interesting observation - in the United States, the poverty level is defined by income. In most of the rest of the world, it's defined by calories. If I understood him correctly, in India, the idea of an obese poor person is an oxymoron. The idea that you can be poor, and have absolutely no skills that directly contribute to your day-to-day survival (that is to say that you can't raise your own food, create your own clothing, or make your own shelter), and yet never have a legitimate worry about where your next meal is coming from would boggle the minds of many people in the developing world.

I was speaking with an east African nun that my Grandmother has become acquainted with, and realized that education-wise, we're also pretty high on the hog. My father has a handful of (half) siblings that are young enough to be my own children. They're mostly still in middle- and high-school, mainly because they're all a couple of years behind their peers. But overall, they're still better educated than this nun I was speaking to, easily explaining technical and scientific concepts that are going right over her head. And these are children that are destined to have "Would you like fries with that?" figure prominently in their future career paths, when compared to other American children.

(Granted, if we start talking about skilled trades or other sorts of day-to-day survival work, these children are completely unprepared when compared to the nun. But in terms of being able to find a place in the growing global economy, they're years ahead of her, even though when compared to children from other industrialized nations, they aren't even in the running.)

Most people wouldn't argue the point that we have problems in this country when it comes to race relations. The treatment of the Native Americans, the former institution of slavery, current attitudes in some quarters towards the current wave of Hispanic immigration (and we won't even talk about opinions about Middle Easterners) - we're not exactly winning the "Happy Happy Brotherhood" award anytime soon. But when was the last time in American history that ravening mobs killed a few thousand people of one ethnic group or another, while the police and government stood by and watched, or were helpless to intervene? The violent episodes of the Civil Rights Movement, while in some cases shockingly brutal, pale in comparison to the Rwandan Genocide of the mid 1990's. Bloodshed on that scale in the United States would have resulted in the deaths of approximately 30 million people (a very rough estimate), over 100 times the death toll from murder for the same period.

Could we be doing much better, given the technology and resources that we have access to? Yep. Is it a crying shame that we aren't? Maybe. Do we look the other way when something we consider an injustice happens to work in our favor? Usually. Could we maintain one of the highest standards of living on Earth without consuming resources like they're going out of style? More than likely. Is the fact that our economy just about requires that half the planet be poor going to catch up with us? Eventually. Are we going to screw around and blow it all one of these days, and then stand around stupidly asking, "What happened?" Smart money says, "Yes." But until then, I've got better things to do than to complain about it.

Perhaps I don't have the right value structure. A number of people have told me so. Perhaps someone's idea of a divinity will weigh me against a feather when I die and decide that since I haven't done enough to advance the human (or perhaps just the American) condition, that I'm going to be consigned to be supernatural kindling for all eternity. (Or maybe they'll just be mad that I didn't do it all in their name.) Right now, I'm too busy trying to NOT enjoy the good life when I SHOULD be scheming and plotting (and, okay, working) to get myself into the BETTER life (not to mention make sure that I can do something else that's only a pipe dream for most - care for my parents when they're too old to do it for themselves - by paying someone else to cook, clean and do the heavy lifting).

But be that as it may, I understand that the United States isn't perfect. After all, even in a land where, by some estimates, two thirds of us are at least somewhat fat and 15% of food prepared goes to waste, there ARE people who will go to bed hungry tonight. Businesses go begging for trained workers overseas because they begrudge the expense it takes to (re)train unemployed Americans, who in turn sniff at the idea of taking difficult and/or low-wage jobs that illegal Latin-American immigrants are literally risking their lives to get. People picket abortion clinics, decrying the practice as murder - then mumble excuses and justifications when confronted with the killings of doctors and nurses. Property owners put money into driving the homeless out of abandoned buildings that aren't being used for anything else, in no small part because a squatter that falls down a flight of stairs can easily find a lawyer who'll help him sue the landlord. Citizens scream blue murder at the merest hint of a tax hike, or that their tax dollars are anything less then spent with 100% efficiency, then elect politicians who actively campaign on their ability to bring home pork barrel projects to their districts, seeming to think that they are entitled to be kept by the rest of the nation. And it goes on from there. But since Perfect only exists in fairy tales and Walgreen's commercials, I'm okay with that.

I don't need to think that the United States is perfect, or even working towards perfection. I'm even okay with the idea that there are better places on this planet to live, and better ways of doing things. I'm doing pretty well for myself, given the fact that in real life, I've basically stumbled through life, and have only recently discovered the miracle that is planning ahead. I've had the benefits of engaged parents and competent teachers, and (barely) enough sense to use that to my advantage. And I've learned that I'm not special. I'm better off than some, but not as gifted as others, and advantaged in some respects and deficient in some things. Neither genius nor idiot, wise man nor fool. And being average, the United States is a more than satisfactory place in which to live. Are the opportunities limitless? No. I suspect that there are barriers that I'll never be able to cross. But considering the fact that I haven't even reached them yet, I've got work to do before they become an issue. So I guess I'd better quit farting around, and get back to it.

1 comment:

ben said...

Nice one! Now, can we get back to bashing all the shit that's wrong with America :)