Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Apathy and the Common American: Why I Dislike Americans

I’ve come to the conclusion that I really kind of dislike Americans. Before you start chastising my lack of patriotism and telling me to “not let the door hit me in the ass on my way out”, let me explain what I mean. I don’t hate America in the slightest. I don’t hate being an American. I totally appreciate what I have here. I have a good life. But that’s just my point. I appreciate what I have. I hear people say that a lot. They claim to have a deep appreciation for the life they have in the United States; all the freedoms, rights, and opportunities afforded to most (yeah, not all) people born here. But I’m not sure they have the full picture of what that means. Sure, people generally understand that there are places in the world plagued by warlords and malaria. All you have to do is stay up late enough for early morning crap TV to see the commercial asking you for fifty cents a day. You understand there are hungry children in the world. It’s a general awareness that never seems to permeate the hard outer shell of spoiled entitlement and apathy for the less fortunate. It’s an afterthought. It happens waaaay over there. Can’t be bothered by it. And in the next thought, I can’t believe they give me the choice to press 8 for Spanish when I call my bank! What’s this country coming to?!

Let me begin with my recent adventures in London. This was a unique opportunity to visit a contemporary country with a comparable economy and culture. I also found it to be an opportunity to interact with non-Americans. I was curious to see what they really think of us. Answer? Maybe you don’t want to know. I have long been of the impression that a lot of the world community sees us as overfed, undereducated, gun-toting maniacs. But that seemed a little harsh. Maybe it isn’t that bad, right? But the more I talked to Londoners and they caught on that I an American, I began to realize that I was a walking stereotype. Several times a day, usually over a nice pub ale, I had the same conversations. A: How in the hell could we entertain the idea of a Trump presidency (yes, they keep up)? B: What’s the deal with all of the murders, shootings, and open carry laws? Every day. And that’s a tougher conversation than you think as you look around the city and see that even the cops don’t carry guns.

But it wasn’t the interaction with Londoners that put me off—it was my encounters with Americans while I was there. I’m not lying when I say that every single one that I happened upon overseas was the “ugly American” you always hear about. The one that perpetuates the stereotypes. They’re ignorant, yes, but not in a way that you genuinely don’t know and would like to be corrected so that you might be enlightened. No. Nooooo. This is the type of ignorance that’s loud and unapologetic. I’M TOTALLY IGNORANT AND I DON’T GIVE A SHIT BECAUSE I’M AMERICAN AND I’M BETTER THAN YOU!! Every. Last. One. Example:  On my way out of a pub, I hear one of my countrymen ask the guy next to him, “Hey, are you English?” I’m thinking, In London? What are the odds? As it turned out, he was not, indeed, English. He replied, “No, I’m Irish”. The American then said, “Oh. Same difference, right?” I walked out of the pub with a face-palm. It was like that friend or family member you have that you love dearly but you’re embarrassed to go into public with. And the guy boisterously lecturing a pub crowd over the fine attributes and foreign policy prowess of Donald Trump. And as I sat in another pub watching London news TV, which covered mainly local politics and the fact that it was going to rain every day for the foreseeable future, I took a hefty, somber gulp of ale with the news that in my 5 day stay in England there had been three mass shootings in the US, and most of you didn’t notice because it doesn’t even make the news anymore.

But what really solidifies my new dislike for Americans comes from a recent cruise vacation to the Caribbean with my family. It was a lovely trip of course, and as always, I love to interact with the wonderful people of Montego Bay and Grand Cayman. The ports of call were not the problem. It was what I saw on the ship that turned my stomach. Every passenger on that boat was at least middle class. They likely live a relatively comfortable life. That’s not to say they’re necessarily rich, but as I have come to find out, you don’t have to be rich to be oblivious to your own sense of entitlement. To preface, if you’ve never been on a cruise ship, you should know that they are staffed almost completely with international employees. Only a few are American or British, and one hundred percent of the time, those workers are the director of something and get payed far more than anyone else. You begin to detect a pattern when you see nationality printed on the employees’ name tags. Cruise lines hire heavily from countries like Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bulgaria, and India. These are places where malaria and starvation are common, or the economy is thirty years behind the rest of the world. You hardly ever see French, German, or Swedish employees. Nope. The ones from India will work for less. And most of these employees send every bit of their pay home to their families that they get to see a total of about two months out of the year. But hey, they made sacrifices and that’s what they had to do to provide for their families. More power to them.

Still, to compare that to the passengers allowed me to finally realize how ugly we can be as a people; as a culture. From time to time, when we cruise, we will sit down at a poker table which is the way to go if you insist on gambling. You can play a lot longer and for a lot less money than pouring your bankroll into a slot machine. And it’s a great way to chat with other people from other places in the US. You can be there for hours on the same buy-in. Sometimes, as you get to know these people, you can quickly see that you don’t like them. Others, obviously, are pretty nice. And all of them…were highly entitled. To listen to these people bitch and what they bitched about was so petty. [in my whiny, spoiled voice] The soup was so bland tonight. Oh yeah? Well my steak was between medium and medium well, when I clearly asked for medium. And my stateroom wasn’t turned down the way I like it. My kids were expecting towel animals and they didn’t get one tonight. The chocolate extravaganza at the buffet was a joke! And I look at this girl dealing cards—the one from a country where 1.6 million people have AIDS, there are over 500,000 orphans due to AIDS, and there is massive starvation—and I lock eyes with her. I could see it. She didn’t say a word, but I knew what she was thinking. Poor you. You have it so tough here in the US. That’s when I really began to dislike these people. And that’s when I realized this attitude accounts for most of our population. Maybe it isn’t conscious or by choice. But that’s the nature of ignorance. And you have a choice not to be.

The cherry on top was the buffet and dining rooms. To watch people pile food onto a plate at the buffet and eat half of it is a common sight even if you’re not on a cruise ship. Where it really hit me was to see people in the dining room at literally every table order three appetizers and two main courses(for one person). If you’re a big eater, fine. If you ate it, fine. What sickened me was to watch that waiter from the Philippines or Indonesia have to come by, pick up a plate with one bite taken out of it, and dump it all in the trash, knowing that in the Philippines, one in seven people are starving. I saw it in their faces. Most people didn’t. Maybe they weren’t paying attention. Maybe they didn’t want to or didn’t care. But again, it’s this hardened shell we have round us that is impervious to the plight of others in the world. And with this comes a lack of empathy, even when it comes to similar problems within our own borders.

Here’s my conclusion. I currently dislike Americans. That doesn’t mean I dislike America. I love my country. I just have a problem with our culture of apathy and entitlement. And I’m not talking about the word entitlement as someone complains about poor people on welfare. I’m talking about the since of entitlement possessed by that person bitching about welfare recipients. Because those are the same people complaining that their steak is overdone or that housekeeping was too slow to bring them a third pillow. You have a good life. Enjoy it. No one is saying you have to be ashamed of having things. I, too, enjoy the finer things in life. I just wish Americans had a deeper appreciation for those things they have and more than just a passing awareness of the kind of suffering experienced by others in the world. Your bland soup is not suffering, nor is it suffering when McDonald’s forgets to hold the pickles. So please Americans…make me like you again. Make the world like you again. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Capitalism? Socialism? How About Neither?

Bernie Sanders has caused quite a stir, in more ways than one. To supporters, he’s the alternative to establishment liberal politics. He’s the anti-Hillary. She represents the party. The party surely views this go-round as her turn. But to a lot of younger voters, she represents business as usual—something that has frustrated many Americans, liberal or conservative. And just as conservatives seem to have chosen Trump as their anti-establishment figure, Bernie serves the same purpose for liberals. The difference is, obviously, that Bernie is smart. And has a soul. And while he enjoys a fierce grassroots support movement and has had a meteoric rise to almost the level of a folk hero, the kind of reaction he is getting from conservatives is seismic and fearful. And it stems from one powerful, cringe-worthy word…socialism.

There is a reason this word isn’t as big of a deal for younger liberals. Milennials were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Action movies produced in their lifetime pit our trigger-happy good guys against the likes of jihadists. Older generations grew up in an era when our common enemy was the commie. We were fighting Russians and Ukrainians, whether it was Maverick and Goose shooting down MIGs or Rocky avenging Apollo Creed. And it was okay for us to dislike those people. We were cool with it because for decades we had been told, first that communism was bad and that communist countries were part of an “Evil Empire”. Evil. Yup. Evil. An economic/governmental system was considered evil. EVIL. That was the word used by President Reagan. Secondly, we were taught that socialism is essentially the same thing as communism, or at least the welcome sign on the outskirts of town headed into communism. According to a lot of high school economics textbooks, socialism is defined as an economic system in which the government owns some of the factors of production, usually in the way of basic necessities that all people need. A communist country with a command economy would own all of those factors. Therefore, on the other end, our capitalist country would be completely privatized. There is no government ownership or control over resources. And according to decades of propaganda, you’re not a real American if you don’t choose the latter.

Therein lies the problem. Our society often applies an all-or-nothing approach to choosing ideology. Take the Back the Blue movement, for example. Backing the blue, to me, sounds a bit like an ultimatum. I have to choose either to back the blue and unequivocally support all law enforcement officers no matter what, or I’m not supportive at all. No one wants to seem unsupportive, so they back the blue. But if I use my own brain, I can take the position that I understand the need for a police force and the protection that comes with that. I can support the officers and their families in the face of a sometimes dangerous job. But I also recognize that there are some cops that are racist or dirty. There may be some who use their power to hurt others or advance themselves. Or maybe they’re just bad at their job. Or what if one wrongfully shoots and kills an unarmed man? Do I still have to back the blue? I’d rather not. But that doesn’t mean I say Screw the Blue. It just means this is more complicated than a simple slogan and ideology. We do the same thing with capitalism and socialism. We put together an ideology and place all the tenets of that ideology into a neat little box. Here’s the capitalism box, and here’s the socialism box. You can choose only one. And when you choose, you have to stick with all the things that goes into that box, no matter what. People actually think this way. We do this with being a Democrat or a Republican. Pro-choice or pro-life. iOS or Android. You’re forced to subscribe to the ideology. Sometimes people willingly choose the ideology. It’s easier. Because when you choose an ideology, you allow that ideology to think for you. You become an easily labeled drone that spouts the popular catch phrases and scripted arguments handed down from the establishment, diffused through media, and indoctrinated into millions of Americans who choose to not use their own brains. They choose not to inform and educate themselves. Instead, the politicians educate them; the talking heads educate them.

Easily labeled ideologies and propaganda go together like Krispy Crème and type two diabetes. And to an underinformed populace, it’s just as attractive. So here’s what you get. Bernie Sanders proposes that we move to a single-payer healthcare system—a system that everyone pays into through our tax dollars in lieu of private health insurance. Health care becomes a human right. Or Bernie proposes that college should be free to the student who commits to making the grade and is willing to work for the degree. And you know what people say? Well of course…he’s a damned socialist. He wants to give away free crap. And on my dime. Typical… B-b-but wait! Then what is Medicare? Or tax-funded public safety? Or national defense? Or public education? Or corporate subsidies? According to the capitalism-indoctrinated American, the government using tax dollars to fund healthcare is socialist. So it’s evil. But didn’t we say that the textbook definition is that the government has to own the factors of production? According the Bernie’s plan, the single-payer system would be more of a reallocation of people’s income, just like we do so that we can have a military and fire departments. So my question to the naysayer whining about socialism is this:  Does the textbook definition of socialism need updating, or does single-payer healthcare and free college just simply fall short of being considered socialism?

What about just saying to hell with both notions? We seem to be the only country not doing that. We seem to be the only one clinging to archaic propaganda-driven ideologies and not thinking for ourselves. And it is proving to be counterproductive. We’re so hung up on the labels—capitalism, socialism, etc.—that we’re not having a coherent conversation about what we actually need. Every other country out there sits down, addresses a problem in their society, and decides what is best for the people. I have to imagine that’s the way our founding fathers viewed the creation of an elected government body. I would guess that’s what they meant when they said that the government should promote the general welfare. They didn’t once write the word capitalism or socialism into the Constitution. They simply wrote promote the general welfare. So I would suggest that we do what every other country does. They assemble the adults, have an adult conversation, and decide what works. We need to figure out what is best for our unique society with our unique demographics. And we need to do it having erased the labels and ideologies. Dump the contents of both the socialist and capitalist boxes onto the table, and sort the things that don’t work for us from the things that do. And at that moment, as a nation, we will have grown up.