July 13, 2007

America: Setting a Bad Example


Sometimes small notions indicate issues of larger moment. In the discussion of a previous post, a commenter delivers a vest pocket critique of America seen from abroad. The salient part reads:

As for the last paragraph - well, personally, I don't give a damn whether Americans kill themselves through gross overeating and under-exercising, filling their food with chemicals for short-term profit or turning their cities' air into poison gas - not to mention handing terrorists billions of dollars to kill Americans (and others) with.

What I do mind is that Americans are setting a bad example for everyone else; as a small example the streets of Britain are filled with grotesquely large 4x4s. I am quite sure the fashion comes from across the pond. As another, the Chinese might well ask why they should restrict their economic growth when America already uses many times more fuel than they do - and they'd be right.

What I do mind is various American corporations not only trying to foist their Frankenstein food on us, but trying to make it impossible for us to tell that they are doing it - did you know that Monsanto are claiming in various court cases that labelling of food containing GM soya is against free trade treaties?

I could go on - but I won't, except to say two things. Americans' bad habits are a poor example for everyone else - and America's gluttony for oil in particular, and their actions to make sure it gets fed, and the money transfers resulting from it, make the rest of the world much more dangerous.

Some observations strike me as fair, others as dubious. Most strike me as those a reasonable man might form on a daily diet of the American media melange. It is a dangerous diet; a diet rich in junk and toxins. In large doses it might make your thoughts fill with harmful fat.

Just as it was when the Soviet Union lived -- and is still to be found on the islands of socialist utopias still extant -- once the propaganda mills are relentlessly anti-American, a real picture is hard to come by. One is pretty much a slave to one's choices of input. Not much can be done to change a mind fed a constant drip-feed of plaint from the current America-based "My country wrong or wrong" crowd.

I can see how the commenter comes by his impressions. I grant that he comes to them fairly by using what he is given to draw his conclusions. They simply don't map well to my experience of ordinary life in America in 2007. As American life, or a simple driveabout will teach you, "the map is not the territory."

It is not my purpose here to flense his critique point-by-point, only to note that his point of view is, of necessity, limited by what he is fed.

By way of example, my day-to-day experience tells me that while the lumbering results of having "way too much food" are more than visible in America, so is the cult of "way too much exercise." They are the opposite ends of the bell-curve. In the middle I see that most Americans are mindful of what they eat because the can afford to be. Making this possible is a system of food production and distribution that delivers such a wide-spectrum of food choice at cheap prices (organic, non-organic, and junk) to every niche of the landscape. Indeed, the system is so advanced and sophisticated that we have achieved a society in which one of the major problems among the poor that remain is obesity.

The impression that Americans are "turning their cities' air into poison gas" is likewise well-meant but ill-informed. It is demonstrably not true. It is not true from a look at the steadily declining levels of emission in a steadily increasing and mobile population over the decades. It is can be seen to be obviously untrue from the simple fact of living in America for six decades -- decades that have seen more deep and lasting social change than at any other time in the history of the country, perhaps the world.

I was, as constant readers may know, born in Los Angeles six decades ago. I remember the poison air of the 1950s. I remember the smog alerts, the soot that would settle on the windowsills and grind its way into the clothes, and the black smudge that would be visible within a block of my front yard. I saw it again some three decades later, but not in Los Angeles, but in London.

Today there is still a haze over Los Angeles on most days, but you have to stand back some to see it. You also have to stand back in your mind and know that Los Angeles, depending on how you define it, is now home to between 10 and 18 million people (Up a tad from the 4 million of my childhood when only every family and not every individual had a car). The only way that air in Los Angeles today could become perfect would be if you gave every resident a unicycle for transportation, a mandated vegan diet, and forbid flatulence under pain of death.

In short, the air in American cities is today more than acceptable and is not, by any stretch of an imagination not twisted by false impressions, "poison." And it improves daily. Could it be improved more? Certainly it could and inevitably it will.

The same observations hold true for our rivers, our reservoirs, our parks, our homes, our communities, and for all other nation-wide measures by which one might discover the true quality of life. We tolerate high gasoline prices in large measure because we will not drill and pump our vast reserves nor will we build new refineries.

At the same time, as it would be in any imperfect human society of 300 million souls, it is perfectly possible to find the pockets of poison and the ghettos of despair in this protean country. Viewed over time you would note they are shrinking, but you could still stand on a street corner in South Central or Harlem and focus a camera in such a direction and frame the images in such a manner you could deliver the impression of a vile and selfish society in which the poverty-striken obese were crushed under some corporate oppressor's boot. You could and many still do, but it is only shaped propaganda and does not represent anything close to the truth of the American experiment and environment in 2007. Here even our poor are filthy rich measured against the world's poor.

As is often the case in the envious world today, we encounter -- in the commenter's plaint and elsewhere at home and abroad -- a mindset in which "the perfect is the enemy of the good." It is a mindset that views anything less than some imagined perfect state as somehow failing and worthy of excoriation. It is a mindset in which, if the real world falls short of the imagined perfection, it is the real world that is ill rather than the mind of the imaginer. It is a mindset which finds nothing is impossible as long as others much do the work and pay the price. It is a mindset forever doomed to disappointment; a doom in which it takes a strange and almost masochistic pleasure.

The reality is that the American experiment continues its pursuit of the good and its flirtation with perfection. In this pursuit of happiness the American experiment continues to demonstrate to the world what a real egalitarian and free society actually looks like and is. Not what such a society could be, but what one actually is here, now, today. And we arrive there by our constant political argument about "the perfect" vs. "the good;" a utopia now via government intervention in all aspects of life vs. individual liberty and the best "possible" world now. It is an argument that seeks balance rather than predominance.

The commenter seems to feel that it is there is some implicit global responsibility of America to set a "good" example rather than, as he feels, its current "bad" example. He seems to feel that as America goes, so goes the world; that the Brits drive big cars in Britain not because they make that choice as free people but because 'American mind waves' force them to do so against their will; that the Chinese, if impressed by some future America's return to some eco-idyllic state, will shrug off the desires that the increasing wealth and semi-liberty of their situation affords them and return to the days of the ox-cart, the rickshaw, and famine. In short he places too much power in the hands of America and too little in the hands of the human individuals in the rest of the world. To this way of thinking the example is all, and that only if the example is a "good" example can the world be perfected.

To a small extent he is correct. The global reach of our media is a force in the world, but a deeply confusing one. Our media's main export is a mixed message. It constantly tells the world about our shortcomings ("Alas, we have not yet perfected our country. Here's how..."), but at the same time shows the world our achievements ("Check out the good life, the very good life, and get some for yourself. Here's how..." ). What he fails to note, or perhaps perceive, is that the American Story rises out not out of agreement but out of the American Argument, an argument that we've been having here in the land where men have been able to freely speak and vote their minds for well over two centuries. It is an argument we're not finished with yet.

There are many ways of stating the American Argument with itself -- indeed, it is many arguments -- but one of the most straightforward is "How shall men be free and how shall a society of free men then be structured?"

From time to time the passions that animate the American Argument run to blood, such as the era that led to the Civil War and, to a much lesser extent, our current era. At other times, the Argument is pitched at a much lower level of intensity. But the Argument is ever present and any number can play. If you can get here and become a citizen you can participate as well. Hell, we'll let you participate even if you are here and not a citizen. We might even allow millions of you to become citizens overnight in order to join the Argument. You don't even have to learn English any longer.

We just had a big argument over that last concept and, even though it's over for now, it's not over yet. Indeed, the great thing about the American Argument is that it is never over. The Argument will go on and on prompting every generation to add to it and shape it as that generation wills -- for good or ill -- and that it will self-correct over time as the Argument endures.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes, the Argument is the American Revolution today. The Argument is an artifact of the American Revolution. It endures because the American Revolution endures, 230 years later, as the most successful revolution in the history of the world. The American Revolution did not start in 1776 -- that was just the shooting phase. The Revolution began when men first came to the New World and decided to make it new.

The American Argument emerged from the impact of this land on the Old World. This impact is chronicled in the first visions that the New World could be more than the extension of the Old; that it could be truly New. The vision of a world made new is an ancient one in this land. It predates the Revolution and the formal founding of the United States. The roots can be found in such documents as "The Mayflower Compact" and most clearly in John Winthrop's 1630 sermon "City Upon a Hill."

Many consider the Declaration of Independence to be the key document in the creation of the American experiment, but the seeds of it are to be found in many earlier expressions of what it was like to be new in the New World. Of these, the closing words of Winthrop's "City on a Hill" stand for most of the others:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. "Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil," in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity.

"Therefore let us choose life...." That's pretty much what we try to do here in America some 231 years out. We try in our halting, shambling, faltering way to always choose life. Life with all its flaws and complexities and victories and defeats.

We don't try to be perfect -- although there are many among us who urge it upon us and expect it from us in order to feel more perfect in themselves.

We don't try to force our example on the world. If we did want to do that we could force it easily enough by becoming a real imperial power, but that would mean building the military to a level that would not make for a good society. (Something discussed extensively in The Federalist Papers and since and always discarded.) Some of course will rise to object that our current war of intervention is proof at last of our imperial ambitions, but this is only because they have little insight and understanding of exactly how gently and carefully we are moving in Iraq; that they do not comprehend just how great a power we hold in reserve and still abjure to use. Iraq is not a war of conquest. It is a war of patty-cake.

At the same time I would not deny that we are by default an example to the world -- if not the perfect example so many would prefer. Instead we are simply, warts and all, the best society in all its multifoliate aspects that currently exists or has ever existed upon the Earth. We are a nation that has never been perfect but always, if you could walk the land and know the lay of it, the warp and the woof and the thought dreams of it, much better than we have any right to be. This is why, if you could look at the world from orbit and see the people of the world flowing over its surface in some sort of schematic, you would see, when you came to gaze at the borders of America, many footprints going in and few coming out.

That's why I am always amused by the exhortations from within and without to "get perfect or get gone." They always seems to me to be filled with spleen on the surface but with an incredible yearning on the inside; a yearning that acknowledges in its spleen that this country of all the others is still "the last best hope of Earth." This America-loathing knows in its bones that, no matter how much it dislikes the world with America in it, it would be a much less perfect and much more dangerous world with America out of it. Then again, given the shape of the world and the nature of the American argument, perhaps this wish may some day be granted and the world can again sink back into the tyranny of individuals, faction, and state-control.

Perhaps. But that day is not yet. With all the rancor now on display, I still think that we've got about two to five more centuries left to continue setting our "bad example." Hell, give us one century more to argue and our "bad example" might even get you your "perfect world."

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Posted by Vanderleun at July 13, 2007 10:47 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I find it particularly poignant that a Brit would agonize that the U.S. is not a stellar role model for him or the rest of the world.

I would simply suggest that Brits, or anyone else, have a choice in the vehicles they drive. A choice in the food they eat (note: I always had trouble getting a table at TGIF when I had to go over there to work. I ate at TGIF frequently because my work schedule did not agree with the serving times of most Brit eating establishments. They seemed to eat there because they loved it. Big sign in front stated "Full American Menu".) It is not the American influence that causes the rate of teen smoking over there to be shockingly high.

Well, not to belabor the point further. It is pathetic when citizens of a presumably free society resort to blaming others for their perceived short-comings.

Here is what I say to the Brits, Euros, and others who don't like the culture that America allegedly exports: "'Cowboy Up' and develop your society the way you want it to be.

Posted by: Edward Gilkison at July 13, 2007 12:22 PM

Thank you for another on-target essay. I had an e-mail just yesterday from friends in the UK who spent a day with me while they were in New York two weeks ago (where they stayed with other American friends). They said that the trip really opened their eyes to the distorted view of the United States presented by the British media.

And thank you for quoting Winthrop-- that sermon is a keeper.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at July 13, 2007 1:56 PM

I quit agree with Fletcher on how addicted we in the US are to oil. For my entire adult life we have known this was a national security problem and we have done nothing about it.

But I refuse to take the blame for the 4x4s all over the land that invented the Range Rover.

Posted by: andrewdb at July 13, 2007 3:15 PM

Big, ugly, four wheel drives. I guess he's never seen a Land Rover. Maybe it doesn't count if they're hugely overpriced and and don't function much of the time.
But that does seem to be the european business model. I sometimes find it (ironic, infuriating, disorienting...pick one) the the US generally gets the most venomous damns for what is essentially picking up after the european colonial powers. Certainly the middle east wouldn't be quite the dog's breakfast it is without two centuries of enlightened choices made in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome.

Posted by: ed in texas at July 13, 2007 4:41 PM

To say the US is "addicted" to oil is a commonplace. But it is not so. It is true that oil is now, and for the immediate future will be, the thing on which our nation's standard of living depends, but that is generational. Even now it would be a blind person indeed who cannot see that that is changing as alternative ways are both sought and brought online. It is, however, an evolutionary process and not -- as many of the perfect worlders would have it -- a revolutionary process. The revolution is in the process of moving away, not in the instant nature of change. It simply won't happen. It takes around 15 years to cycle the current private vehicle stock out of the society. And this does not even begin to address the importance and the essential infrastructure element of trucks. Everything in modern life in America is in place because of trucking. To redo that will not only require the slow replacement of the entire trucking fleet but a vast upgrade to the national rail system. The reopening and extending of railroad right of way plus the upgrading of the tracks and the railbed is a 20 year process at the very least.

As for bio fuels and ethanol, they cannot as of now be pipelined. Therefore any delivery will have to be via.... truck or rail... which means at least for the last few miles... truck.

You want to make a real dent in dependance on oil? Figure out the truck problem.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at July 13, 2007 5:48 PM

Really wonderful essay, Gerard!

I saw it again some three decades later, but not in Los Angeles, but in London.
London's bad, but Milan can get as bad, too.

As far as gas guzzlers... let me think... Jaguar, Bentley... Land Rover... Aston Martin... Rolls Royce...

Posted by: Fausta at July 13, 2007 6:27 PM

If people of the past (pick a century} could see us now they would laugh themselves back to death. Humans, what a bunch of morons as bugs bunny would say

Posted by: jeffersonranch at July 14, 2007 6:03 AM

Hitting the nail squarely. Nothing to add to a perfect essay.

Posted by: kreiz at July 14, 2007 6:28 AM

And now for some good old fashioned arrogant American exceptionalism.

EU grade 4x4s wouldn't make a pimple on the bumper of a respectable American SUV.

Posted by: Old Dad at July 14, 2007 7:55 AM

Poor European, can't think for themselves, still completely under the control of AmeriKa. must be a hypnotic ray beamed from JW Bush!
non-responsible little Children, under control of big bad Sam.


Posted by: John at July 14, 2007 8:50 AM

GVdL: "I can see how the commenter comes by his impressions."

Aye, Fletcher, did you see on the Beeb how the Queen strafed Annie Leibovitz?


Rigged footage?

"Feral Beasts?"


Posted by: stevesh at July 14, 2007 11:00 AM


Diverting high volumes of US truck loads to rail is a tough one – in part because so much of the freight that is easily transferred to rail has already made the move. The domestic intermodal industry has grown considerably over the last several decades, mainly in long haul corridors like LA – Chicago, where it may have a 70 percent market share with respect to highway. It is in the shorter haul markets where it becomes hard for rail to make a dent, no matter how much the infrastructure is improved and the service subsidized. This is particularly true in Europe, where governments have tried over many years to divert truck freight to rail without much success. It would be much the same on the US East Coast. The point to point distance at which intermodal becomes competitive is usually considered to be between 600 and 1,000 miles. This is due to terminal costs and trucking at both ends. These costs must be countered by lower linehaul costs on the rail segment. So the margin between direct truck and rail is often very thin – at times less than $50 for even an LA – Chicago move. If larger trucks were allowed in more states, the economics would shift back to truck for even the long haul moves. However, if we experience much higher fuel costs, the scales could tip in favor of rail, perhaps for shorter moves also, provided rail can keep service levels high. Some links:

BTS- Table 4-5: Fuel Consumption by Mode of Transportation in Physical Units: http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_04_05.html

Freight Facts and Figures 2006 - Table 5-7 and 5-7M: Fuel Consumption by Transportation Mode - FHWA Freight Management and Operations:

Overview of U.S. Freight Railroads:

Railfax Report - 2006 Summary of North American Rail Freight Traffic:

Intermodal Freight Transportation

Posted by: Skookumchuk at July 14, 2007 11:08 AM

I have already commented, and possibly ought to have included this in the previous effort; but the general tone of the original post (ah diddums, little boy; never, mind, Daddy knows best and you don't understand) is an illustration of the problem. Americans - any Americans - are too close to the problem to see it.

And I do know just how great a power you haven't used yet. Evidence of this is the fact that Tehran isn't a solidified lake of Trinitite - yet. How many Americans, and (from my point of view) more importantly how many Brits are going to die before it is?

But if you do that, of course, there won't be anything left to steal.

The British Empire was a much greater force for good, in its time, than is the American Imperium. Which is probably one of the reasons why America has seen us off. You can't stand competition.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at July 14, 2007 7:27 PM

Weak Fletcher............Very Weak........

Posted by: Alexander James at July 15, 2007 7:20 PM

I know I'm a little late to the parade, but I can't resist making a comment on the entry by andrewdb: "how addicted we in the US are to oil." Call me an old fuddy duddy, but I like to make a point by using language that makes sense. Here is the American Heritage Dictionary definition of the word addicted: "1. To cause to become physiologically or psychologically dependent on a habit-forming substance: The thief was addicted to cocaine. 2. To occupy (oneself) with or involve (oneself) in something habitually or compulsively: The child was addicted to video games." How does that have anything to do with oil? I have never felt the desire either to get a high with oil or to hop in my auto and drive around the Beltway for six straight hours.

Do we use oil as efficiently as we could? For every argument that we do not - automobile size, public transportation use, community planning, and alternative energy production - there are equally valid arguments that our use of oil is appropriate. With the price of oil going up, and staying up, the economic incentives will drive the development and the roll out of alternatives to our current oil consumption patterns. If the "addicted to oil" crowd would like to make a point, they need to present evidence that we are using oil inefficiently, i.e. that better technology and/or consumption patterns exist to accomplish the same result using less oil. And don't for example say our cars are too big, because they are also safer and more responsive to the longer driving distances in the U.S.

Posted by: JohnSal at July 16, 2007 2:23 PM

We had to see Britain off as a competitor...would be farrrr toooo humiliating to see a country with 1/5 the population of the U.S. better us.

Based on the evidence of Iran's failing economy under the great mullahs, not sure there's anything of value left to steal. All the good rugs have probably already been stolen, er, I mean purchased.

Posted by: phil g at July 16, 2007 2:51 PM

The mutineer above appears to blame the demise of the British Empire on America. But that assertion is absurd, if one has even the most casual aquaintance with European History of the last 100 years.

I rather think that the Great War of 1914-1918 had more to do with the demise of the British Empire, (and frankly, the origin of most of the political problems the world is facing today), than anything the USA has managed to do in the last 100 years.

And the British did that to themselves, with no help from the US.

(Unless of course, one believes that all those war loans, and eventually the intervention of the US in WWI and WWII was all some sort of plot to destroy the British Empire. Seems to to be a roundabout way of doing it, eh?)

Posted by: Eric Blair at July 17, 2007 6:43 AM
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