The Art of Appreciating America from Abroad
Sense Out of Nonsense -- a ten-step plan
I’ve been following the news the last two weeks -- Weinergate, the dismal “unexpected” economic news, the new wars in Libya and Yemen -- from Europe while leading about 60 on a military history tour of Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Even a brief hiatus abroad always gives one perspective and appreciation of the United States; reading various European papers accents the difference, and daily association, by chance and by design, with Europeans enriches the perspective. I offer some reflections this week on the American experience, and hope to be back on the farm in the U.S. by the time most read this. I note that the Mediterranean is a beautiful place, the study of which I have devoted much of my adult career; so my comments are not so much critiques of Sicilian or Roman life as much as thoughts on the U.S. through the benefit of both distance and connectivity with the 24/7 news.
1. We should not listen to journalists, politicians, or academics who lecture about overpopulation, looming environmental catastrophe, or general unsustainability -- if they live in a house over 2,500 square feet and fly more than once a month. Unfortunately that covers most of our alarmists. Otherwise these megaphones simply are medieval grandees seeking indulgences and penances through loud lectures against what they enjoy in the flesh.
2. When listening to national network or cable news, please assume that during the half-hour show one of the talking heads -- anchor, correspondent, interviewer -- is either married to or dating another like talking head at another station or paper, or a D.C. politician, and that most of what we shall subsequently hear is predicated on that fact. The nexuses are usually sex, money, power, or a shared quest for celebrity, and they lead to a warped view of contemporary America -- the deranged hatred for the upstart and independent Sarah Palin a prime example.
3. Likewise we should assume that most of our news, our popular entertainment, our movies and TV shows, and our supposed conventional wisdom that winds up in magazines reflect the anxieties, fears, and prejudices of about 1-2 million elites that live between either New York and Washington or San Francisco and Los Angeles -- apprehensions that are largely irrelevant to 9 of 10 other Americans. Apparently living in an urban, coastal, and largely segregated upscale neighborhood and associating with such a thin slice of like-minded America create such insularity and serial foolishness.
4. There are two perceived worlds in America. The Orwellian and censored one is presented to us as refined and packaged through traditional media, while its raw antipode turns up on the blogs, YouTube, posted comments on op-eds rather than the op-eds themselves, and in mass email mailings. The former is supposedly adjudicated by sophisticated and sensitive people and is usually in aggregate a lie; the latter is often episodic, sensational, and inflammatory, and designed either to enrage or titillate -- and in these Dark Ages is unfortunately closer to the truth. So, for example, we are often reduced to believing a National Enquirer story about John Edwards more than a counterpart in the L.A. Times, or to trusting more that a YouTube video reflects the landscape of the inner cities better than assurances from a senator or anchorman.
5. It is wise to navigate through the news and elite wisdom through two landmarks: anything that Barack Obama says will be airbrushed, improved, or modified to fit facts post facto; anything Sarah Palin says or does will be contextualized in Neanderthal terms. Teams of Post and Times volunteers now sort through Sarah Palin’s email; not a reporter in the world is curious about what Barack Obama once said about Rashid Khalidi or the Columbia University GPA that won him entrance to Harvard Law School. Accept that asymmetry and almost everything not only makes sense about these two cultural guideposts, but can, by extension, explain the 1860-like division in American itself.
6. Go to Europe and see the left-wing desired future for America: dense urban apartment living by design rather than by necessity; one smart car; no backyard or third bedroom; dependence on mass transit; political graffiti everywhere demanding more union benefits or social entitlements; entourages of horn-blaring, police-escorted technocrats racing through the streets on the hour; gated inherited homes of an aristocratic technocracy on the Mediterranean coast, Rhine, Danube, etc., exempt from much socialist and environmental law; $10 a gallon gas; sky-high power bills; racial segregation coupled with elite praise of illegal immigration and diversity; and unexamined groupthink on green issues, entitlements, and the culpability of the U.S. Drink it all in and you have the liberal agenda for an America to be.
7. America is judged in terms of what politicians say, the media reports, the entertainment industry blares out, or what economic gurus assert, rather than in terms of what those are saying or doing who pump oil, produce food, build homes, or engineer plants, roads, and bridges. The former in the news are our planers and trimmers; the forgotten latter are elemental builders. But to understand America, consult the last groups as often as you should ignore the first. While one talks and whines, the other simply keeps things running and works to make things better.
8. Do not listen to most of what is written or reported about America from abroad; instead look at global fashion, dress, travel, and immigration, and then see who is copying or emulating whom. America is as damned overseas as it is the favorite destination of Chinese students, the Oaxacan impoverished, Middle Eastern shopkeepers, and Russian doctors. The more Europe critiques the U.S., the more it finds safety in our military; Mexico hates America as much as it likes our $30 billion in remittances. Take away America, and even a socialist Strauss-Kahn has nowhere to visit his daughter or find a golden parachute. And why not? The suburban ranch 3/2 house of the middle class American, with its many appurtenances, is a mini-estate in Europe, a mansion in the Middle East, and a castle in Africa or most of Asia.
9. The contemporary university increasingly sounds like 19th-century carriage makers damning new auto companies. Surely academics know that tuition cannot any longer climb higher each year than inflation, that the number of administrators cannot any more match the number of teachers on campus, that faculty cannot deserve lifelong tenured appointments or by fiat should teach only four classes a year. Surely academics know that their subsidized esoteric research is mostly irrelevant -- and increasingly recognized as such by the public. No one believes in a disinterested campus; everyone accepts that the university is one of the most politically illiberal and prejudiced institutions in America. Case in point: academics tend to patronize and favor African-Americans on campus; academics tend to despise as a group conservatives; but academics tend to hate without rhyme or reason conservative African-Americans, whose race goes from being a plus to a far larger minus -- his independence and autonomy now earning him far greater hatred than his party-line platitudes once did useful condescension.
10. Reduce much of what Barack Obama says, advocates, and tries to implement and you find a particular kind of despised but uniquely American species in his cross-hairs: upper-middle class, making $200-800,000 a year, employed as a professional or small business person, living in the suburbs or small town America, children in non-Ivy League private and public colleges, a nice house, perhaps a vacation home, boat, 2-3 nice cars, residing outside the east and west coasts without an aristocratic pedigree, for whom food stamps are as much an anathema as is Martha’s Vineyard or Costa del Sol.
Massive debt, ObamaCare, vast expansions in federal spending, new regulations, affirmative action, open borders, and environmental legislation are all targeted at this profile. He neither generates the cheap sympathy accorded to the distant poor nor wins the envy and admiration of the tasteful idle old money or the new mega-rich. When I see him plugging away on his vacation on a Sierra Nevada highway -- a club cab new Chevy V-8 truck pulling a sleek powerboat or fancy trailer with two jet-skies -- I think of a doomed wooly mammoth soon to go down amid the ropes, nets, and missiles from a vast array of gleeful hunters.