Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Country is Better Than Yours

My father-in-law, who always owned Airedale terriers, used to say to other members of our family, “My dog is better than yours.” This was partly to annoy us, but mainly expressed what dog owners generally believe, that their dogs are the best. For my part, I know that Boston terriers are the finest dogs in the world.

This is a harmless belief. But it is like another idea, not so harmless – my country is better than yours. The disease of national egotism is especially prevalent in the US. Many Americans appear to take for granted that the US is the greatest country on earth. It seems to be required for every politician to say repeatedly that the US is superior to all other nations. I love my country and would like to live here the rest of my life, but I think this idea is dangerous.

Many white Europeans assumed they and their civilization were so superior to the rest of the world that they had the right to conquer and rule over many other peoples, with genocidal consequences. The Nazis took this belief that their country and their people were better than all others to the extreme of murdering millions of “lesser” people. The belief of white Americans that they were destined to rule over the North American continent led to centuries of violently racist treatment of Native Americans, black African slaves, and non-white immigrants.

Even at a lower level of political rhetoric, as practiced here these days, this claim is unfortunate. It makes people unable to see what is good about other nations. Germany’s public transport is better than ours. The Chinese are more considerate of foreigner travelers than we are. The Dutch are better at learning languages and the French make better coffee. Many nations have made better cars for decades.

Repeating without thinking that “we are the greatest” makes us unable to see what we could learn from others. During the health care debate, I often heard politicians and others say that our health care system is the best in the world. No evidence was ever employed to back up this claim, because it is a natural corollary of the assumption that our country is the best. In fact, every real comparison across nations of health care demonstrates that our system is not close to the best on any measure. The opponents of health care reform consistently refused to discuss why Americans might not be as healthy as people in other industrialized countries.

We also miss what we really do best. Our political system guarantees more personal freedoms and control over our government than nearly all other countries. If this is our claim to greatness, then we have to insure that we maintain our freedoms. We did not do that during recent years, when illegal government surveillance and torture of prisoners became government policy. If America is great, it is not due to some divine blessing, but because of specific features of our nation and our people. Being vague about exactly what those are makes us less likely to do the hard work needed to preserve them. To maintain greatness requires vigilance and action, not just words.

We can say “we are the greatest” as often as we like, but our actions speak louder. If we want to be great rather than just boastful, we must observe our own behavior and that of other nations with an open mind. We can learn much from others. Humility might be a good first lesson.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 25, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I Survived Chinese Traffic

I just returned from two weeks in China. Chinese traffic frightens me. Every time I crossed a street or, worse, got into a taxi, I feared for my life.

It’s not that traffic is so heavy in China or that they drive so fast. My fear came from utter unpredictability. The streets are crowded with cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and every possible kind of motorized contraption, including 3-wheeled vehicles powered by one-cylinder engines carrying goods, industrial materials, and people.

Lane lines are mere suggestions. People drive against traffic and up one-way streets, make left turns in front of oncoming traffic, and constantly weave back and forth. Scooters don’t obey traffic lights. Cars park in traffic lanes on major streets. Nobody gives way for pedestrians, even if they use the striped crosswalks. It’s marginally safer on the sidewalk, as long as you watch out for motorcycles.

Everybody honks at everybody else. In my hotel room above the city, I could hear a constant din of honking all day, and I was awakened in the night by horns just below my window.

Everyone drives egotistically, doing what is most convenient at any moment. The result is chaotic, inefficient, and dangerous.

Where vehicles are few, elaborate traffic rules are unnecessary. As soon as traffic becomes heavy, the flow must be regulated to promote efficient movement and to prevent accidents. Traffic laws give the smallest cars the same rights as an 18-wheeler; someone who can afford only a bicycle can use the roads the same as the richest Hummer owner. The individual freedom of drivers is highly restricted on modern streets in order to maximize the well-being of all. You barely notice how constrained your driving is, until you experience unregulated traffic.

Proponents of unrestricted individual freedom in modern society act as if universal egotism is unquestionably the best social system. They proclaim that social restrictions on the individual’s ability to do whatever they want are immoral and inefficient. They ignore examples like traffic, where their theories would cause chaos.

In complex modern societies and economies, individual freedom must always be balanced by the welfare of the community. Attempts to maintain or promote equality can conflict with the desires of the richest and most powerful to use their resources to their greatest advantage.

Where government regulation is weak, garbage is dumped where poor people live and public waterways are polluted by big industries. Workplaces are dangerous and food might be contaminated. The majority of ordinary citizens can only protect their individual pursuit of happiness by banding together through representative government, where each person has an equal vote.

The legislation in Congress to regulate Wall Street and the big banks is a perfect example of the clash of individual freedom and the social good. The freedom in question is that of a tiny minority of the richest Americans who control vast resources that we invest. Their selfish pursuit of greed brought down our national economy. We, the majority, have both the right and the responsibility to limit their freedom in order to protect our interests.

Egotistical individualism is unpleasant to encounter on a personal level. As the basis of society, it encourages honking at 2 AM.

I’d like to see the radical critics of our government’s efforts to promote a just social system try driving in China. It might help them see the flaws in their theories.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville, IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 11, 2010