10 Things America Does Worse Than Europe

10 Things America Does Worse Than Europe

I have been lucky enough to have traveled to Europe many times.  I felt in reading this article, based on what I have seen, that there is a lot of truth to it.  I have also been a lot of places where suggesting that America doesn’t do everything the best will drive people crazy.  That seems batshit insane to me.  It is like if you were on a really good football team and you saw another winning team in a different division.  Wouldn’t you try to watch them to see how they were winning, so that you could be even better?

The fact is that other parts of the world do some things better than we do.  Instead of being afraid of it we should try to learn from it and make our country better.  Being a self-declared champion is meaningless and delusional.

Hat tip to my friend Liza.  

Great Moments In American Politics: Pulling a Gun While Being Drunk in the Senate

A lot of people hate Congress, but what they don’t realize is that it has improved!  What follows is the behavior of Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware as reported in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  (Sualsburg was pat of the group that opposed the Emancipation Proclamation):

In the Senate, Willard Saulsbury of Delaware took to the floor to prevent a vote sustaining the administration on the suspension of habeas corpus.  He could hardly keep his footing during a liquor-fueled harangue, while he inveighed against the president “in language fit only for a drunken fishwife,” calling him “an imbecile” and claiming that he was “the weakest man ever placed in high office.”  Called to order by Vice President Hamlin, he refused to take his seat.  When sergeant at arms approached to take Saulsbury into custody, he pulled out his revolver.  “Damn you,” he said, pointing the pistol at the sergeant’s head, “if you touch me I’ll shoot you dead.”  The wild scene continued for some time before Saulsbury was removed from the Senate floor.

Just remember what’s out there in the American bloodstream, right below the surface.  Happy New Year!

Ken Burn’s The Civil War and Thinking Critically

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As I have said in prior posts, I’m watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  As a point of entry and an overview, I think it is outstanding.  I think it is an extremely well done documentary series that includes an incredible amount of information in an easily understandable way.  It is great TV.  I think it is good history too, as long as you view it as an overview.  One could make a documentary series just about the battle of Gettysburg, or any number of things that this covers.

I can’t help but feel watching parts of it though, that it is sanitized history.  I don’t necessarily mean this as a dig against the series.  When I was a history major in college I realized that the larger the period of time that you covered, the more the class was only going to deal with surface events.  If you took European History you would get names and dates and a couple of overreaching themes.  I took a class on just the years of the Third Reich leading up to World War II, for instance, and you got much deeper into the human mud of what was going on in that time.  So I think that in dealing with a subject as epic as the Civil War, only having eleven and a half hours to tell it, they did about as good as anyone could.

Let me diverge for a minute.  In the TV show Deadwood, which is a western TV show that takes place in the town of Deadwood, there is a scene where the army comes to town.  The commander of the army makes a speech that is the kind of speech you can imagine a commander making.  Meanwhile a deranged looking soldier mutters things like, “We ate our horses.”  In one scene you are getting the noble version of a story and the less noble truth at the same time.

Now before I go any further I want to make something clear.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t believe what they read in history books.  I’m not saying that every event has a conspiracy behind it and that traditional history is a deception.  In fact many history books are brutally honest.  But one should always read history with a critical eye.  Most of the time historians are doing their best to get at the truth.  But everyone has certain biases, only certain information might be available at anytime, or they just might have real world issues like certain time constraints upon their work.  Some people are just better writers than others.  As with most things in life approaching something from multiple viewpoints is the best way to get a well rounded portrait of something.  I read two or three books on Custer last year, I honestly can’t remember, and each book made the picture a little clearer.

But by sanitized history I mean that something paints a narrative that, while telling the truth, doesn’t challenge the existing order of things.  I mean Lee is constantly treated as revered.  It’s always mentioned that he had time for privates, that he was a good man at his core, that he was a brilliant general. But he fought for Virginia because he believed that is where his duty lay.  He let duty lead him to fight on the side of slavery.  Now I understand, and I myself risk simplifying things, that slavery at the start of the war, wasn’t the only thing that people were fighting over.  I also understand that you have to try to look at things in the context of their time.  But at the end of the day he did do just that, he fought on the side that wanted to protect slavery.  And while he was no doubt a brilliant general in a lot of ways, he sent many troops to their slaughter at Gettysburg in a terrible blunder.   Stonewall Jackson, in the book I am reading, is often sweet and good natured in his private life, but could commit acts of war with bloody ferocity.  Both his private kindness and his public savagery were allowed to exist because he, and many in the Civil War, believed they were instruments of God.  Well it would be a an incomplete picture to not present them as complicated, fully realized humans, that had both good and bad qualities, too often often history does not lay it out bare that these people were emotional mutants.  They could play with children and then send those children’s fathers to die for state pride at best, and the right to maintain slavery at worst.  It is true that Grant could also send large numbers of troops to die, but at that point emancipation was on the table, and that was something morally worth fighting for.

I think the show Deadwood, a work of fiction based on reality, does a far better job than a lot of history in terms of exposing the ugliness, and sometimes the human grace, in our past.  I mean these Civil War battles were truly things of the utmost horror.  Thousands of people were often shot down in mere minutes.  These were battles of butchery and savagery.  The documentary series shows dead bodes, and uses words like butchery and savagery, but I don’t think it makes it vivid enough how truly horrible these battles were.  They too often seem like things of the past, safe from the modern world.  These were our ancestors, only two human life spans away, that were dismembering each other in the most horrible ways imaginable.  This wasn’t the middle ages.  There was a scene in the episode last night where white and black Union troops were fighting the Confederates.  The Confederates were saying, if there were captives to take, “Take the whites and kill the niggers.”  That’s somebody’s great great grandpa!  I mean slave owners were selling people’s children off.  People that did that shit helped build this country!  Again, all of this stuff is talked about in the show, but there it seems to be treated almost too reverential at times.  While the show often acknowledges the horrible, it often doesn’t acknowledge the absurd, and these things are often disconnected from our present.

I actually think this is a great documentary series, despite my criticisms above.  My point is not to disparage the show.  I think, again, given the amount of material they had to cover in a given time, they did so in a truly extraordinarily way that is a great overview of this time in history.  But I think one can hold the contradictory opinion of acknowledging someone’s achievement while also criticizing it.  The filmmakers did an outstanding job, but the viewer must now do theirs in thinking critically about the information presented.

America’s Growing Pains

I mentioned in an earlier post today that I want to read S.C. Gwynne’s new book Rebel Yell:  The Violence, The Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  I also want to read Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  In truth, I’ve been thinking a lot about slavery and the Civil War since the election.

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how Gwynne’s last book, Empire of the Summer Moon, shed light for me on the culture of Texas.  Because of the Comanche, early Texas was a place where survival was almost Darwinian.  Only the strongest or luckiest survived.  It is not hard to see in Texas, a state full of pride and larger than life characters, how the culture of the state could have come out of that world.

It seems that many of the problems that this country faces right now are due to a kind of super-capitalism, where market forces have overridden logic and reason.  Why is American capitalism so much more destructive than the kind that exists in Europe?  This is especially true if you look at what is going on with the environment.  This is also true if you look at America’s safety net compared with that of the rest of the Western world.  There are many reasons, but I can’t help but feel that culture is lagging behind history.

What kind of culture and economy did we inherit because of slavery and the civil war?  How did those two factors contribute to the making of modern America?

I was talking to a friend a few nights ago and we were debating politics.  We were comparing Europe to America and again asking the question of why, in certain ways, Europe is culturally ahead of America right now.  The truth is that Europe has its own violent and horrible history.  However, they have a much longer history than we do.  They have bled out several times over.  Much of what exists in Europe today is a partial reaction to the World Wars that were fought there.

Although Europe is doing certain things better than America right now, this does not mean that in the long scope of history that they are better.  They have had much longer to get to where they are at.  The problem right now is, in a world so interconnected, especially with problems like overpopulation and climate change on the horizon, can the world wait for us to go through our “growing pains”?

The Concise Untold History of the United States

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I read the Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick book The Untold History of the United States.  They have now released a companion book, that is shorter and more closely follows the TV series.  It is called The Concise Untold History of the United States.  The difference between the two books as Oliver Stone explained on his Facebook page:

“Concise Untold History” was released last week. At 306 pages, it faithfully renders the text of the 12-hour series. The original 618-page edition, with 90 pages of footnotes, is really closer to a primer that substantiates the details presented in the film. 

I am particularly passionate over this ‘Concise History,’ and find it poetic in keeping with the spirit of the series. It’s a light-weight paperback that can easily be carried around.  

I was really impressed with the first book.  I was a History Major and eventually graduated with a degree in American Studies.  I have seen at least some of the information that Stone and Kuznick wrote about corroborated in other sources.  I  don’t normally like to recommend a book I haven’t read, but if you are at all interested in what they have to say, but feel a little daunted in a 600 plus page book, this seems like a good place to start.  From what I saw of it the series was excellent as well.  After reading the first book and seeing about half of the series, I feel pretty safe saying this would be a very interesting read.

End of the Weekend Trivia

How many of you know the name of this character?

Link_Defending_(Soulcalibur_II)

Answer here:

Information on above character

And now how many of you, off the top of your head, can remember what the Fourth Amendment pertains to?

Answer here:

The Fourth Amendment

I am willing to bet there are a lot more people that know the answer to the first question than the second.

And I’d be lying if I said for sure I would have gotten the second one right from memory!  Just a little test to make you think about where we’re at.  

John Oliver On Drones

This is an absolutely excellent on The United States drone program.  While most news is entertainment posing as news, this is news posing as entertainment.  You will see a far more in depth discussion on our drone program than you will see on almost any cable news channel.  It just happens to be delivered by someone that can pepper the information he is delivering with some great jokes.  Our use of drones is one of the moral and ethical dilemmas of our time.  The fact that we are not having a greater discussion on this is troubling.  I have admitted to supporting Obama in the past.  This is one issue that he is terrible on and should be held accountable for.

Literature as Propaganda

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/why-the-cia-distributed-pocket-size-copies-of-doctor-zhivago-in-the-soviet-union/371369/

The above article is about how governments, The United States and The Soviet Union in this case particularly, viewed literature as a powerful tool for propaganda.  This story focuses on Doctor Zhivago and how the CIA had it distributed within The Soviet Union.  I always have felt that if more people read, and spent less time watching the brain deadening junk that is mainstream television, that this country would be better off.  Not a bold or original though I know, but most likely true.  

There is a really great book by George Orwell called All Art is Propaganda.  In the book Orwell uses literary criticism as a jumping off point to tackle larger ideas concerning politics and society.  It is a fascinating read that I highly recommend.  

As the review on amazon.com says:  All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary.

Being Treated Like a Human Being

One of the things that surprised me in Japan was how kind people were to foreign strangers.  I’ve previously read enough to know that Japan has been a completely closed society in the past, and is still closed off in some ways to outsiders.  I also know that it is a culture that can be hard on the individual, which can favor group think at times, and as a result can be casually cruel to those that don’t fit neatly into observed norms.  I’m also not blind to the fact that I have a completely superficial understanding of their culture.  I was there for a week.  For the flight home I downloaded several books on the Japanese and their culture so that I might better understand what I saw.   

However, none of this obscures the fact that on a surface level the Japanese are unbelievably courteous.  You are greeted with smiles and kindness around every turn.  If you need help it is there in spades.  If you pull out a map and look lost, someone approaches you to find your way.  If you drop something, someone will pick it up for you.  If you are sick, like I was when I was there, their medical care is efficient, affordable, and the treatment is on a very human level.  At hotels, stores, restaurants, and even just out on the street, they go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. 

With only having a basic understanding of their culture, surely I am missing something.  I am sure I am not picking up on basic signs that the Japanese would see.  I was reading a book written by Japanese students and their professor called The Japanese Mind.  It talks about how communication in Japan can be very ambiguous and that it is often in the subtlest of ways that their true intentions are communicated. 

None of what I might be missing obscures the fact that the way they behave makes for a seemingly better everyday life.  If someone smiles at you or says thank you here in America, even if it is just part of a professional courtesy, it can go a long way in improving your mood.  If someone smiles at you, you often find yourself smiling back.

Often it is not the big problems in life that defeat us, but the small everyday indignities that make us suffer.  I come from the North East where casual indifference seems to be the norm.  When I moved to Austin I was amazed that strangers would wave to me as I went on a bike ride.  I was astounded when I went to restaurants and people asked me how my day was with what seemed like actual interest.  My first reaction was, “what the fuck do these people want to know about my day for?!!!”  I was surprised at how quickly people were to hug me when I saw them, even people of whom I was only an acquaintance.  All of these minor things added up over time though and led to a sunnier lifestyle.  Austin is becoming more urban in attitudes and behavior as it grows, but it is still different than many places I have been in the US. 

The Japanese don’t seem much for hugging, but aside from this they display this casual kindness in spades.  Everywhere I went I was treated like what I am, a human being.  Even if it is nothing but politeness, this behavior pays off.  You feel your soul more relaxed and at ease.  Even in the airport yesterday I felt a calmness in the air that I don’t feel when I am home.  There at least feels like there is less anxiety in their way of life.  I wasn’t alone in that everyone who I traveled with or met that was an outsider felt this way.  I want to read and learn and get to the bottom of this, as it was simply an extraordinary experience.  However, no matter what I dig up, I can say that there is something to be learned from these people.  Being treated like a human being really is as nice as it sounds.  

Quote

Oliver Stone and Jeju, Korea

“…Obama’s resupplied Japan with stealth fighters. Japan has the 5th largest military in the world. No one admits that. You call yourself a Self Defense Force…You’re the 4th largest military in the world, after Great Britain and China. The US is your full accomplice in this. You are some of our best buyers. We make you not only pay for the weapons we sell you, but we make you pay for the wars we fight.
We are bullies. You’re facing a dragon of great size and the dragon is not China, it’s the U.S. Four days ago, I was in Jeju, Korea, where South Korea…is destroying a UNESCO World Heritage site, destroying the land and inhabitants…they’re going to build the harbor so deep that the George Washington, the largest aircraft carrier in the world, carrying all kinds of nuclear missiles, is going to sail to Jeju. South Korea – armed to the teeth. Japan – armed to the teeth…Philippines…we’re back in Subic Bay…
We are looking for arrangements in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and I heard India…India was always non-aligned…This is very dangerous…This is like NATO. It began as a defense arrangement and became an offensive arrangement…
This year, the specter of war has returned to Asia…The spirit of World War II is being revived…So you can talk all you want about peace and nuclear abolition but the poker game is run by the U.S.”

I know several people in the environmental movement that were actually at Jeju, Korea.  My father was one of them.  I can’t attest to this whole statement by Stone, but I have heard the part about Jeju echoed before.