Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cruelty and American exceptionalism

The things we do on purpose

Two days ago, I posted "War makes us stupid--and violent." Its central point was that our violent culture, our "exceptional" America, has been shaped by a root cause that runs considerably deeper than first-person shooter video games, deeper than our highest per capita gun ownership rates. The post focused on our country's unique history of war making, on our history of continuous mobilization and war fighting, more than a century of continuous warfare, to this point (with a couple years off during the Great Depression).

Of course, there has to be more than one root cause, more than one factor that makes the United States easily the most violent among industrialized nations. There is the racism of our past and present, our racism against Native-, African-, Asian- and Latino-Americans, and immigrants of all description. There is the legacy of slavery. There is the history of the violence wreaked on indigenous peoples and cultures; our colonizing ancestors, unlike most invaders who occupied conquered territories, did not assimilate. By and large, we obliterated those who had been here before us. We fought a civil war bloodier than any other in the history of industrialized democracies. There are plenty of other root causes to propose and argue.

For now, I'm going to try and stay focused on the continuous-war thing. But any assertion that the influences which have shaped a uniquely cruel and violent country need to be articulated, understood and addressed requires some sort of further argument that the country in question is in fact so unfortunately exceptional. That argument cannot rest exclusively on the twin facts of highest per capita gun ownership and highest homicide rate.

A column by Harold Meyerson, in yesterday's Washington Post, seems an excellent source for more evidence that the United States is exceptional as much for its cruelty as for its generosity.
In "America flunks its checkup," Meyerson sifts through a recent report on longevity and health care comparing the U.S. to 16 other developed countries. "...the United States placed dead last in life expectancy, even though we lead the planet in the amount we spend on health care," he wrote.

"Americans die young. The death rate for Americans younger than almost off the comparative charts," he continued. "A range of exceptionally American factors--car usage and lack of exercise, junk food diets, violent death from guns, high numbers of uninsured...the high rate of poverty--all contribute to this grim distinction."

Meyerson makes such points on the way to the further observation that once Americans reach 65, if they are lucky enough to do so, longevity rates suddenly and dramatically improve. That, he wrote, is because at that age Americans enter a national health care system comparable to that which had been available at all ages to citizens in the other 16 countries assessed in the study.

It's a good column and I certainly have no problem with a smart argument in favor of a birth-to-death national health care system in the U.S. But I'm more concerned with how much of Meyerson's discussion of these unique aspects of American life fits into the thesis that the U.S. is unusually cruel in its social policies and that it's worth figuring out why.

Most of the data shared in Meyerson's piece--higher death rates for younger people, high obesity rates, more uninsured people, higher auto usage and more--are the direct outcomes of long established social policy. And the fact that they are the outcomes of long established policy, and that the relationship of those outcomes to those policies has been understood for a generation, if not more, means that those outcomes and those policies are deliberate choices.

In other words, it has been the policy of the United States for many years that health care will be rationed in favor of the wealthy, that jobs and homes will be located at a distance from each other and that they will not be linked by public transportation, and that food deserts that encourage bad nutrition will be characteristic of places where poor people and minorities live. For going on at least 50 years, Americans have been voting for the politicians who approve and support such policies.

There is more, of course, a public education system that was once the best in the world in terms of universality and accessibility has been defunded and allowed to collapse for more than a generation. Wage stagnation has been worse and gone on longest in the U.S., while the lion's share of benefits from productivity increases since the 1970s has gone to the wealthy. All these outcomes are the result of economic policies that have created and maintained private profit opportunities in regard to basic needs, policies that other developed nations provide as direct benefits to their citizens or that those same countries regulate far more carefully than the U.S. does.

So if we know what we're doing, and we know what will happen when we do it, and we know that our  fellow citizens will be injured by the doing, and we still do it, don't we intend the damage that we cause? And haven't we been doing that damage, in some cases, for quite a long time? And if we are going to learn to control ourselves, and stop doing such damage,  don't we need to understand why we have been and are so cruel in the first place?

By all means, let us regulate gun ownership more effectively, and let us continue to reform the health care system in our collective interest. But let's look at how we got to be more warlike than any other developed nation. And let's take a long look at what being that way has cost our country and ourselves.

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