Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Best Nation That Has Ever Existed?

Last night I was watching Larry King Live, and he had a segment with James Carville and Liz Cheney. The two debated current events, with James representing liberal thought, and Liz representing conservative thought.

At the end of the segment, they were rating President Obama overall, and Liz Cheney said, "One of the things that is troubling to Americans is the extent to which this administration is focused on the president's popularity overseas."

I've never understood this Republican attitude that it is not important that the president be liked in other countries, and that it is certainly not important enough to warrant much focus. Lately it has gotten to the point where they think that being well-liked abroad is a bad thing, and being ADORED by foreigners... well, that's downright un-American and deserving of suspicion.

Much of it, I suspect, has to to with George W. Bush. As his presidency progressed, he became more and more disliked overseas (not to mention HERE) to the point where he was virtually an international pariah. That famous video clip that was shot towards the end of his second term, of the Iraqi man throwing his shoes at him, became to me the symbol what most people in the world thought of Bush.

It therefore doesn't surprise me that Republicans have made being loathed in other countries a badge of honor. They've made it seem like being abhorred abroad shores up your America First bona-fides.

What really flummoxed me (and the word "flummoxed" was used three times last night) was when Ms. Cheney went on to say that it was disturbing that, while overseas, Obama, "has not been willing to say flat-out, 'I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally and unapologetically that America is the best nation that has ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today.'"

This is why I am soooooo happy that these people are out of power.

Imagine somebody from Texas coming to California and saying that about their state. Imagine somebody from San Francisco coming to San Diego and saying that about their city. How many friends would they make? How many bridges would they build? How much cooperation would they encourage?

It seems to me that such talk is a perfect recipe for instant antagonism and animosity. Is that what the USA wants from the other countries of the world?

I'm really trying to imagine it now... Obama having done as Ms. Cheney desired... in London, he says to Queen Elizabeth II, in Paris, he says to President Nicolas Sarkozy, in Prague and in Cairo, he says to the assembled crowds, "I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe unequivocally and unapologetically that America is the best nation that has ever existed in history, and clearly that exists today."

Imagine Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy coming to the USA and telling our people, "Io credo nell'eccezionalismo italiano. Io credo in modo inequivocabile e senza scuse che l'Italia e' la migliore nazione che mai esisteva nella storia, e chiaramente che esiste oggi."

Wouldn't that be off-putting? Wouldn't that make him reminiscent of Benito Mussolini?

And let's be honest with ourselves. ARE we the best nation that has ever existed? I would say no, because there IS no such thing as a best nation.

I know because I've been to other countries, quite a few of them, like 20. I am always amazed by Americans who say that life is the best here of any country in the world, and yet they've never stepped foot in another country.

I myself can really only make the comparison with Western Europe, though. It's the only part of the world where I have spent a substantial amount of time in. I have only spent a total of five weeks in Latin America, a week in the Middle East, and have never been to Africa or Asia.

So the USA is the best country, Liz Cheney says. Has she lived in Europe?

I've seen that in Western Europe, people work to live, not live to work. In Italy, they have the entire month of August off. They call it "Ferragosto", and they spend it usually on a beach, or traveling to another country. Here, we are lucky to get 2 weeks of paid vacation.

In Spain, I saw people in their 60s and 70s up late at night, at 2am, drinking sangria out outdoor tables having fun and chatting the night away. Here, the elderly in general are in bed by 9pm.

In Holland, I saw so many people on bicycles going to work (even in their suits) that it simply astounded me. No wonder they are all so thin and lean. And it's not just due to bicycling. They eat better in Europe, and not such gargantuan portions. They don't have the obesity, diabetes and heart problems that we have. They live longer.

As I traveled through Europe, I saw so many regional festivals.... each region with its own native dance, music and cuisine... the giant puppet heads, the costumes, the torches, the fireworks. I wish we had that here in the USA.

If you get sick in Europe, you don't have to worry about sliding into bankruptcy. And people don't hold off going to the doctor because they don't have insurance, or because they do, but they are afraid that their premiums will go up. I got ill when I lived in Milan, and I went to the doctor, and I was shocked when no one asked me upfront how I was going to pay. I didn't pay because it was free. And I did not have to wait a long time to see a doctor.

Are there negatives about life in Europe? Sure. Aspirin can only be bought in little boxes of 20 aspirin each, and there is only one brand--Bayer. In the USA you can buy a bottle of 300 aspirin for $13, and you can choose among brands. In Europe, you'd have to buy 15 boxes of aspirin to get that many tablets, costing you the equivalent $60 total.

Milk in the grocery store can only be bought in liter boxes. The equivalent of a gallon of milk would cost you $8.

Stores and shops close early, or in the middle of the day, or for entire days, and for any unpredictable amount of time. It is not a consumer-first society. It seemed to me that in Europe, the customer is always wrong.

And let's not get started on the price of gas. It can cost you the equivalent of $80 to fill your tank (but hey--the trains run on time and they are fast and frequent).

Sound bad? Well, keep in mind that going to a university will cost you almost nothing. Students don't graduate from college in Europe saddled with debt.

They also graduate with a much more profound knowledge of the world at-large, and I mean after graduating from high school. They don't have superficial testing there; no multiple choice or True-or-False questions. You read whole books and write essays to prove your understanding of the material. You don't forget what you learned a few years after graduation. And you are also capable of speaking a foreign language or two.

The stereotype of the ignorant American is a stereotype because, for the most part, it is true. We have an amazing amount of ignorant people for a country that is so rich and powerful. Americans and world maps are like oil and water.

But hey, here in the USA, there is much more of a sense of freedom in switching jobs, changing your career, that's good. That's personal liberty. In Europe, once you have a job, YOU KEEP IT. Preferably for life.

What I'm trying to get at, even at this simplistic level, is that there are pros and cons to life in every country.

I do think one can say that America is the greatest country on earth, if you mean "great" in the sense of being powerful and dominant both pop-culturally and militarily. This greatness is not to be the disputed because it is so obvious.

But if you mean greatest as in "best", then no, America is not the best country, because NO country is.

I'm just really glad that Obama has never said such a thing abroad, and that he cares that we are liked in the rest of the world, and that he IS liked.

That's a nice change after the past eight years. I want my president to be liked. Sorry Liz. That is not something that is "troubling" to THIS American.