It is amazing the power of mythology over logic -- mythology which people can accept and believe regardless of all facts and evidence to the contrary, mythology about who they are, where they live, what their history is. It seems to me that no industrial nation suffers more under the weight of its own myths than the United States. I remember as a child how in school each morning we would have to repeat a pledge to the American flag, and we heard again and again how great, wealthy, and democratic the United States is. These things were told as eternal truths, and never questioned, while we simultaneously learned about the scientific method and the importance of factual assessment and logical analysis. I would like to expose some of these myths in simple terms.
It seems to me that the general consensus, at least from Americans themselves, is false. Most Americans I know are of the opinion that the United States is the greatest country in the world, the richest, the most democratic, a great force of good in the world. It is the world’s leading country in progressive thinking. It is a generous country that gives so much to poor countries. All of these statements are false.
While the United States is certainly among the richest nations on earth, in terms of material wealth, the standard of living is not amongst the top. The richest countries in terms of per capita income are Luxembourg and Norway. In terms of natural resources, Russia is the undisputed champion. In terms of the quality of life, we must also consider the following facts about the United States. Its citizens are the only Western people who are not guaranteed some sort of health coverage. In fact, more than 45 million Americans have no health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (see also Washington Post, 27 Aug 2004, p. A01). Not surprisingly, then, the United States has the highest infant mortality rate of any Western country, ranking 28th in the world. Similarly, it has the lowest life expectancy of any Western country, ranking 24th in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The United States has the highest percentage of its population living in poverty (of industrialized nations), according to the United Nations Human Development Index. The U.S. Census Bureau has reported that in 2003, the percentage of Americans living in poverty rose to 13.5%. That’s 35 million people living in poverty in the country the Americans call the world’s richest! Low life expectancy, high infant mortality, tens of millions living in poverty and without health insurance. These are not exactly the hallmarks of a wealthy nation. Such is the power of myth.
Similarly, in terms of generosity, the United States again misses the mark wildly. While most Americans would characterize their country as generous, in 1998 it ranked lower than any other industrialized nation in giving development aid to poor countries (as a percentage of GNP), according to the OECD Report. It should be noted here, that one third of the American foreign aid budget goes to Israel. A 2002 index shows no improvement: the United States lands again squarely in last place both in terms of per capita private and government aid to poor countries (Center for Global Development and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From “Ranking the Rich,” Foreign Policy, May/June 2004). So much for the generosity of the world’s “richest” country.
These facts notwithstanding, every American I talk to seems to insist that this is not representative of the USA. When I point out slums and ghettos, in nearly every large American city from New York to Los Angeles to Denver or Chicago, my American friends seem to think these people do not really count. They aren’t real Americans. They instead point out the wealth in the suburbs as a sort of counterpoint. I get the same response when I point out people living in trailer parks in rural areas. In September of 2005, the world saw image after image of Americans in New Orleans, desperate, poor, begging for help which their own government was not providing. It was clear to any observer that this was not only the result of a natural disaster or of the economic choice to fund wars rather than domestic spending on levees, but also very much the result of poverty, plain and simple. Yet when the world looked on in shock, the Americans themselves seemed unable to accept that something was incorrect with their own self-image of wealth and invulnerability.
This power of myth over logical analysis extends well into the political realm.
Americans generally seem to be convinced of how democratic their system is. Many believe it to be the world’s first democracy, when of course even the word itself goes back to ancient Greece. Others insist that it is the world’s oldest democracy, when in fact Iceland had democracy centuries before the Europeans had even colonized the North American continent. More importantly, no one seems to notice that the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 have cast the entire system into doubt. Wrought with scandal and widespread reports of fraud, the election of 2000 installed a leader who did not win the vote of the majority of the population, and who was finally put into office not by the result of any election, but by a decision of an appointed court. And yet the attitude seems to be: “Sure, the last two elections were clearly fraudulent, but other than that we are very democratic.”
I point out that, while most industrialized countries have from three to 12 or more political parties which are both politically viable and represent greatly different viewpoints and interests, the United States has only two parties, both of which have the same basic platform (i.e. pro-war, pro-free trade, pro-surveillance of their own citizens in terms of the “Patriotic Act”, etc.), and I get a similar response: “Sure, but apart from that....” None of these facts seem to sway the opinions of the American citizens.
Any perusal of the history of American foreign policy reveals endemic, consistent support for dictatorships; from Pinochet in Chile to Batista in Cuba, from Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua to Mobuto Sese Seko in Zaire (and the list goes on and on). And yet nearly every American, from individual citizens to newspaper editors and political columnists, will insist that the United States is a force for democracy in the world. They speak repeatedly about exporting democracy, even while their own system lacks credibility and their long history suggests the very opposite.
When I mention that the United States has the largest prison population of any country (see International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London), that it is the only remaining industrial power where the death penalty is accepted (if not to say celebrated, at least by a certain segment of the population), no American seems to find this evidence that the United States is not a particularly progressive thinking country.
All of these myths add up to a country with serious self-image problems, a country suffering from self-delusion. There can be no improvement without first the recognition of the real situation, no moving forward without first an honest assessment of the facts of the matter.
It seems to me that Americans have a very selective perception, a self-perception that is harmful to themselves and the rest of the world. In his eulogy for Rosa Parks, the Reverend Al Sharpton admonished the mourners that it isn’t enough to call it like you see it: “a mirror isn’t just to reflect what you see, a mirror is to correct what you see!” In the interest of both reflection and correction, I think it is now time to start debunking the myths.
Daniel Vallin is a writer who no longer lives in the United States.
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