I love America – and also despise it

By Jonathan Power

The United States of America has a “culture of ignorance”. Around half of all Americans appear to feel no shame about that being so. In the south the total probably goes up to around 65%, whereas in the north, including California, it goes down to 35%.

It is a rough and ready way of putting it but it is the other 50% who voted for Obama. Obama-types are less religious, more scientifically orientated, less racist, more pro health care for the poor, more aware of the world outside, more convinced that war solves little, and knowledgeable to the extent they know their immediate neighbour, Canada, does a much better job of making a good life than their country does.

It’s the “culture of ignorance” half that is now pushing for a tougher military response to the menace of ISIS, of pumping up military muscle power vis a vis Russia and of persuading itself that more troops in Iraq could sort out what eight years of military occupation didn’t and couldn’t. It’s this half which tried to sabotage America’s economic recovery after the 2008-9 crash by demanding tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in social welfare for the poor, and refusing to study or countenance Keynesian uplift economics.

I left England to do my master’s degree in America. I worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. I wrote a foreign policy column for nearly 20 years for a famous American paper and was selected for that role by one of the greatest editors of modern times, an American Jew, who told me the day he took me on at the age of 33 to “write what I wanted, when I wanted”.

I campaigned from a distance for Obama and think what he has achieved is historic (although I think his Russian policy is gravely mistaken). Every time I see him on television I am reminded that no European leader has his charisma, his intelligence or his ability to talk in the most sophisticated and learned of ways.

So I love America. But I also despise America. I’m afraid of America’s footprint in the world. I think Europe and Canada make sense and America doesn’t.

Dylan Roof, the young man who went into a black church in Charleston and murdered nine worshipers, is a child of the 50% who make up the “culture of ignorance”. He maybe an extreme form of it but the ingredients are all around him.

50 years after Martin Luther King and his winning of historic civil rights legislation and after nearly 7 years of Obama the undercurrent of racism is alive and well.

Tied into a knot with the culture of gun ownership and the murders it breeds, it shows no sign of abating. The senators and representatives who lead the “culture of ignorance and violence” make sure that there will be no controls on the owning of arms, even those purchased from factories that produce for the army.

These congressmen and their many friends in the media, business and finance manage to denigrate coherent, intelligent, argument as somehow unpatriotic, conducted by those unaware that America is “a beacon upon a hill”. I recall President Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who in one diatribe spoke of America’s thinking class as “pointed headed intellectuals who can’t even park their bicycles straight”.

He would have liked the chairman of the Senate environmental committee who brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax. (I doubt if either of them could throw a snowball straight!)

Half of America sincerely believes its country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom and that the quality of life surpasses anywhere else on the planet.

Yet international rankings place America barely in the top ten. America’s rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf the rest of the Western world and that of much of the Muslim world. So does the prison incarceration rate, not least of young black men, often convicted of non-violent, petty, crimes.

The US’s average levels of educational achievement and scientific literacy are, in world terms, embarrassingly low. Nevertheless, its “good” 50% sustains the world’s best universities, produces the most Nobel prize winners for science and the highest standards in medicine – if you can afford it.

The southern “Bible Belt” produces world-class ignorance. It rejects Darwinian explanations of mankind’s creation and insists that the notion that God created the human race in seven days be taught in schools. In the military one can hear high-ranking officers proclaiming that they believe in an inevitable confrontation between good and evil and that we live in the “final days”.

America teeters on the edge of abandoning reason. Obama has tried to fight this. He has partly won and partly failed.

Sad to say, it is doubtful if any successor will do better.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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