Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Post #205 - Back to Basics

On March 1, via the website called AlterNet, James Gustave Speth shared his article from Orion Magazine, "America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last -- How Can We Change That?" (Speth teaches at Vermont Law School. He is an American environmental lawyer, advocate, and author. The article is based on his new book America the Possible: Roadmap to a New Economy (Yale University Press).

This article exposes all the ways in which this country is now lagging behind the major advanced democracies (UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and others).

While we sell more arms around the world than any other country, and spend more on our own defense (as a function of GDP) than those other industrialized nations, we have fallen from prominence in other more laudable and enviable measures. We have, for example:

• "the greatest inequality of incomes... the highest poverty rate [50 million people]... and the lowest social mobility" -- this in a country whose whole national myth and self-image is rooted in equality and opportunity
• "the highest homicide rate [and[... largest prison population (both in absolute terms and per capita);" how can we call ourselves a "peace-loving" people?
• "the [third-lowest] spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income;" yet, in poll after poll many Americans evince an unwillingness to help the poor of other nations while we are experiencing ecomomic hardship. To use the vernacular, "things are tough all over -- get over it."
• "the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet... the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;" why do so many politicians and talk-show hosts still maintain that we have "the finest healthcare system in the world?" Do they simply mean the most profitable?
• "the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading" -- in other words, no child has not been left behind in America.

As Speth points out "these deplorable consequences are not just the result of economic and technological forces over which we have no control. They are the results of conscious political decisions made over several decades by both Democrats and Republicans who have had priorities other than strengthening the well-being of American society..."
He notes that in 2007, "just before the Great Recession," the richest one percent of Americans had managed to regain the position they had right before the Great Depression: taking in 24 % of the total income of the country. The days of robber barons and the filthy rich have returned.

But I really wanted to focus (since this is a blog on US-Iran relations) on our military presence on the planet. The United States, Speth writes, "now spends almost as much on the military as the rest of the world combined...over $1 trillion annually, about two-thirds of all discretionary federal spending." We maintain "660 military bases in 38 countries" (that we admit to).

"When you’ve got an armful of hammers, every problem looks like a nail," says Speth, "and the ...costs have been phenomenally high...[O]ur wars since 9/11 will cost us over $4 trillion and more than 8,000 American lives, with another 99,000 U.S. troops already wounded in action or evacuated for serious illness."

But, as we all know, that isn't all. There is a "huge, draining psychological burden that U.S. actions have on its citizens. We see our own military, the CIA, and U.S. contractors engaged in torture and prisoner abuse, large killings of innocent civilians, murders and the taking of body parts as souvenirs, renditions, drone assassinations, military detention without trial, collaboration with unsavory regimes, and more."

All of this is the backdrop for out saber-rattling toward Tehran. We don't have clean hands and we don't have any silver bullets. We don't have a bottomless pocketbook and we don't have the support of the people in the street in countries like Pakistan or Sweden, Indonesia or Russia, South Africa or the Netherlands. We have a lot of bluster and not as much to feel proud of as we pretend.

We could easily have cultivated more friends among the nations of the world. We could have ratified, as Speth observes, "the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Land Mine Convention, the International Criminal Court convention, the Biodiversity Convention, the Law of the Sea, the Kyoto Protocol of the Climate Convention, and the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants." We are fighting the idea of a robust new convention on arms trade, and the additional protocol on torture, which scores of other nations are promoting.

The current operative American values -- Speth cites materialism, antropocentrism and contempocentrism (money-is-all, man-is-the-measure and everything's up-to-the-minute, we might say) -- keep many other citizens of the world at arm's length. When politicians talk about the resistance -- or even loathing -- on the part of Iranians or others toward our "American values," in fact it is those values that they are resisting. "Freedom," "family" or "conservatism" do not present a stumbling block. It is Western "values" -- including blatant sexuality, consumerism and violence, in our movies, books and advertising, aggressively exported to far-flung sectors of the globe -- that create the mistrust and disgust that we see manifested as street demonstrations or worse.

Speth says that "it is up to us as citizens to inject values of justice, fairness, and sustainability into this system." Creating a renewed society that is based on the old, core American values will produce new opportunities for resolving disagreements and tensions abroad. I would note, in particular, that Speth advocates changing from "American exceptionalism to America as a normal nation, from hard power to soft, from military prowess to real security." These sorts of changes "beckon us with a new American Dream, one rebuilt from the best of the old, drawing on the best of who we were and are and can be."

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