November 22, 2008

The Election.

Fresca asks, what do folks say about the election?

I am pleased to say that what I am hearing now is a stunned silence, because 53% of the US electorate has just removed the favorite topic of conversation for a certain sort around here. Those who were secretly hoping the Bradley effect would confirm their judgement of Americans. What will they do now?

1. Last week my wife went to a dinner for all the moms at A's pre-school. A girls'/moms' night out. A mom from the Netherlands (she is a sex therapist) explains how she could never live in the U.S. because she has serious concerns about our legal system. Around the table, heads nod in agreement. My wife thinks carefully and explains, Well, we lived in Los Angeles for five years and I never once thought about that.

2. First son comes home from fifth grade with a homework assignment where he should answer questions about a Swedish newspaper article about the new U.S. President. The article says that some of Obama's policies would not be accepted in Sweden, for example that he is in favor of the death penalty. (I didn't know that and a with a little research I learned that he is for the death penalty for heinous crimes but he is also in favor of being able to establish guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt).

So. I explain to Swedes that the Unites States is a Federal system (it's like Germany, I say). States make their own laws and Minnesota for example banned the death penalty in 1906, something that did not occur in Sweden until 1921. (Until then, conviction for crimes such as murder, witchcraft, adultery, incest, fraud, abuse, sodomy and bestiality could and did result in capital punishment.) But these people will not let themselves be sidetracked by detail or fact: As everybody knows, the U.S. represents the worst of human nature: unfettered capitalism, rape of the ecosystem, ignorance and the perversion of all that civilization has to be proud of. (Another example is that the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in the U.S. before Swedish women were granted the same right.) Yet, year after year there is one argument that always wins, We wouldn't want it to be like it is in the U.S.!

Last week at lunch in Copenhagen a group of students told me that they read that Scandinavia is held up as a negative example by the right in the U.S. What do they think about us, they asked? I explained how some in the U.S. think Socialism is the first, second and third step on the road to hell, and how some people believe taxes pervert morals, turn people into liars and legitimize businesses hiding their income. I got a pretty good laugh out of a German guy when I told about Ronald Reagan's Nine Scariest Words in the English Language: I'm from the government and I'm here to help. What the students couldn't accept is that many (most?) Americans seriously believe our country is better than theirs. If you asked the students would earnestly explain about differences in child mortality, life expectancy, access to education, crime, divorce rates, death penalty and so on. And it is well known around here that Danes are the happiest people on the planet.

What makes me proud to be an American. First off, if you want to test your patriotism, try living outside the US. I took a taxi a few years ago and the driver told me he was from Iran. Oh, I knew someone from Iran when I went to college I said, now he is a chiropractor and makes a lot of money. That could only happen in the U.S., he said. I'm a civil engineer, but in Sweden all I'll ever be is a taxi driver. The unemployment rate among Somalian refugees in Minnesota is 15 to 20%; in Sweden it is 80%. Nobody assimilates immigrants like the U.S., and Europe has a much larger problem with homegrown terrorists than the U.S. does, and I think its because immigrants in the U.S. are too busy working to make payments on credit card debt. But don't try telling that to people around here, because they know that the U.S. invented racial discrimination. (It would take too long to explain that the very civil rights movement they support is an American invention, or that we fought a bloody civil war over the issue, and so on.)

Just as Swedes should take the beam out of their own eye, so ought Americans demote. I hate to indulge in schadenfreude but after 8 years of being on the shit list, a new day has dawned my friends when we can turn the page and begin a new chapter of history.

Finally, the short answer to Fresca is that I have been congratulated on the election by many people of good nature: Danes, Swedes, Germans, Dutch, two Norwegians and a Canadian.


At November 24, 2008 12:36 AM , Blogger rigtenzin said...

Nationalism is a sickness that no one sees.

At December 03, 2008 6:19 PM , Blogger fresca said...

Thanks Matt!
Fun to read, and informative too.
Here's my favorite line:
"But these people will not let themselves be sidetracked by detail or fact..."
I believe this is a universal type.

And thanks for your comment on my post about Writing today too--nice to know you are still on the blog planet!
I had in fact thought of you when I wrote about passive voice. : ) It's a stinker.

I woke up this morning thinking of everything wrong with that post (I published it last night at midnight--not always a good idea)--then turned on my computer to see that Samuel R. Delany had posted a nice comment! Right after yours.

At January 04, 2009 12:08 AM , Anonymous Joe Strahl said...

Hi Matt,

As you know for some time it has been hard for me to see your blog but voila there it appears and now I can comment on your blog which you say "is just for fun." And yet this entry about the election is dead serious I'd say.

I'm sort of in the same boat you are in: an American living in Sweden and have the priviledge -- and sometimes the ability -- to see both sides of the pond from a different angle.

Some serious reactions to your post but incomplete ones.

Resting on old advantages:
yes, the US has a long number of firsts to it's credit and I do not doubt that Minnesota had female voting rights prior to Sweden. In fact there were states and territories in the US that had reached this far prior to 1900. Yet some of these states are now a bastion of conservativism and contain examples of peeling away at the rights of women. Not exactly models of society as suggested by most mainstream feminists today.

So, my point is that it isn't enough to be first it is that you have to stay the course and the US, like many other countries has definitely not stayed the course when out ahead. Otherwise we should all bow down in front of the Greeks who, it is often claimed, were the inventors of democracy.... yet this was only for "citizens" and we should clearly not be asked to remember the years when Greece was run by various military juntas. Likewise we have Berlusconi in Italy which is the birthplace of some semblance of a republic and the platform for modern diplomacy in the 1400s etc etc.

Therefore, perhaps it might be an idea to pick examples of being first where the US has stayed the course and continues to pioneer. This would provide greater credibility to the arguments...

I've also had to take "the shit" as you call it through the years. My solution to this in the environmental justice lecture I hold is to give my example from how "the Swedes" have treated "the Sami" and have the students read articles about that and discuss. Then I say as diplomatically as possible: how can Swedes and other Scandinavians scorn or despise "Americans" for their treatment of North American continent original inhabitants "ie "Indians" when "you Swedes" have essentially treated the original inhabitants of the north of Sweden in essentially the same way. Silence.

On the other hand I have a reputation of being a "very different American" on the part of my students.

I'd like to respond to "rigtenzin" in part who has written "Nationalism is a sickness that no one sees." Nice sentence to be able to quote. American nationalism is only too obvious to me even if it became overwhelmingly obvious post 9/11. I think that the nationalism that reared its head post 9/11 and fanned by Cheney, Rummie and Bush the Second is actually just the latest in a long series of American nationalism developments and something that will rear it's ugly head many times to come regardless of what happens in the next approximately 4 years. And this nationalism, while it can -- perhaps -- be attributed to some of America's past greatness and the privledges of some of its citizens, will also contribute to the waning of American power on the international stage. So, yes, I'm rather pessimisstic about the long-haul even if Obama occassionally distracts me from my dour or perhaps sober perspective.

No the thing about Swedish nationalism is that it is such a different beast from American nationalism that it is hard to tackle. It is sort of anti-nationalism nationalism. Plus, on the global scale of things, rather harmless since the potential negative reach of the 9million folks here isn't exactly large when compared with a really big country composed of 50 states.

At February 07, 2009 1:51 AM , Blogger dave said...

Hey, Matt, nice blog! Good to hear your voice again (even if it's only in my head). This blog post in particular brought back a lot of memories from my time in the Europe in the '80s (when Reagan was Europe's bete noir). Funny about that--on NPR yesterday I heard an interview with a historian, and the interviewer (Terry Gross) said that some liberals feel kinda left out of the general view nowadays that Reagan was a great president. And I thought: Who thinks that? I guess I gotta get out more.
-Dave Schaller


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