And speaking of American ignorance, here's another consequence of the American media's preference for screaming matches about hot-button issues -- in this case, the perennial "why are we helping Ghana instead of Grandma" debate, as the article puts it:
In poll after poll, Americans overwhelmingly say they believe that foreign aid makes up a larger portion of the federal budget than defense spending, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, or spending on roads and other infrastructure. In a November World Public Opinion poll, the average American believed that a whopping 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. The average respondent also thought that the appropriate level of foreign aid would be about 10 percent of the budget — 10 times the current level.
Compared with our military and entitlement budgets, this is loose change. Since the 1970s, aid spending has hovered around 1 percent of the federal budget. International assistance programs were close to 5 percent of the budget under Lyndon B. Johnson during the war in Vietnam, but have dropped since.\
The price of gasoline is pretty high in the United States right now. Not in international comparison, where it's still ludicrously cheap, but in comparison to what Americans -- who've let a completely car-dependent culture arise around them despite repeated oil shocks -- think they should be paying.
This fact, unfortunately, could have world-historical importance. American voters, ignorant and fickle creatures that they are, might well vote for any Republican to punish Obama for 'not doing enough' about U.S. gasoline prices, which of course are largely beyond his control. As Dave Weigel puts it:
Speaker of the House John Boehner made a prediction Monday about Barack Obama's re-election bid. "If gas prices are $5 or $6, he certainly isn't going to win." It might be the least disputable thing a politician has ever said. Well, yes: If people have to keep paying more and more to fill their cars up, the president could lose re-election—even to one of the current batch of Republicans. There's evidence, circumstantial but graphically compelling, that the president's current poll numbers are a function of the price of gas.
Now, most mainstream American journalists, like most Americans, have grown up in a political culture where the smarts of the 'common man' are universally assumed. The 22nd-tiredest political cliche in the United States is 'my opponent is underestimating the intelligence of the American people, who will see right through his craven pandering/blatant scare-mongering...' So Weigel calmly assesses the chance that gasoline prices alone will drive the next American election without ever once stopping to say to himself, or his readers: "Many of my countrymen are such fools that they will change control of the White House to a party with a different foreign policy and different spending priorities and different social values based solely on the price of one consumer good whose price the President cannot even control. God, how depressing. I should drop whatever I'm doing right now and dedicate my life to trying to improve the political judgment of my fellow Americans."
But that's clearly not the mission the American press corps has given itself. Here's a remarkable press statement from Obama yesterday (h/t Ed Philp) , in which he expains his decision to release his own birth certificate to defuse the moronic, years-long non-controversy over whether he was born in the United States:
Even Obama, who never flies off the handle, can't resist several digs at the press corps for giving 'birthers', as the morons are known, two long, pointless, wasted years of attention.
The truth is that the American journalistic lanscape -- especially when it comes to TV, the only source of news for most Americans -- is dominated by carnival barkers. Most of the news providers are for-profit companies, competing against one another for ratings. They will broadcast whatever attracts eyeballs, not whatever edifies -- yes, edifies* -- viewers. And that means stories that feature exciting controversies about emotionally-laden themes. As a result, the political judgment of those lost souls who get their news from TV becomes ever more adolescent. They're trained to focus on meaningless personality traits, ginned-up pseudo-conflicts, or vacuous horse-race bullshitting about who's got the better 'ground game'. Whatever ability they may have had to carefully balance competing policy priorities shrivels up and blows away.
And so, for the past few years, there have been thousands of U.S. television hours spent on the question of whether Obama was born in the U.S., usually in the form of idiots pontificating about the issue in ignorance, or 'debates' in which people yell at each other. These hours could have been devoted to America's two, ongoing, pointless, expensive wars, or strategies for containing health care costs, or analyses of the Arab uprisings, or even a good old-fashioned doughty, earnest documentary about water rights. But all those things would have cost a lot more money than inviting a couple of blowhards into the television studio and/or would have required finding people who actually knew what they were talking about. So they weren't done. Instead, the completely irrelevant non-controversy of Obama's 'real' place of birth was kept alive.
Since the press wouldn't police itself, Obama finally had to take action, and his frustration is visible. But even if this pointless distractions is largely put to rest, another one will surely follow, and the press corps will surely give it attention as long as it boosts ratings. As James Fallows said, "This is not a great day for the press."
* Sure, edify has all sorts of tea-cozy, church-basement-lecture overtones of stuffy didactic earnestness, but we elitists need to proudly reclaim it. I'm so old that I remember when there were some American intellectuals and officials who, quaintly enough, actually thought television might actually one day help improve people's judgment, and were disgusted at what it was doing instead:
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
And now, just in time for Christmas, a post on religion!
Let me expand a bit on the last post. The priceless quote came from an unnamed fellow soldier of the interviewee, Josh Stieber, a disillusioned American soldier who eventually claimed conscientious objector status rather than continue to serve in Iraq. Stieber's response to his friend's comment about Jesus was pretty appropriate: if being arrested, tortured, mocked, forced to wear a crown of thorns, and then crucified is not being 'punked', then nothing is. The notion of Jesus as behaloed Rambo, resentfully taking a beating but then returning with some sort of blessed bazooka, is as blasphemous as it is ludicrous.
Yet I have no doubt that Stieber's friend genuinely believed that Jesus was into the occasional ass-kicking. It's just one of the more amusing instances of a general phenomenon: Huge numbers of Americans who consider themselves Christians will happily convince themselves that their faith permits -- or encourages -- whatever it's in their interest to do at any given moment. Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, was renowned for his aggressively public religiosity. Nor is he alone: here's the website for the Real Estate Prayer Breakfast: "At Real Estate Prayer Breakfast, we lead people in the real estate community into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ by creating business environments where God can be discovered." By joining the Host Committee, you agree to "[f]ill your seats with individuals from the real estate community that do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
I have no beef with Christians, or real estate agents for that matter. But what's eerily amusing about all this mixing of Christ and capitalism is the unstated presumption that real estate brokers in suburban Houston are at the very epicenter of God's concern -- perhaps even of his Plan for the World. The realtors go to their prayer breakfast, secure in the belief that their God is smiling down approvingly on their listings, and no doubt many of them will say a quick prayer of thanksgiving after closing a major deal. The notion that God might actually disapprove of their line of work or -- even worse -- not give a damn about it has never crossed their minds. Of course, all of those troubling Bible verses about selling your possessions have long been smoothed over by generations of pro-free-market exegesis, a form of gob-smackingly shameless special pleading known informally as the 'prosperity gospel.'
Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists...
There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.
Except they are not.
Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.
Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it's like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They'll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.
If you ask Americans whether they went to church last Sunday, many of them will say yes. But if you ask them how they actually used their time last Sunday, without specifically mentioning church, the number who "went to church" drops by half:
[A recent study] found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans. The significant difference between the two North American countries and other industrialized nations was the enormous gap between poll responses and time-use studies in those two countries.
Or, to put it another way, Europeans are honest about whether they go to church or not, while Americans are hypocrites. The two phenomena are intertwined: Americans ostentatiously trumpet their claimed Christianity because they think it helps them be seen as 'good' people. Similarly, they feel no shame in spreading this comforting, all-purpose balm of diffuse righteousness over every single part of their lives, no matter how mundane or questionable.
Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.
One of GJ's many invaluable roving informants sent me this book, 'America Through the Back Door'. It's a 1952 East German translation of a book by one N. Vassiliev, who claims to have spent three years in America in the late 1940s. According to the jacket blurb, he promises to show us the "backwardness of the social organization in 'God's own land'", including the desperate farmers who "don't own a single blade of grass on their farms", the misery in the slums, and the "scientists living in basements" (?). Stay tuned for a review an excerpts sometime in the next few weeks!
Does anyone happen to have any more information about this book or its author? (The author's name is 'N. Wassiljew' in the German transliteration, the German translation is by Marga Bork). I'd love to get some background, if any exists.
Floyd Landis, the American cyclist whose 2006 Tour de France victory was nullified after a positive doping test, has sent a series of emails to cycling officials and sponsors admitting to, and detailing, his systematic use of performance enhancing drugs during his career. The emails also claim that other riders and cycling officials allegedly participated in doping, including seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
People will find this news interesting for several reasons, but I have a special one: I actually read Landis' book. After he was stripped of the TdF victory, he launched a draining, $2 million legal battle to clear his name. Not only that, he wrote an entire book -- called Positively False -- arguing his case.
On practically every page of the book, he protested his innocence and harshly attacked the practices of the anti-doping agencies. A relative who's interested in cycling loaned me the book, and I read it, thinking it would be wise to keep an open mind until I heard Landis' side of the story. Ultimately, I found it only moderately convincing. Landis and his lawyers had obviously carefully examined the testing process and found some real flaws, but he was never able to come up with a convincing counter-explanation for his damning results. Reduced to its essentials, the argument was highly legalistic -- not "I can prove I'm innocent," but rather "The process you used to prove my guilt was flawed." Many will call this a typically American defense, and I can see why.
Technical legal arguments aside, Landis stridently proclaimed his innocence. He never doped, anywhere, at any time, for any reason, evah. He was just an aw-shucks, corn-fed, goody-two-shoes Pennsylvania Dutch farmboy who was being unfairly targeted by the cynical (read: European) authorities. And frankly, the enormous financial sacrifices he was making to fight his appeal through all the instances gave his claims a bit of credibility. Why on earth would he bankrupt himself and put himself through hell for a lie?
Well, now we know the answer: because he had a sociopathic streak as wide as the Alps. He assured literally millions of people that he was innocent, and was consciously, knowingly lying the entire time. Am I wrong in thinking there's something American about this sort of brazen hypocrisy? Other examples abound: the male Christian fundamentalist anti-gay crusader who recently toured Europe while receiving "erotic massages" from a rent-boy, or the latest in an endless line of conservative 'family values' politicians found to have been screwing around. The latest of these sad sacks actually recorded a video praising sexual abstinence with the very aide he was shtupping!
I'm not saying that hypocrisy is uniquely American, of course. What I'm saying is that it seems that America produces an unusual number of hypocrites who not only live by double standards, but shamelessly, openly, and enthusiastically champion the very standards they daily violate in the bedroom or boardroom. I ascribe it to the narrow, unforgiving code of middle-class morality which most Americans feel the need to appear to be upholding. The inability to reconcile their drives and their image lead them to feats of compartmentalization that normal humans can only gape at in horrified fascination.
I may be off-base here, but I just don't find this particular brand of hypocrisy as often in Europe. Europeans are keen to keep their personal lives private, and aren't given to the kind of black-and-white 'straight talk' that leads to categorical statements such as "I never doped" or "I'm not gay" or "I would never cheat on my wife." The European style, to me, is embodied by Miterrand's famous quote: "I was born Christian and shall doubtless die in that condition. But meanwhile..."
And meanwhile, here, I want back the 3 hours I spent reading Landis' book, and the 4,593,254,210 synaptic firings I devoted to wondering whether he might have been the victim of injustice. And I'm not alone...
Brief update from the road. First, John over at Obscene Desserts sent in this (source unknown):
Second, overheard at the Atlantic Grill on Cambridge. Two older men (heavyset, dressed like the construction firm owners they are) and one younger woman (black hair, artificial tan) are discussing recent developments in the building trades in a heavy local accent. Suddenly the woman pipes up and says: "Yeah, things are tough over in Allston. Jimmie just had to lay off an Italian and two white boys!"
Overheard on the banks of the Charles River just south of the Harvard Campus:
"So, like, then Amber and Wei-lin called him up and he was all like 'dude, I totally do not want to go to that party in Dunster, 'cause, like, Deena's gonna be there and that is like, totally no-go' and then I was all like 'That is sooooo juvenile. Just a week ago you were all like totally into her' and then he was all like 'nuh-uh'! and I was like, 'totally you were'...."
These are shiny, chipper, well-pedicured Harvard students from America's most prosperous suburbs, yet they sound like the American answer to Cindy aus Marzahn (g).
I am working on a device that uses advanced voice-recognition technology to deliver a powerful electric shock to the genitals whenever the wearer uses the word 'like' or totally'. It will also have a remote-control function allowing a nearby Grammatiksturmbannfuehrer (me) to deliver an extra shock on an ad hoc basis for general inane, substanceless blathering.
One day I'll win the Nobel for my efforts.
UPDATE: On reflection, I see that this I inadvertently insulted Cindy aus Marzahn, who -- in addition to her many other signal qualities -- routinely uses actual verbs and nouns to build her sentences. Sorry, Cindy!
"Welcome to the club of states who don't turn their back on the sick and the poor," Sarkozy [said in a speech at Columbia University]. From the European perspective, he said, "when we look at the American debate on reforming health care, it's difficult to believe."
"The very fact that there should have been such a violent debate simply on the fact that the poorest of Americans should not be left out in the streets without a cent to look after them ... is something astonishing to us."
Just joking about the Antichrist part. Sarkozy may be many things, but he is definitely not without "regard for the desire of women." His comments are typical of the response of European conservatives: Why was this such a big deal? You could hardly ask for a more perfect illustration of the gulf between American and European conservatism...
A reasonable question, but one that surprisingly few have the guts to ask. Once asked, though, the answer is clear: Javier Solana is terrifyingly close to becoming the Antichrist. Yes, Javier Solana. All he needs to do is (1) hack off his genitals (to eliminate his evident "regard for the desire of women"); (2) deny that Jesus is the Messiah; (3) proclaim himself greater than any god; and (4) recover from a fatal wound to the head.
Lest you think these raids are of concern only to those writhing under Obama's steel-toed socialist jackboots, I point you to a webpage from the Hutaree website (yes, this is America -- even the Christian militias have websites) called 10 Horns of the European Super State, Mr. Europe, and 7 years of Peace in Israel. One John Reynolds, acting on a hot tip, combs through the Bible for a list of tests to indicate whether Javier Solana is the Antichrist.
He came up with 25 action items. The results are terrifying. An excerpt from this (extremely long) disquisition:
15. He will not believe in any god at all [except for himself] [Daniel 11:37]
16. He will have "no regard for the desire of women": [Dan 11:37]
· It is quite possible that exists now. Although Solana is married to a woman named Concepción Giménez, and they have two adult children, Diego and Vega, he lives alone in Brussels.
17. He will claim to be greater than any god [Daniel 11:37; 2 Thess 2:4]
18. He will claim to be God [2 Thessalonians 2:4]
19. His arrival on the world scene will be accompanied by miracles, signs and wonders[2 Thess 2:9]
· This is a possibility as well. I know many of you have seen the statues of Mary or Christ on the crucifix crying tears of blood. They just recently had a statue of Mary that was supposedly moving its arms over in Italy. The list is endless
20. He will deny that Jesus is the Messiah [I John 2:22]
21. He will be worshipped by many people [Rev. 13:8]
22. He will receive a fatal wound to the head and appear to be healed [Rev. 13:3; 17:8]
23. His name will be related to the number six hundred and sixty six— [Rev 13:17-18].
· Javier Solana seems to be surrounded by the number 666.
You hear that, Europe? Surrounded.
WAKE UP, "CITIZENS" OF THE WESTERN EUROPEAN UNION, BEFORE ITS "TOO LATE" -- FOR ALL OF US!!!1!one!!1!