Saturday, April 07, 2007

The future of the American Dream

This morning, I read my American boyfriend some parts of Jeremy Rifkin's book The European Dream. I read the sections pertaining to the American Dream and the religosity of the United States. The extent of religosity and its ties to the American Dream in the United States was made clear to me for the first time in Rifkin's book. ("They [Americans] believe that the American way is God's way" (Rifkin, 2005, p. 19); "Nearly half of all Americans (48 percent), for example, believe that the United States has special protection from God." (Rifkin, 2005, p 19); "Nearly half of the American people say that it is necessary to believe in God to have good values" (Rifkin, 2005, p 19); "Sixty-eight persent of the public believe in the devil." (Rifkin, 2005, p 20); "... 40% percent of the American people believe that the world will end with an Armageddon battle between Jesus and the Antichrist." (Rifkin, 2005, p 20)) It turns out that my American boyfriend recognized every statistic given in the book from his own experience. The section on the American Dream I recognized myself, other than the specificity Rifkin claims for the American Dream ("The first thing to understand about the American Dream is that from the very beginning it was meant to be exclusive to America. It was never meant to be a dream shared with or exported to the rest of the world. Its power rested in its particularism, not in its universalism. One can only pursue the American Dream on American soil." (Rifkin, 2005, p. 17)) and the aspect of being a "chosen people" (Rifkin, 2005, p.18). My boyfriend recognized both of those aspects as well.

Perhaps my lack of understanding of the religosity and the particularism of the American Dream are due to my being a third culture kid. I imagine that one could pursue the American Dream anywhere, just not calling it the American Dream, simply a dream of a more prosperous life. Perhaps the feeling that Americans have that one pursues this dream at home is one I share, it's just that home isn't just the United States for me, and so logically it follows (for me) that if a dream of prosperity is pursued at home, it can be pursued anywhere.

The Americans I know evidently are not representative on this matter. Perhaps that's not surprising, since people that want to befriend me are generally not typical in some way or other of their country in the first place. When it comes to the religosity, I recognize myself thinking as an European, especially perhaps as a Nordic person. ("While six out of ten Americans say that thir religion is 'very' important in their lives, in European countries religion is barely a factor in people's day-to-day lives. (...) Many Europeans no longer believe in God. While 82% of Americans say that God is very important to them, approximately half of all Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes say that God does not matter to them.") I probably have difficulty really understanding the religiosity in the United States in part because my parents are European Christians, who do not mix religion and politics and who have no problems with others having different religious views. I am an atheist, but that doesn't prevent us from having interesting discussions about religion.

My experience with America from my childhood did not include American Christianity to any extent that I remember. Therefore, my third culture logic is as follows: Religion has been responsible for so many of our moments of shame in history, like the Inquisition, and been used as a political tool, like kings confiscating the gold of the Church for fund a war, that we must make amends and make sure we will never repeat the mistakes we have made in the past. (This also applies to the Holocaust, ten times stronger, but that's not the topic here.) This is a modern insight into our own history, along with our realization of the importance of universal human rights. We modern people now know that our ideas of the past were horrible and violated the rights of countless human beings, both inside and outside Europe. That's why we have consicously left religion out of civil society and politics. You can be religious if you wish, but that does not belong anywhere but your own head, in private moments. If you bring religion into politics or anywhere else in public life, you are retracing the path that brought disgrace to our history. Since this is an insight of modernity, and since both Americans and Europeans are modern and Self (to me), Westerners collectively have left religion behind in public life. Unfortunately for me, that's not true. My sense of "we" spans both Europe and America, but the two are in fact different and the "we" I feel is a figment of the third culture.

While I was reading out the statistics on Americans and religosity, I was laughing at some of the statements, like that many Americans believe in the literal existence of the devil. It seems so incredulous to me in part because I was taught by the Catholic Church in Sweden that the devil does not in fact exist, but is rather a literary character used to make a point, and that hell also doesn't exist as a place but is a ltierary metaphor for life without God. Since the Catholic Church is hardly progressive and is supposed to be universal, I never imagined that Christianity in America could be so different. Believing such things is positively medival to me, which strongly conflicts with my feeling that the US is a modern country. My boyfriend said that he was a little hurt by my laughing. His reason was very interesting. He said that although he knew I was right, he felt hurt because he would like it to be true. Expanding on that thought, he took one aspect of the American Dream - the notion that America is destined for greatness by God - and replaced that with the emphasis on the individual and working hard. To replace his wish that God existed and was watching over the US, he chose to believe that the US is and will stay great because of the hard work of its people. He also agreed with Rifkin's - and my - opinion that in some ways the US is stuck in the past when it comes to nationalism. Then again, like I already said, anyone who wants to be my friend - and perhaps especially my boyfriend - is likely to be at least somewhat cosmopolitan.

I do wonder how many Americans feel like my boyfriend. Rifkin asks, "What happens to the American sense of being special, of being a chosen people, in a world where exclusivity is steadily making way to inclusivity? Does God really care less about the whole of his [sic] earthly creation than he does about the North American part? Europeans might find such a conjecture funny, but, believe me, many Americans remain wedded to the notion of our special status as God's chosen ones. If we were to give up that belief, or even entertain doubt about its veracity, our sense of confidence in ourselves and the American Dream might experience irreparable harm." Could others replace the idea of being chosen with the idea of making themselves special through hard work, preserving the core of the American dream in a way more compatible with a global world?

Time will tell.

References: Rifkin, J. (2005) The European Dream.New York, NY: Penguin Group

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Soviet legacy

Today's scary piece of news: The horrible Soviet legacy of pollution is alive and well. I once read one of the environmentally scariest articles I've ever read in National Geographic about pollution in the former Soviet Union. At the time it was written, the Soviet Union had collapsed, of course. Openness and transparency were hardly their strong suit, and the information and pictures needed to report the pollution was of course not available. I still remember my heart breaking, looking at the pictures of black rivers, children playing in oil fields, and of black snow coating a small city with people walking along the streets. It was like a traffic accident with victims just lying on the pavement, slowly bleeding out. Except I couldn't call 911 or 112 or whatever the appropriate number might be to stop death. (Governments of the future: please pick ONE number that you have to memorize. Thank you.)

So an area the size of Germany is dead around the town of Norilsk in Siberia, mostly because the metal smelter there that produces most of the world's Ni and Pd is also fabulous at making acid rain. The population in Norilsk is sick and/or dying. And still very little transparency.

The disregard that the Soviet Union had for human life is what was the absolutely most terrifying thing about the whole thing to me. That human life could only be a cog in a great machine that cares nothing for life or the Earth is just as dehumanizing as Marx's worst nightmares about capitalism. And apparently, the world hasn't quite moved on yet.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The US and global ethics

The BBC reports that Dragan Zelenovic, a Bosnian Serb, has been convicted of crimes against humanity.

From the BBC report:
Zelenovic was among Bosnian Serb forces responsible for a campaign of rape and sexual assault of Muslim women in 1992 and 1993 in Foca, where he was deputy commander of the military police.

One of the women was just 15 when she was illegally imprisoned and gang-raped. Another had a gun held to her head while she was raped, the court heard.

That the US refuses to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) is incredible to me. How could any nation refuse to help build a system of justice that can convict men like Zelnovic? He was arrested in Russia and extradited to The Hague. That is not possible under most national law, and those that have laws allowing them to prosecute people for crimes committed outside their country may be building a dangerous precendent. However, I think we can all sympathise with the intention: some people commit crimes so horrible, they must be brought to justice no matter where in the world or under what circumstances they committed them, and no matter where in the world they are now. An international court is the best way to do that. That the US refuses to join this laudable effort, or would join only on the condition that US soldiers not be subject to the Court, is ridiculous. I liked Clinton a lot - he's probably my favorite US president - but that decision of his was very poor. I, and I'm sure virtually everyone else, wonder what the US has to hide.

If it believes in justice, human rights, and the rule of law, it should be supporting the Court. Do they reserve the right to torture citizens of other countries only for themselves? Is torture OK for American soldiers, but not Serbian soldiers, or Nigerian soldiers? In a time when US credibility on moral and ethical issues especially in war is disappearing rapidly, it could even be a strategic move on their part to support the ICC. The US is one of my homes, and it's special to me, but this attitude they're taking not only on this particular issue, but US foreign policy overall right now, is very alienating to me. The lack of universal, clear thinking is very disturbing in so many ways.

Even personally, do I really want to be part of a country that doesn't subscribe to universal human rights? I don't have the right to a fair trial here. I could be taken away in the middle of the night without any formal accusations or even being informed what I'm supposed to have done. Echoes of stories about the Soviet Union come to mind. I'm not imagining that the two are so similar that I'm likely to be taken to a labor camp in Siberia (or perhaps Guantanamo), but on matters of human rights, principles are important. Even someone observed murdering someone else gets a trial. I don't. And examples have come up of cases of mistaken identity, where someone who was completely innocent has been tortured by the US. State sanctioned violence never ends well.

Perhaps the US as a whole understands the impact of globalization the poorest when it comes to ethics. Economic globalization, they're doing good with, other than the farm subsidies, which Europe is also refusing to give up. (Although I oppose protectionism in principle, I have to say that Swiss food is so delicious thanks to those subsidies that it gives me pause.) But when it comes to ethics, the US is not exhibiting much evidence of understanding that what is considered to be ethical greatly depends on how you count who matters. The beauty of universal human rights is that they are sufficient to give everyone on Earth the basic conditions from which to build a life according to (almost) any culture and society structure as they please, but not so prescriptive that they are imperialistic. This beauty seems lost on the Americans. Their behavior when it comes to global warming sends the same message to the rest of us. The ethical aspects of global warming are rarely addressed, although I'm hoping that John Edwards' declaration that he will keep his campaign for president carbon neutral will help bring this issue into the political debate better. Perhaps there is still hope that the US will catch on soon enough not to damage either itself or the planet too much.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The TGV Record

The BBC reports that a TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse, "train of great speed", a bullet train) made by Alstom has broken the previous speed record for trains on conventional tracks by going 574.8 km/h. That's about as fast as a 747 or an A380. It is no surprise to me that the record was set by a European company on contract for a European government. Japan would also have been expected. Between Europe and Japan, it's more of a which-company-was-it and what-technology-did-they-use kind of situation. What would really catch my attention would be news that an American company has broken the world speed record for any kind of train working on a contract for the U.S. government. That would be the day.