Sunday, August 03, 2008

I am not unhappy

A colleague who had been reading the travelogue I was writing while on vacation remarked "Boy, you really seem to dislike America." It's actually not the case: I'm reasonably happy living in the US, and I even acquired dual French-American citizenship not so long ago. I also realize that it's precisely that utter fuckedupness of the US that's fostered so much great art over the years—no wonder the chaotic genius that is pigfuck was born in the Midwest, for instance.

What does drive me crazy, however, is how Americans always think they have it better than anyone else and other countries should emulate their model. I won't even get into pesky details like, you know, torture, Iraq, the lack of universal healthcare or the absolute inequality of the social structure here; but travelling abroad, particularly to Europe, you realize that America has really fallen behind in terms of quality of life.

Now this is a topic that hasn't surfaced in the campaign so far, but it touches on something really essential: Do we live comfortable lives with good public transportation, low pollution levels, a widespread adhesion to basic tenets of civility and the social contract? Are we happy? I don't believe the American-style rat race, in which people feel they have to always work more to keep up with the Joneses (ie, buy ever bigger houses, ever bigger cars—that is, before the advent of $5/gallon gas) actually fulfills said people. And one look at the crumbling New York City subway, in which water pours down onto the rails whenever it rains and the stations are filthy and decaying, should be enough to sober up the biggest booster. "Capital of the world?" Hah! Does Mayor Bloomberg really ride the train??

So yes, I do admire the Scandinavian Social-Democrat model. And there's no mystery as to how it's achieved (or at least one of the ways it's achieved): high taxes. Personally, I have no objection to paying more of them if they go to public transportation, better healthcare for everybody, better public infrastructure (ie, more rail and ferries, less roads).

Oh, and while we're on the subject of northern European countries: I've posted on matters pertaining to Scandinavia's approach to music on the SundayArts blog.


Anonymous said...


What a pleasure to read an article on this subject that so closely mirrors my own thoughts (though pigfuck would not likely be my example of America's contribution). I'd like to say, however, that rather than being intrinsically American, the "rat race" model actually grows out of rampant consumerism, which is a world-wide phenomenon being bolstered by corporations, ad companies and media, many of which have multi-national characters. In this country it seems to me to be exacerbated by the ingrained individualist, anti-collective attitudes that have been nurtured in the American psyche. That independent streak, OTOH, has been a central part of what makes many of our artists and musicians as great as they are (I'm thinking of Ives and Beefheart and Pollack and Gertrude Stein as examples.)


Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Yes, consumerism! You're absolutely right there; it's a much more accurate way to described what I referred to, hastily, as "the rat race." But while it may not be quintessentially American, it has found our most perfect illustration here (so far: China could take over in that department soon).

As for pigfuck, it came to mind because 1) I've been listening to a lot of it lately and 2) it seems to represent the kind of antisocial glorification of individualism and violence that works so much better as an artistic statement than as an actual lifestyle. But the artists you name are, indeed, American in a very deep way, and they could not have come out of any other culture.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I am a friend of Hasse, your Stockholm correspendent. I have been waiting for him to introduce us, but when I read your post I coudl wait no longer.
Have lived in NY for over 20 years now. I took my whole family to Stockholm in February for the funeral of my mother. It was a sad occasion but in spite of it my daughter and her partner could not stop talking about how incredible it was to experience Sweden with all the "perks" that it offers. Freindly and relaxed people with children, looking happy and taking their little tots swimming in a non-crowded pool, clean transportation (starting with a clean and spacious train from the airport to city center), good food, pretty parks everywhere. And those are just the things you can see with your own eyes.
I ponder this whenever I get back to NY, on a shitty coach from the airport, and get off on a street littered with garbage. Yes, NY is amazing, but spend any amount of time in Sweden and you will be ready to emigrate.
I am going home on August 21 to visit my country cottage on the island of Öland in the Baltic - I can´t wait.
Would love to have coffee some time if you have the time. I am an Abba-fan as well! But I have never seen Allsång på Skansen!
Best, Kristina (Snyder)

Anonymous said...

I haven't travelled outside of North America, and as such my actual first hand experience of the rest of the world is really limited to the less than a decade old democracy/devoloping country to the south and the less populated, democratic socialist version of the United States to the north.

The economic model that the United States has followed for the past century is not a bad one. The Europeans, India, China and South Korea have basically emulated it with varying differences in how they deal with those that fall through the cracks. Denmark, Sweden , Norway and other countries that both the Left and some libertarians talk of fondly (the latter talks fondly of Sweden's school voucher program) have followed classical economic theory that the government should stay out of the economy. Their socialism is limited to social safety nets, but doesn't try to regulate the economy. There are many in the American Left who don't get this and talk about "restraining" capitalism.

America is experiencing many problems not because it has a bad economic model, but because it has one that is too good and that is being successfully emulated by countries more motivated than we are. Like Great Britain, we are going to lose our empire as other countries take care of themselves. Americans are used to being the best of the best, and as the competition of the rest of the world catches up many will think the sky is falling. It's not. It's just change.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Allow me to disagree in that the government in the countries you mention is actually quite involved in economic matters, and not just the safety net. For many years for instance, France came up with five-year plans for its economy, and the State was also involved through the many State-owned companies; it also strongly influenced even car companies by weighing on the selection of CEOs for instance. I believe this isn't rare in Western Europe.

I also think Western European countries (I'll talk about what I know here) are a lot less admiring of the US model as you may think they are. They may have been decades ago, but for many the American model is now seen as problematic as it is successful in some areas. We cannot discount the fact that many Europeans feel that American social inequality is deeply wrong, and cannot be justified on moral grounds but also on economic ones.

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister! I wish I could put you in my pocket and have you recite this every time a Frenchperson looks at me aghast when I tell them I wholeheartedly gave up NY for Paris.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

But French people don't seem particularly thrilled that I, a fellow French, abandoned the home country for New York… I can't think of anybody (among my family and friends) who think New York is better than Paris. Different, but not necessarily better. Mostly they say things like, "I love visiting but I wouldn't want to live here." Whereas I think New York isn't that great to visit but pretty fun to live in.

Anonymous said...

"New York isn't that great to visit but pretty fun to live in."

Again you are speaking my thoughts, though I usually add something like "if you can afford it"