On Joining the Civilized World

The yearly trips to Paris started in 1997 – and then sometimes it was twice a year – because Paris isn’t Los Angeles, and Paris isn’t America. Paris always was the center of the civilized world – art, music, ideas, fashion, brilliant talk and fine wine and all the rest – until it wasn’t. Somewhere along the way it became a theme park, about the civilized world, as it once was. Paris had become a city of monuments, this and that pointing back to the Belle Époque, or to the Paris of the Lost Generation in the twenties – Hemingway and Fitzgerald sitting around at Gertrude Stein’s place, trying to figure out what the hell Picasso was talking about. After the next war it was the Paris of Sartre and Camus, the severe existentialists explaining the tragic absurd – that life has no fixed meaning, if one was honest about things. That was bracing, and dismal, and then Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot premiered in January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, in French, and it was all fruitless waiting for nothing in particular from there. No one was coming. Nothing was going to happen, at least in Paris.

Paris was over. Time passed. Swinging London in the sixties, however, was suddenly the center of something, for a while – Twiggy and the Beatles and all that – but then everyone left for New York or Hollywood, where there was money to be made. London is a small market – but then New York and Hollywood would never be the center of the civilized world. Things didn’t originate there. Things from elsewhere “got big” there. The Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl. There was no center of the civilized world, if there was a civilized world any longer – but there always was Paris. Perhaps it was sleeping.

This was the week it awoke. This was the week more than a million people took to the streets there, to say they had had just about enough of the forces that argue that Western civilization had been a bad idea in the first place, and it was about time for some tenth-century Islamic severity. Everyone gathered in Paris to say no – Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas stood side by side. So did the leaders of France and Germany, Hollande and Merkel – and they thoroughly despise each other’s economic policies – and Muslims were holding up signs saying they were Jews, and Jews were holding up signs that they were Muslims. Everyone preferred this century, and preferred Western civilization with its relative tolerance of others, where what the people say determines how things should be ordered, not any king claiming divine right or some jerk claiming to know what the Prophet Muhammad really wanted – and that had to happen in Paris. In 1789 people marched down the same streets for the same reason. Enough is enough, and nonsense is nonsense.

Everyone was there in Paris this time. The leaders of the civilized world linked arms and marched down the street together – except for us. President Obama stayed in Washington. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris for a series of high-level meetings, but he didn’t show up. Our ambassador there did. That would be Jane Hartley – the wife of an investment banker and a former cable television executive, but she had raised a lot of money for Obama, as a bundler, and she knew how to work with Congress. We once sent Ben Franklin to Paris to represent us. We sent Thomas Jefferson – but that’s not how things have been done in every administration since World War II or so. Ambassadorships are now rewards for political friends, as the real work of bilateral international relations is done at higher levels, or lower, where the career foreign service officers take care of the pesky details. The positon means nothing now and has meant nothing for many years, everyone knows it.

This looked bad. What does the United States, other than the evangelical Creationists, have against Western Civilization? The White House did admit it made a big mistake – and the hyper-patriotic right piled on – even if those are the folks who hate France and the French and prefer Freedom Fries with their Big Mac. But there was nothing for it. We didn’t show up, and perhaps some in Europe weren’t surprised. Many there feel we’re not really onboard with Western civilization anyway.

That came up in all those trips to Paris. When one travels solo one is no longer a tourist, just a single quiet observer in the corner. Conversations with the locals are inevitable, and those can turn into long debates, if you add enough cognac on a rainy afternoon. The locals will cut you some slack if you’re from Hollywood – everyone loves Hollywood – but sooner or later questions arise. Why are Americans so loud and brash and full of themselves? And what the hell are they doing in the world, and why, and what are they doing at home that’s so damned admirable? To be clear, this was almost always lighthearted, as always happens when bad French meets bad English, and fine cognac can make anyone mellow, but the questions were real. Their friendly puzzlement was real, and each time we dove deep, trying to think this through. This week they would have asked why Obama didn’t show up for the big march. Everyone else did. What was the thinking there?

These conversations are not unusual. Expatriates have them all the time, as Ann Jones reports from Oslo:

Wherever I travel, Europeans, Asians and Africans ask expatriates like me to explain everything odd or troubling about the conduct of the United States. Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, ask pointedly about America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality.”

Their questions share a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy?

That is the question that just came up again given our absence in Paris, but Jones runs down the current ongoing issues:

At the absolute top of the list: “Why would anyone oppose national healthcare?” Many countries have had some form of national healthcare since the 1930s, Germany since 1880. Some versions, as in France and Britain, have devolved into two-tier public and private systems. Yet even the privileged would not begrudge their fellow citizens government-funded comprehensive healthcare. That so many Americans do strikes Europeans as baffling, if not brutal.

And she writes from Oslo:

In the Scandinavian countries, long considered to be the most socially progressive in the world, a national (physical and mental) health program is a big part – but only a part – of a more general social welfare system. In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have access to free education from age six through specialty training or university; low cost, subsidized preschool; unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining; paid parental leave; old age pensions, and more. These benefits are not a “safety net” – that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy. They are universal: equally available as a human right, promoting social harmony.

One might call that Western civilization, but Jones is more specific:

This is the Nordic Model: a balance of regulated capitalism, universal social welfare, political democracy and the highest levels of gender and economic equality on the planet. It’s their system, begun in Sweden in the 1930s and developed across Scandinavia in the postwar period. Yes, they pay for it through high taxation. (Though compared with the U.S. tax code, Norway’s progressive income tax is remarkably streamlined.) And despite the efforts of an occasional conservative government to muck it up, they maintain it.

Of course they do, because they like it, by general agreement:

All the Nordic countries broadly agree that only when people’s basic needs are met – when they cease to worry about jobs, education, healthcare, transportation, etc. – can they truly be free to do as they like. While the U.S. settles for the fantasy that every kid has an equal shot at the American dream, Nordic social welfare systems laid the foundations for a more authentic equality and individualism.

And they do think we’re crazy:

Knowing this, a Norwegian is appalled at what America is doing to its posterity today. That top chief executives are paid 300 to 400 times as much as an average employee. Or that Governors Sam Brownback of Kansas and Chris Christie of New Jersey, having run up their state’s debts by cutting taxes for the rich, now plan to cover the loss with money snatched from public pension funds. That two-thirds of American college students finish in the red, some owing $100,000 or more. That in the U.S., still the world’s richest country, 1 in 3 children lives in poverty. Or that the multitrillion-dollar wars of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama were fought on a credit card, to be paid off by the kids.

Implications of America’s uncivilized inhumanity lurk in the questions foreign observers ask me: Why can’t you shut down that concentration camp in Cuba? Why can’t you stop interfering with women’s healthcare? What is it about science and climate change you can’t understand?

And the most pressing question of all: Why do you send your military all over the world to stir up trouble for all of us?

Those are the questions, and one thing leads to another:

Europeans often connect America’s reckless conduct abroad to its refusal to put its own house in order. They’ve watched the United States unravel its flimsy safety net, fail to replace decaying infrastructure, weaken organized labor, bring its national legislature to a standstill and create the greatest degree of economic inequality in almost a century. As they see it, with ever less personal security and next to no social welfare system, Americans are bound to be anxious and fearful. They understand as well why so many Americans have lost trust in a national government that for three decades has done so little for them (save Obama’s endlessly embattled modest healthcare effort).

They are sorry this had to happen, but there’s little way to defend it:

It’s hard to pin down why America is as it is today, and – believe me – even harder to explain it to others. Some Europeans who interrogate me say that the U.S. is “crazy” – or “paranoid,” “self-absorbed,” or simply “behind the times.” Others, more charitably, imply that Americans are merely “misguided” or “asleep” and may still recover sanity. But wherever I travel, the questions follow, each suggesting that the United States, if not exactly crazy, is decidedly a danger to itself and others.

Wasn’t Obama supposed to be the guy who fixed this, ending two wars and getting the two parties in Washington to be civilized, or at least civil to each other? History will judge him harshly for not dragging America back into Western civilization, even if America didn’t want to be dragged back in, Historians will laugh at him, but Jonathan Chait isn’t sure they will:

In an April speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library to praise the 36th president’s legacy, Obama turned to the theme of vindication in an explicit way. His choice of Johnson was a telling one. No American president left such a gap between the scale of his lasting accomplishments and the indignities he suffered in his own time. The Democrat who dismantled legal apartheid in the South and created Medicare and Medicaid was so loathed he did not even bother trying to run for reelection. At times in the speech, Obama linked Johnson’s travails to his own. The triumphs of history that seem clear and simple in retrospect, he noted, felt contemporaneously grueling and ugly. “From a distance, sometimes these commemorations seem inevitable, they seem easy,” Obama said “All the pain and difficulty and struggle and doubt – all that is rubbed away.” You can sense his desperate wish to arrive at a vantage point where his accomplishments will be buffed of disappointment and take on the same heroic gloss.

Maybe so maybe not:

One can imagine future histories that focus less on Obama’s dysfunctional relationship with Congress and measure accomplishment in more discerning proportion. But the lesson Johnson offers for Obama’s own eventual vindication is not quite so encouraging. LBJ’s political career was defined by his singular failure in Vietnam. The hatred this spawned blotted out his massive and more enduring achievements. The current film Selma inaccurately depicts Johnson as an opponent of the civil-rights struggle he had, in reality, thrown all his energy behind. Five decades on, Johnson still has not escaped the feelings he engendered – indeed, he still requires rehabilitation by figures like Obama.

Johnson did drag us back into Western civilization, for all the good it did him, and Christopher Caldwell adds this:

Obama may wind up the most consequential of the three baby-boom presidents. He expanded certain Bush policies – Detroit bailouts, internet surveillance, drone strikes – and cleaned up after others. We will not know for years whether Obama’s big deficits risked a future depression to avoid a present one, or whether the respite he offered from “humanitarian invasions” made the country safer. Right now, both look like significant achievements. Yet there is a reason the president’s approval ratings have fallen, in much of the country, to Nixonian lows. Even his best-functioning policies have come at a steep price in damaged institutions, leaving the country less united, less democratic, and less free.

None of this is easy, but there’s something he can do. Jones talks of free education through college in the Nordic countries, and Germany just made college free for anyone who shows up, even foreigners, and Obama just proposed making community college free for everyone:

To qualify for the program, “students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program,” the White House said. The administration estimates that the program would help about 9 million students, saving the average full-time student about $3,800 per year.

We didn’t show up in Paris for the big march, but we could join the rest of the civilized world on this, and David Leonhardt thinks this is huge:

Battles over health care, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention. But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy. Even if a federal program doesn’t pass, the growth of state and local programs – like Chicago’s and Tennessee’s – have a large economic effect.

Reihan Salam isn’t so sure about that:

I agree that education policy is very important, but unfortunately Leonhardt’s analysis tells us very little about the merits of this particular proposal.

The College Board collects data on trends in college pricing, and Texas economist Jonathan Meer kindly pointed me to their recent work on net prices – that is, net tuition and fees after grant aid – for students attending public institutions, including community colleges. It turns out that in 2011–12, “net tuition and fees at public two–year colleges ranged from $0 for students in the lower half of the income distribution to $2,051 for the highest-income group.” That is, net tuition and fees were $0 for students from households earning $60,000 or less while it was $2,051 for students from households earning over $106,000.

While I don’t doubt that many households in the $106,000-plus range will welcome not having to pay for their children’s community college education, I’m hard-pressed to see why this initiative will have a “huge” impact, given that we’re presumably most concerned about improving community college access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This may be just happy talk, given those numbers, and Margaret Hartmann notes here that this program would have to be approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, and they’ve already rejected three Obama proposals for expanding community-college programs:

And the GOP has already noted that it’s unclear how this program would be funded. The White House said the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost, and participating states would make up the rest. A source told Bloomberg News that the program would cost $5 billion, and experts suggested it could be more like tens of billions of dollars. “With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan,” said Cory Fritz, House Speaker John Boehner’s press secretary.

It’s dead already, as Ed Morrissey sees it:

This doesn’t have a prayer of getting passed in this Congress, and Obama knows it. It’s merely a construct to Show Obama Cares About You, while at the same time gives the media another Republicans Are Just Flint-Hearted Meanies narrative to push.

One of Andrew Sullivan’s reads is simply angry:

I sure wish people would stop using the word “free” regarding these kinds of plans. They aren’t free. I’ll be paying for them. You’ll be paying for them.

I think that more concentrated “trade school/technical” types of high schools are better than sending everyone to college. My guess is that for most people the years spent on college would be better spent on preparing to have a trade. It is a cruel trick to play on the working classes to make them think that EVERYONE is going to profit by merely going to college, as if you can’t better yourself without it. Only the Left will benefit from everyone going to college, since Leftist/Marxist indoctrination is rife amongst Academicians.

Less people should be going to college. I’ve been to college. I have my degree. Want to buy it for $100? I’ll sell it to you. There is very little that college gave me that I couldn’t have obtained on my own, simply by continuing my life-long love of reading (I was reading by age of five, thanks to my mother’s own love of reading).

As a taxpayer, I don’t want to pay for the education of people when it won’t enhance their life. I would rather pay for more trade schools and technical skills for people. And by the way, you can get damn rich by being a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician.

Another reader offers the obvious:

You quoted a reader: “Less people should be going to college. I’ve been to college. I have my degree. Want to buy it for $100?”

That’s too high a price for a degree from someone who writes “Less people” instead of “Fewer people.” Sorry! Couldn’t resist!

Another reader is more thoughtful:

I can’t help thinking that, regarding this plan from Obama, he’s getting the issue all wrong.

From my perspective, the problem with higher education in America is that too many people need it more than that too few people get it. As it is already, too many college students either don’t want or don’t need what, at its core, a college education actually (and should) offer: a chance to pursue knowledge for its own sake and engage with thought and ideas simply for the sake of doing so. Few people actually enjoy this or can benefit from it, and yet it is really this experience, not job training or acquisition of marketable skills, that college is meant to provide.

Yes, that’s joining Western civilization, but that means people are thinking about college all wrong:

Conversely, colleges are comparatively ill-equipped to provide job skills training, since most faculty members’ primary goal is pursuit of new knowledge (research) rather than teaching. Vocational and trade schools, not colleges, are the proper forums to provide Americans who are looking to get ahead with the skills they need to improve their lives, and yet the president is doubling down on the absurd misuse of colleges and universities that is already so pervasive.

As a student at a prestigious (if I may say so myself) university, I can tell you that most students are not there to engage with ideas and acquire knowledge, but to “check the box” on their way to a lucrative career. Academia is simply not meant to be no-cost employee training for corporations, and it is to the detriment of everyone when it gets used this way.

Okay, fine – scratch that idea – but we do need to join the civilized world somehow. We didn’t show up in Paris with everyone else this time, and folks already think we’re crazy. They do ask us about that. Do we have an answer?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to On Joining the Civilized World

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    I am disappointed that the Obama administration apologized for not having a higher profile presence in Paris on Sunday.
    And, yes, how well I remember the days of the French aka “Freedom” Fries and the right wings disdain for the French.
    When I wrote about the tragedy in France on the 10th I had occasion to think back to the endless succession of senseless deaths in our own country: Newtown, Boston Marathon, on and on and on. There is always the same formula, and in basic psychological and behavioral terms it makes sense: a family member is killed in a car accident, say, and there is a predictable family reaction, shock at the beginning, sooner or later back to normal. It always happen.
    Perhaps the American Paris was 9-11-01, which has been sanctified as our perpetual “shock”. We are never supposed to get over 9-11. “They”, whoever the hell they are, are out to get us, and we have to get them first. Of course, we never will “get” them.
    We need an enemy. George Orwell was right.
    On the first of January I wrote a post about the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, which is October 24, this year.
    The UN is a grand experiment, essential to our planetary survival. It was founded, of course, by the five big dogs who “won” World War II, and each of them, including two “Communist” countries, have veto power, and the U.S. dominates. There are 193 countries around the world. Convincing those five “winners” (U.S., France, England, Russia, China) to give up some of their power is a major dilemma of the UN. And here we whine about the President of the United States was not one of the six or so leaders who were arm-in-arm in Paris on Sunday? I think the White House made the right decision not to go; I only regret they apologized.
    A final thought (for this small comment): last May I had the great good fortune of meeting a civic official from a very large city in Pakistan; husband and Dad. He was nearing the end of a full year in the United States, mostly in Minnesota, and we were tossed together, just the two of us, to do a project on peace.
    It took only a short while to develop a good relationship, and neither of us had a single drink to relax us!
    He marveled at the distinction he had inadvertently found while a student here for a full year. Back home, the U.S. and its policies were not at all to benefit his country. We came across as heavy-handed. Then he came here, for a full year, and as an integral part of the year he got to know a fair number of ordinary Americans living day to day, and he and his family found them to be very nice people. It had a big impact on him.
    Why the distinction between the Ugly American there, and the Nice American here?
    It is a complex topic, of course. A big part of it is that we squander our Democracy. We despise politicians, and either we don’t vote at all, or we tend to elect yahoos who don’t have a clue about the community of nations of which we are a part, and care more about keeping that weapons factory open and running in their legislative district.
    I don’t think it was a gaffe at all for Obama or Biden or Kerry to stay home on Sunday. I’m disappointed they apologized. I think they did the right thing.

  2. John Le Pouvoir says:

    Civilization is overrated – let’s give more thought to joining the wild world.

  3. Rick says:

    As for all those questions Ann Jones was fielding in Oslo, notice that the answer to almost all of them could be that American conservatives tend to successfully stymie the efforts of American liberals in getting anything done that needs to be done.

    While problem-solving liberals are more likely to look around to see which solutions “work”, conservatives instead look past what “works” for solutions that don’t produce “moral hazard”. In short, conservatives don’t like it when government is seen helping “lazy” and “worthless” people take advantage of the hard-working citizens who play by the rules, etc.

    Last week, on the Daily Show (of all places), I saw a nice example of what you might expect to see in Norway — a program in Salt Lake City (again, of all places) that tries to solve homelessness by simply taking homeless people off the streets and just giving them homes, for free:

    Reporter Hasan Minhaj: “What do all these handouts cost the good hard-working people of Utah?”
    Homeless Task Force Director Lloyd Pendleton: “These handouts cost probably twelve-thousand dollars — ten to twelve-thousand dollars, per person to house…”
    Minhaj: “There you go!!”
    Pendleton: “…compared with twenty-thousand dollars a year, on the street.”
    Minhaj: “…..Wait, what?”
    Pendleton: “What we give them is more effective and efficient than the emergency system, of emergency room visits, EMT runs, and jail time.”

    The piece goes on to explain that the homeless people who receive a free home tend to then look for jobs and pull themselves out of trouble. The basic idea here is that helping the helpless helps everyone. It may seem counterintuitive, but the program has reduced Salt Lake City homelessness by 72% since 2005.

    So the big problem with “moral hazard” is probably the same as the problem of “voter fraud” — it’s an imaginary problem. It doesn’t exist. A problem is only a real problem if it physically manifests itself in a significant way in the real world, and not just in the imagination of a conservative.

    As for us sending someone to Paris, I slightly disagree with Dick Bernard, a previous commentator.

    Although not a huge deal, I did think it would have been better for us to not reaffirm the “American Exceptionalist” impression we often give, that we’re above it all and don’t have to be represented with all the “little” countries in that shoulder-to-shoulder photo of world leaders demonstrating solidarity with France, supposedly because of complicated logistics and security.

    But were we even seen that way? It’s hard to tell for sure, although I don’t think so.

    I wish I could remember who it was I saw interviewed in Paris yesterday (he sounded like an American who knew the place well) who, when asked if the feeling among Parisians in the streets was critical of the White House for not sending a high-level representative, said no, not at all, that everyone seemed to already assume that America stood with them on this, and many were pleased to see that Obama had gone in person to the French embassy in Washington to sign the book and express his country’s condolences. This guy finished with the observation that President Obama is still very popular in France, and, in fact, has higher approval numbers than any of the home-grown French politicians.

    Still, even if it’s not a big deal, I thought it was probably slightly wrong not to send maybe Vice President Joe Biden, or at least the next in line of importance, Secretary of State John Kerry, and even thought it might be a good idea for the White House to admit it had made a mistake. And last night, I was happy to see that they did. That, I guess, ends that.

    Although I also supposed that some Republicans would demand Obama apologize for the slight, while others would howl if he does — since, to conservatives, apology is always a sign of weakness. I’m not sure if this internal debate has been going on among Republicans, but given the party’s history of finding ways to express disapproval of Obama no matter what he does, I wouldn’t be surprised either way.


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