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The American Idiot
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New Zealand declared victory over Coronavirus yesterday. “Team New Zealand,” as Kiwis refer to themselves, celebrated having a virus free country. America, on the other hand, had close to 70,000 cases. Seventy thousand — and exploding.
What the American Idiot has done to America is to make it an impoverished country. Not just any kind of poverty — what you might call deep poverty. Let me explain.
New Zealand has zero new cases of Corona. In America, they’re spinning out of control. One way to think about it is to say that your chances of dying of this lethal pandemic are now…infinitely higher in America than in New Zealand. Compared to Europe and Canada, they’re about a hundred times higher.
That’s a kind of poverty, too. A poverty of public health. Americans have spent decades being impoverished of public health by the American Idiot — the kind of person who votes against better healthcare for everyone, including themselves, their kids, their parents. What the? What kind of idiot does that? A very, very large number of Americans.
The result of that attitude was a society poor in a gruesome and strange way — poor in public health itself. What I mean by that is that American life expectancy is the lowest in the rich world, and plummeting, that Americans have the highest rates of all kinds of preventable chronic diseases, from diabetes to obesity to heart disease. You can see it on American faces, in fact: a society poor in health is a society of unhealthy people.
We expect much, much poorer societies to be impoverished in public health. It’s a strange concept to have to think about precisely because we don’t expect it of a rich country. Perhaps one of a poor one, that’s never really developed at all. This is a syndrome unique to America — a form of poverty that Europeans and Canadians struggle to understand, because, well, they’ve mostly eliminated it. But in America, health poverty is endemic.
So endemic that you can see America’s gotten shockingly poorer and poorer in health — right down to the resurgence of old, conquered diseases, from measles to mumps. Again, that’s the work of the American Idiot — the kind of person who won’t vaccinate their kids, which is an idea that in the end takes society right back to the medieval days of endemic smallpox and polio.
So what was going to happen when a society impoverished in terms of health met a pandemic? Utter catastrophe. America’s mortality rate and infection rate are so high precisely because America was a time bomb of failing public health waiting to go off.
What then are the results of creating a society impoverished in public health? Well, Americans face a gruesome choice that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the rich world, even in much of the poor one: your money or your life. “Medical bankruptcy” is the result — I put in quotes because it’s a notion that scarcely exists elsewhere.
How did all that happen?
Americans are culturally impoverished, too. The American Idiot has turned American culture into the one of the world’s regressive, short-sighted, narrow-minded, and, well…idiotic. Literally the tiniest shreds of decency and sanity come under a murderous, withering barrage of denial and false “debate” — from things as simple as wearing masks to ones as large as educating Americans about how the rest of the rich world and even the poor one now has vastly better functioning societies.
Huge chunks of American culture are so hateful, foolish, or bizarre that they’d be either illegal, laughable, or bewildering in much of the rest of the world, from Canada, Europe, or Asia. “Debating” whether the answer to school shootings — which happen nowhere else — is to arm teachers? The idea that billionaires are somehow good for society, or that things like healthcare, retirement, pensions, income, and safety aren’t human rights? That money is all that should matter? Nearly everyone else in the world finds such notions jaw-droppingly foolish by now, which is how the American Idiot made his country a laughingstock the world over.
The point of a Culture of Idiocy, of course, is to create idiots, and American Culture is the cradle and mothers’ milk of the American Idiot. From Tucker Carlson to Bill O’Reilly to Ancient Aliens, an impoverished culture keeps Americans ignorant, pliable, submissive, and frightened.
Tucker will fill your head with misinformation, and the reality TV will make it seem normal to be an idiot. The result of cultural impoverishment, though, is that Americans they stay poor in more visible, visceral ways — like poor in healthcare, in equality, in power, in money.
But also poor in time. That’s my next dimension of poverty. Americans can’t do much to change their society — not nearly enough — because they’re time poor. They work harder than anyone else in the rich world, by a very, very long way. Taking a vacation in America is something that mostly, you’ll get fired for. Commuting three hours a day? That’s your problem. Americans have no time — and they don’t quite understand yet that that’s a deep form of poverty. Because when you’re always running out of time, when do you save, invest, educate, reflect, or just have a decent life? You don’t. You’re always weary, tired, panicked, on a hair trigger, and eventually, you go numb.
That brings me to the next kind of poverty — emotional poverty. Americans live severely impoverished emotional lives. America consistently ranks as a much, much unhappier country than Scandinavia, and falling. It’s among the angriest place and most stressed out place in the world.
Backing all that up, rates of depression have soared way, way past global norms, suicides are skyrocketing, and hopelessness and despair are endemic, too.
Imagine that you live a life of financial poverty, time poverty, and public health poverty, like most Americans do. What kind of life is that, emotionally? A poor one. It’s full of nights where you can’t sleep, wondering how to pay the bills. It’s riddled with anxiety and panic. Uncontrollable thoughts race through the mind. Pretty soon, you’re like, well, most Americans: angry, stressed out, depressed. No matter how hard you work, you never seem to able to make ends meet. You never have enough time to spend with your loved ones — or just relaxing, or learning something new. But those are the greatest sources of happiness of all. Is it any wonder Americans are miserable and furious, mostly, then?
The American Idiot made all that happen, too. Who votes, again and again, for no real mental healthcare? In America, you can get medicated— the lowest cost answer, or you can get “therapy.” But getting proper mental healthcare, the way you can in Europe or Canada — careful, long-term psychotherapy? That doesn’t exist at all in America, outside maybe a handful of major cities.
The American Idiot responded, instead, to life becoming a nightmare of dystopian stress, misery, and anger, with something else. With rage. With hate. With the cruelty and brutality that have made America a laughingstock the world over. Why does the American Idiot deny everyone — including themselves — better incomes, healthcare, retirement, pension, more time to have a decent life? Because they’ve internalized the notion that nobody has any intrinsic worth. And therefore, everybody must be a vicious competitor, fighting everyone else off, for a morsel of basics, whether jobs, healthcare, pensions, and so on.
But these are things that when people cooperate — as they do in Canada and Europe — they can simply give each other.
Never mind. The American Idiot — led off a cliff by greater fools, like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump — believes that the only way out of an abusive society is to be a bigger, hungrier, more vicious predator.
But all that happens that way is that society implodes into a spectacular orgy of self-destruction, and becomes an unlivable place, because unbelievable cruelty to the rest of the world becomes the norm — like letting kids be shot at school, in indifference to life which culminates, ultimately, in the mass death of a virus.
All that brings me to another kind of poverty: one we don’t yet have a good name for. A poverty of trust, of goodness, of decency. Americans are impoverished in this deep way, which I can put most simply and accurately by saying that they seem to genuinely hate each other. It’s not nice living in a society of people who hate each other. A society of hateful people can’t ever cooperate to accomplish anything, whether beating a deadly pandemic, or creating a better future by investing together in schools, hospitals, ideas, research, accomplishments.
Now, I don’t mean that you hate anyone. I mean it in a more technical way, one that’s almost invisible in America, because like air, it’s just the atmosphere that surrounds everyone. What else, though, can it really be called, when some large number of Americans deny, over and over, everyone else the right to have healthcare? An education? A job with decent standards? Free time? A rising income? A democracy?
You only do those things if you hate people. Yes, really hate them. I would never deny you healthcare, goes the sentiment in Europe and Canada, where even the hard right wing isn’t against basic public goods. American Idiots will deny their own kids and parents decent lives, though.
The only accurate word to describe such a sentiment is hate — because when you deny someone the basics, like medicine or retirement, you are also hurting them badly, and in very real ways. They are going to suffer much, much worse lives — whether measured in longevity, happiness, income, or relationships — as a result of that denial.
The American Idiot is an abuser. He abuses everyone he can, right down to his own loved ones — and think that’s sanity, compassion, goodness. It’s not: it’s only a recipe for self-destruction. Because a society of people — enough of them — hell-bent on abusing everyone else, right down to their loved ones — can only implode into ruin, bitterness, hardship, and suffering.
That brings me to my final form of poverty. If I deny you the basics — healthcare, education, and so on — what am I really doing? I am destroying your human potential. And that is America’s truest and deepest form of poverty.
Americans now live lives of sharply limited and circumscribed possibilities. Go-nowhere, dead-end lives. You can see that, too, in basic statistics, like the death of upwards mobility, the loss of hope in the future, the fact that young people can’t afford to move out and start families, that half of all jobs are now “low-wage service work.”
In America, your life is going to be much, much poorer than in any other rich country. Elsewhere? You can probably get an education — a much better one — and not be crippled by debt for life. There are more better jobs, with better standards. There’s more free time, to have a family, to form bonds, to love. There are better social protections, which mean you spend less time anxious and stressed out. All of that doesn’t just add up to less depression and suicide and more happiness — happiness is facet of an even greater thing, human potential.
There you are, a young person in America. What are your options? Most industries have now imploded, from news to media to education. That’s why half of jobs are now “low-wage service work,” which is polite pundit’s way of saying: being a servant.
You end up driving an Uber, delivering an Instacart. Doing gig work. Pursuing your side hustle when and where you can. What the hell? You’re educated. You have a long collection of degrees and diplomas.
And yet you never become the thing you could have. The one that would have benefited everyone. That scientist, researcher, novelist, journalist, professor, musician. Who can? Nobody can make ends meet. Nobody has time for anything but to be exploited and abused, in the name of trying to make ends meet. So what is there left over in time or money to invest in one’s self?
One dimension of human potential is what you make of yourself professionally — and you realize, one day, terrified, that you will never amount to what you wanted to, but be a glorified neo-servant for much of your life. But another is relational — what you make of yourself socially. And as an American, now, you can’t even afford to start a family, have a home, develop a lifelong relationship.
That’s how badly your human potential has been destroyed. That’s how poor you are in human possibility. You won’t not just be that scientist, researcher, journalist, novelist — you also won’t be that dad, mom, grandparent, husband, wife, loved one.
You will work, for a pittance, and then die. You’ll make billionaires trillionaires — and demagogue dictators — along the way. But you?
You’re expandable, disposable, nobody.
That’s thanks to the American Idiot. He’s a person so breathtakingly foolish to the rest of the world he’s made America a laughingstock. Precisely because he believes nobody’s life has any intrinsic value — beginning with his own, extending to his loved ones…all the way to you, to everyone. If he’s happy to abuse himself — having internalized the lesson he’s been taught all his life, that only brutality matters and cruelty counts — why wouldn’t he abuse everyone else, too?
America’s become unlivable. Sure, you can live there, and you’ll be OK. But you’ll be poor. Poor in ways that are strange and hard to comprehend because they’re both old and new. You’ll be poor financially, of course, like someone living in a collapsing society — but that’s just the beginning.
You’ll be poor in terms of public health, like someone from medieval times. You’ll be poor in terms of time and power, like a peasant from pre-war times. You’ll be poor emotionally, like someone living in a country with no hope. And you’ll be poor socially, politically, and culturally, like in a country turning fascist-authoritarian. All that adds up to the coup de grace — you’ll be poor in terms of human potential. You’ll never become what you’re capable of being — not to the same degree as elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong. Humanity has lived through a lot. Plagues, wars, collapses, implosions. Life doesn’t come to an end. It goes on. But you know what the point of all those things was? Not to repeat them.
That is the most minimal definition of what progress is. And so far, America has yet to meet even that. Maybe, then, that’s what the truest kind of poverty is, too.
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