Several of my notes commenting about the United States have produced angry responses, claiming that I do not understand, that my "opinions" are tainted, and that if I do not value the United States I should give up my citizenship.
What I think these responses reveal is yet another side of the United States. As in other traits present in a large and varied country, these may be held only by a segment of the population. They appear to be an excessive sensitivity about criticism, or an elevated patriotism that in some formulations comes with the expression, "Love it or leave it."
I would defend my notes by asking critics to read them again. I have been careful to avoid expressing casual opinions about the United States. Rather, I have cited internationally recognized data showing the standing of the US along with other countries. I have emphasized the puzzle inherent in the low US standing on a number of important social indicators, along with the high quality of science, engineering, and innovation coming from American companies, government laboratories, and universities.
The reality is that the United States scores lower than any other western democracy on important measures of health and welfare. I have employed the widely used summary measures of life expectancy and infant mortality. A recent measure of infant mortality shows the United States ranking 50th in the world. A measure of overall life expectancy (this one from the CIA) shows the US ranked 51st. I have also referred to data showing the US ranked first in obesity, which may contribute to the low score on life expectancy. In the fields of crime and violence, the US scores highest among western democracies in murder rates and rates of incarceration.
Some of my critics boast of their own health insurance, and some claim that any resident of the US can get free care in the emergency rooms of public hospitals.
No doubt that many Americans have more generous health coverage than available to the general populations of Europe or Israel. An Israeli can only dream of a private room if hospitalization is required, and should hope for a friend or relative to supplement the food and linens available from the hospital. However, primary care is without co-payment, and a visit with a specialist costs the equivalent of $5. Conditions are similar throughout Western Europe. American emergency rooms do not provide routine or preventative care, and waiting in agony to have one's life preserved until the next emergency is--by all the reports--not something to be envied.
One of the most telling statistics I have encountered concerns Israeli Arabs and Americans. Critics of Israel accuse the country of discriminating against its Arab citizens. And, indeed, the situation of Israeli Arabs resembles that of minorities in other democracies. Detailed comparisons of career opportunities, treatment by the police, access to education, and income equality goes beyond the scope of this note. However, on the important summary measure of life expectancy, Israeli Arabs do not live as long as Israeli Jews, but Israeli Arabs live longer than White Americans, and even longer when compared to American minorities.
My critics assert that America is the land of opportunity.
On this I have not quarreled. My own life began poor. I began working to earn money for college at the age of 14, benefited from university financial aid and part time employment through my BA and PhD, and spent almost half of my professional career in the United States. I've never figured out to my full satisfaction why I left Madison and an excellent department at the University of Wisconsin for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My summary explanation has something to do with finding Israel an interesting and challenging place.
In response to my critics, I have thought more about American opportunity. No doubt the overall wealth of the US and the generosity of many Americans has allowed people like me to advanced beyond a less than opulent childhood, and has produced the development of world class universities, corporate, and governmental sources of medical, scientific, and technological research. However, the United States is not alone, and may not be the world leader in such traits. I have come to know other countries through professional contacts, travel, research, and the research of my students, and I know of several places that--perhaps especially since World War II--compare with the United States on the criteria of personal opportunity. I have found two separate measures of innovation coming from reputable sources. One comes from The Economist and was sponsored by the American firm Cisco, and the other from an organ of the United Nations. Both place the United States high, but not among the very highest countries on their measures of innovation. Countries ranked higher than the US on one or both indicators include Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, Israel, South Korea, Singapore, Finland, United Kingdom, Denmark, Hong Kong, and Ireland.
Israel is one of many countries at least partially dependent on the United States. For that reason, I worry about the wisdom of American foreign policies. Some have been admirable, but some have been worrisome in the extreme. Obama's demand that Israel not build in neighborhoods of Jerusalem was not wise and has not been productive. The initiatives begun by George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan were poorly conceived and tragic in their outcomes. Saddam Hussein was not an angel, but he kept a lid on a country with many internal problems. Since the destruction of his regime by the United States, there may have been more than one million deaths, caused mostly by Iraqis killing Iraqis. That number resembles what occurred in Rwanda, and has been described by the labels of genocide and Holocaust.
As a student and then teacher of politics and government, I have learned and taught that freedom of inquiry and criticism are essential traits of democracy. They are assured to Americans by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and not cancelled for an American who leaves home. The 14th Amendment provides citizenship to those born in the US (like me), and the State Department does not make it easy for the relatively few Americans who seek to renounce their citizenship (which I have no intention of doing).
I have also learned that inquiry and criticism are key elements of Judaism. There is a story from the time of Solomon that wealthy individuals financed the education of bright, but poor boys. The tradition continued in many communities of the Diaspora. If my grandfathers had not left Lithuania and Poland in the late 19th century, and if Europe had been spared both world wars, someone like me may have been given free schooling and then married to a rabbi's daughter. I only knew one of my grandfathers, but I continue to thank both of them for leaving home.
The importance of criticism appears clearly in the Biblical prophets. Few of my American friends may understand the haftorah that they read on Sabbath and the holidays, but they would profit from English versions, especially of Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea. Each of them were severe, even extreme critics of the economic and political elites of their time. Jeremiah was accused of being a traitor, and people close to the king tried to kill him. The king provided Jeremiah sanctuary, listened to his claims (rants?), but said that he was powerless to act as the prophet demanded (Jeremiah 38).
The tradition of free criticism continues in the Talmud. Every page contains arguments, with the rabbis criticizing one another--and occasionally ridiculing one another--for imperfect understandings of religious law.
My own analyses of Israeli politics have emphasized the Jewish traditions of outspoken controversy and freedom of criticism as the best explanations of Israel's democracy. This is one of very few among the 100 or so new countries founded after World War II, almost all of them claiming to be democracies, that have actually preserved a high quality of democracy. Israel's case is made interesting insofar as very few of its founders came from countries with well established democratic norms and practices. Moreover, the country went through difficult crises of poverty, warfare, and mass immigration (almost all of it from non-democratic countries) without giving up its democracy.
I have no aspirations to persuade American free enterprise/individualistic ideologues that comprehensive public health insurance, gun control, or additional features of every other Western democracy ought to be adopted in the United States. I aspire to disputes about matters of comparative detail, explorations of national differences, and especially why the US is such a prominent outlier on conventional norms. I do not think of myself as promoting wild or unanchored opinions. My overall attitude about the United States is positive, but critical. I enjoy a good argument with individuals not inclined to view anything that appears to them unconventional as forbidden.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at January 05, 2013 10:26 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem