A few years ago, some beleaguered scholar of geography characterized Americans below the age of 50 as a “lost generation,” in the sense of not knowing where they were physically located in relation to the rest of the world. He was responding to some test given to a selected sample of Americans, in which they were shown a map of the world, at a considerable level of detail, but with the names of the countries (and the states in the U.S.) omitted. A horrendous percentage of respondents could not find England, France, the USSR (as it was then), Mexico, or Canada. A significant number could not even find the United States. Many could not identify the state in which they lived.
At the time, I half-seriously suggested that this appalling ignorance could legitimately be blamed on the Sexual Revolution. Playboy, I pointed out, had provided more recent generations of male adolescents with someplace other than the National Geographic to look for pictures of nekkid wimmen. (That hypothesis, of course, provides us with no illumination whatever about the geographic ignorance of the younger generation of women.)
The study in question dealt only with physical geography of the most rudimentary kind. It did not even mention the ignorance of Americans about how people live in places other than the U.S., which is in practice a much more important issue than whether Paraguay lies north or south of Bolivia. It would be hard even to design a survey tool to measure that variety of ignorance. Today, perhaps the most important ways the U.S. differs from the rest of the world have to do with crime, poverty, welfare, and education. Not coincidentally, these are hot topics in the news in this country. Most reasonably educated Americans are aware that Europeans generally regard the U.S. as barbaric because, unlike most European countries, we have the death penalty and no gun control. Some really sophisticated Americans know that the only countries in the world with higher rates of execution, imprisonment, and violent crime than ours are all in the Third World. Some of us know that the Brits think we’re barbarians because we have the death penalty, and that the Saudis think we’re sissies because we don’t implement it in the public square with a sword. But the only Americans who have any real sense of what it is like to live in countries outside the US are those who have done it.
Since we are a nation of immigrants, we do have a fair-sized population of people who know firsthand what life is like in Mexico and Central America, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, and many other countries with lower pay-scales, higher crime rates, and wider gaps between rich and poor than the U.S. Those immigrants have no problem colluding in the propagation of the Great American Myth that this is the richest and greatest country in the world–it is certainly the richest and greatest country they have ever lived in. Which is precisely why they are here in the first place.
What we don’t have is a sizeable population of people who have lived in Western Europe and Japan over the last twenty years. Most of the natives of those countries don’t move here, because they find life over there more comfortable. And most Americans can’t move there because, given present-day currency rates, it’s too expensive for people who get paid in dollars. Living outside the U.S. might even require an American to learn some language other than English. And learning languages, of course, is boring. In addition, most Western European countries don’t welcome middle-class immigrants. They have more than enough educated citizens of their own to fill local white-collar jobs. They certainly don’t need people who don’t speak the local language and may not be educated up to local standards–except for menial jobs for which Europe gets its own share of Third World immigrants. While Mexicans and Asians are enduring unbelievable and sometimes life-threatening hardships to flock to our gates because their culture is full of our artefacts and their villages are full of people who have relatives writing home from the U.S. about the luxury of having a home of one’s own and two cars, Americans are not willing to save their dollars or work out deals with overseas employers because we don’t know anything about life over there. And the corpocracy that runs the U.S. economy, polity, and culture is happy to keep it that way.
What they are especially happy to maintain is American ignorance of other systems of government and economics. As long as American voters can imagine only decadent communism, free-market capitalism, and Third World mismanagement, they will of course stick with capitalism. Who wouldn’t? The voters will spend every election splitting hairs over just how much license and subsidization to give the corpos this time, and then wonder why politics is so boring and seems to make so little difference. And those few Americans who might like to imagine some fourth alternative have to make it up out of whole cloth, and create it from nothing, because, so far as they know, nothing like it has ever even been tried, much less succeeded. That is, ultimately, the Sisyphean tragedy of the American Left. Once we’ve said, “No, of course we don’t want communism, there has to be something better,” what more can we say?
Well, we could say, “Mixed economies and democratic socialism have been tried, with considerable success, in Western Europe and Japan, where the average blue-collar worker lives a lot better than his or her American counterpart,” and then start describing a day in the life of the Swedish car mechanic, or the German secretary, or the French shop clerk, or even the British steelworker on unemployment. Why don’t we? Because we don’t even know where to find out how they live. If I were to do a web search on the subject, which of course is the first step in any halfway-serious research project these days, I would not even know what to use for a search term. “France?” That would get me airlines and travel services and tourist sites. It might get me academic programs. It would get me all the information necessary about how to be a stranger in another country. It would get me nothing at all about the experience of being a person who lived there. Even the progressive publications we rely on for something more truthful and meaningful than Time, Newsweek, and U.S.A. Today won’t give us that information. Maybe because the Progressive, In These Times, and The Nation can’t afford to keep correspondents overseas, given the currency rates. But more likely because even Americans who think of themselves as intellectuals, or at least as thoughtful people, have been brainwashed into thinking that geography is boring. Even Americans who know how exciting history can be are likely to be bored by geography.
When I was a kid, we read geography textbooks, mostly horribly out of date, about the lives of children in some other countries. We got to learn what they ate, what they wore, what kind of schools they went to, what kind of houses they lived in, and what the weather was like. All of the information except the weather was long-since obsolete even at the time, of course. And there was no mention at all of politics or economics (except for those poor kids behind the Iron Curtain, living two families to a room and having to report their parents to the police for saying the Rosary or listening to Radio Free Europe.) But we still ended up knowing more about the world beyond our borders than most Americans educated since then.
When I was a kid, the Cold War and the Iron Curtain were ever-present facts of our lives. We heard about the brave Poles and Czechs and Hungarians who risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to listen to Radio Free Europe and find out The Truth about the world outside, which they knew their communist masters were not telling them. Our corporate masters here don’t need to tell us that learning about life in other countries is forbidden and dangerous. They just have to tell us it’s boring. We don’t need an Iron Curtain. What we have instead is a curtain that we cannot even see, because all it does is reflect back at us an idealized, thoroughly retouched picture of ourselves, so that we have no way to imagine that there is any world out there that does not look like our own. A mirrored curtain, so to speak.
So I would like to pose a challenge to the progressive media in the U.S. If each progressive media outlet–The Progressive, The Nation, In These Times, Ms., Pacifica Radio, NPR, Utne (online and dead-tree versions), Tikkun, and so on–would commit itself to presenting at least one story per issue on a day in the life of an ordinary working person in some industrialized country other than the U.S., a lot of the other rock-pushing those outlets have to do in terms of telling people, “Yes, there is an alternative to free-market capitalism, and it isn’t communism,” could be avoided. Y’all could devote some of the space you now have to use for abstract, hypothetical political theory to cartoons and comic strips and poetry. All you have to do, guys, is tell enough people, show enough people, “We have seen the present and it works.”