A Plea to Half of America

When I was a much younger man I spent four years as a United States Marine and one of those four years were spent practicing evacuating American embassies in places like Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. When I returned to the U.S. the very first thing I did was drop to my knees and kiss the ground. In ports of entry, to this very day,  I get misty-eyed when I see the words “Welcome to the United States of America”. Make no mistake, I love these United States…but America….you really need to get over yourself.

There’s a mindset, far too prevalent in this country, that America is the absolute best at absolutely everything. If you dare to even suggest  some countries are equally as good at certain things, maybe even better than us,  you’re decried un-American, unpatriotic and…why, you might even be a socialist!

Have you ever heard any these phrases:  “American Exceptionalism”, or how about “USA! USA! USA!” and my personal favorite “God, Guns and Guts made America Great!”

I’ll get back to the God, Guns and Guts in just a minute, but let’s first ask ourselves “what does it mean to be a great  country? If great is defined as being able to kill more people than any other country, then perhaps we are the best. Personally, I’d like think there’s a lot more to greatness than that.

There are many who would have you believe that every person not already in the U.S. is simply marking time through a meaningless existence, just waiting for their chance to come to America. Why? Because we’re so much better than them! Should you ask these people “What are you basing this on? How many other countries have you been to?” they often snap “None! And I don’t need to!”

There’s nothing wrong with having no desire to travel, but you shouldn’t then offer your emotionally-charged opinion that America is the greatest country in the world. It’s even worse when nobody asked you. It’s irrational.

Just recently I spent two weeks in the Netherlands. I stayed with friends in their apartment and was able to experience the Netherlands much like a local. From grocery shopping to visiting someone in a hospital to taking out the trash and washing dishes, I lived more as a local than a tourist.

After experiencing two weeks of life as lived by the Dutch, I came to the  realization a country’s “greatness” is simply a reflection of the quality of life of it’s citizens. With that in mind the stage is set:  The Mighty USA vs teeny-tiny Netherlands (one third the size of the state of Michigan).  Let the battle begin. As a framework for our battle, I return, as promised, to “God, Guns and Guts”.

God – The U.S. is one of the most religious countries on the planet. Only four percent of the population identifies itself as having no religion. Conservative commentators and news outlets would have you believe that the the ninety-six percent are in a “life and death” battle over the right of the ninety-six percent to exist. Yet, our currency says “In God We Trust”. Several state legislatures open sessions with prayers and every single Federal office not related to defense, homeland security or law enforcement is shut down when Christmas falls on a weekday.

By contrast, forty percent of Dutch citizens claim no religion. That percentage will likely go higher as older generations fade away. The forty percent by and large aren’t anti-religion. In my time there, the Dutch didn’t look lost and aimless, nor did they look devoid of conscience. On the contrary, they were friendly, personable and helpful.

Guns – The gun situation in the U.S. is fairly well understood. There is no shortage of laws on the books, most of which are ignored. Following the inevitable annual “gun-in-school-tragedy”,  the answer always seems to be more “soon-to-be-ignored” laws. I am a staunch supporter of the second amendment, but there’s something much deeper that needs to be understood about the gun debate. We’ll get there momentarily.

In the Netherlands you can purchase a firearm and you can keep it in your home. You must be a member of a “gun club” in order to obtain a permit to buy a firearm, however. That being said, we learned from people “on the street” that you can easily buy a gun outside of legal channels. So, on the assumption that anyone that wants a gun can get one, here’s a question that demands an answer:  Why is the homicide rate in the U.S. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT that of the Netherlands? Guns are the means, not the reason.  I can tell you part of the reason:  anger. We are a very, very angry people. By contrast, the Dutch are largely content and happy. For starters, there seems to be much less of a class divide. Maybe guns would not be such a hot-button issue if we could figure out why we’re so angry and inclined to take a life without so much as batting an eye.

Guts – My favorite topic of the three. I have first hand knowledge of guts as I am in possession of one that is far too large. The rate of obesity and overweight adults in the U.S. is sixty seven percent!!!.  It breaks my heart now more than ever because I’ve seen the answer and it is so simple…and yet so unreachable for us here in the U.S.  The answer is “move your body”. For two weeks in the Netherlands, I dined out every other night. I ate dessert at many of those meals. I ate many breakfasts consisting of eggs, toast, bacon or corned beef hash. I did all this…and lost five pounds without even trying.

Every “city” of any size in the Netherlands is designed from the ground up to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians as equally as cars. I was astonished to see seventy year-old men and women riding bicycles through crowded streets, in the rain, on their way to buy groceries. Young parents pick up their children from school or daycare by bicycle. I’ve seen the mother of twins with one infant in a basket over the handlebars and their sibling in another basket over the rear tire. This was in February! The baskets are warm and padded and have a plastic cover to keep the cold wind off the infant. Lest you think this is harmful to the child, consider that the Netherlands is ranked 18th best in infant mortality rates and the U.S. 34th. Yes, simply by living their lives the Dutch stay slim and fit.

When I returned home and realized that I had to get into a car to go anywhere, I was furious at how badly we’ve failed to take lessons from countries who have better ways of doing things. No need to carve out an hour for the gym each day. No need for endless pills and fad diets. Ride your bike to work. Or as many Dutch do, ride your bike to the train station, lock it up in a bike rack, take the train for a bit, get out, unlock your other bike from the bike rack in that train station and then bike the rest of the way to work. Given a choice of an hour in a car or thirty minutes biking and thirty minutes on a train, I’ll take the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

So, there it is. A three-round knockout. The Netherlands, with its fit, healthy population, walking around content and happy, not shooting each other like life is a video game and doing all of this despite the fact that they should so obviously be lost souls because they’re just not that into religion.  It is no wonder that year after year after year different polls and organizations cite The Netherlands, or Denmark or Norway as having the highest standard of living/quality of life in the world.  Three countries for sure that would be decried by half of America as “socialists!!”. At the end of the day, does anything matter other than happiness?  I’m not saying The Netherlands is the greatest country on the planet. I’m just saying it sure the hell isn’t the U.S.

So…I would respectfully submit that when people who’ve never been outside the U.S. declare us the best, at everything, they’re shouting while having their head stuck in the sand.

You might think that so many Americans saying this nonsense would anger people in other countries, and to a certain degree it does. But mostly, they’re not angry with you, America…they’re laughing at you.

We have the lowest rate of international travel among the developed countries and yet have all these grandiose opinions of our place in the world.

In closing, I would ask you to make it a goal to visit countries on other continents and above all, don’t define your worth and identity based on whether America is or isn’t the best at something. Get out there. Travel, meet different kinds of people and experience different cultures. You’ll be a better person for it.