What Do You Call a World That Can't Learn From Itself?
Why Don't Americans Understand How Poor Their Lives Are?
Whenever I go back and forth between Europe and the States, a curious set of facts strikes me.
In London, Paris, Berlin, I hop on the train, head to the cafe — it's the afternoon, and nobody's gotten to work until 9am, and even then, maybe not until 10 — order a carefully made coffee and a newly baked croissant, do some writing, pick up some fresh groceries, maybe a meal or two, head home — now it's 6 or 7, and everyone else has already gone home around 5 — and watch something interesting, maybe a documentary by an academic, the BBC's Blue Planet, or a Swedish crime-noir. I think back on my day and remember the people smiling and laughing at the pubs and cafes.
In New York, Washington, Philadelphia, I do the same thing, but it is not the same experience at all. I take broken down public transport to the cafe — everybody's been at work since 6 or 7 or 8, so they already look half-dead — order coffee and a croissant, both of which are fairly tasteless, do some writing, pick up some mass-produced groceries, full of toxins and colourings and GMOs, even if they are labelled "organic" and "fresh", all forbidden in Europe, head home — people are still at work, though it's 7 or 8 — and watch something bland and forgettable, reality porn, decline porn, police-state TV. I think back on my day and remember how I didn't see a single genuine smile — only hard, grim faces, set against despair, like imagine living in Soviet Leningrad.
Everything I consume in the States is of a vastly, abysmally lower quality. Every single thing. The food, the media, little things like fashion, art, public spaces, the emotional context, the work environment, and life in general make me less sane, happy, alive. I feel a little depressed, insecure, precarious, anxious, worried, angry — just like most Americans do these day. So my quality of life — despite all my privileges — is much worse in America than it is anywhere else in the rich world. Do you feel that I exaggerate unfairly?
It's not just an anecdote, of course. Americans enjoy lower qualities of life on every single indicator that you can possibly think of. Life expectancy in France and Spain is 83 years, but in America it's only 78 years — that's half a decade of life, folks. The same is true for things like maternal mortality, stress, work and leisure, press freedom, quality of democracy — every single thing you can think of that impacts how well, happily, meaningfully, and sanely you live is worse in America, by a very long way. These are forms of impoverishment, of deprivation — as is every form of not realizing potential that could be.
But I don't wish to write a jeremiad, for I am not a pundit. The question is this: why don't Americans understand how poor their lives have become? Is it even a fair question to ask?
Of course, one can speak of capitalism and false consciousness and class war, of technology hypnotizing people with outrage. But I think there is a deeper truth here. There is a myth of exceptionalism in America that prevents it from looking outward, and learning from the world. It is made up of littler myths about greed being good, the weak deserving nothing, society being an arena, not a lever, for the survival of the fittest — and America is busy recounting those myths, not learning from the world, in slightly weaker (Democrats) or stronger (Republicans) forms. Still, the myths stay the same — and the debate is only really about whether a lightning bolt or a thunderstorm is the just punishment from the gods for the fallen, and a palace or a kingdom is the just reward for the cunning.
Hence, I have never once sees in America a leader saying, "hey! See that British healthcare system? That German union and pension system? Why don't we propose that? They work!!" Instead, the whole American debate is self-referential — pundits debating Andrew Jackson (LOL) instead of, say, what the rest of the world does today in 2017. How can a broken society grow only by looking inwards? If you are a desperate, heart-broken addict, what can you learn from yourself? Won't you only, recounting your pain, reach for the needle quicker? So we must look outwards, always, to learn best and truest — but I will return to that.
Still, though, "why don't Americans get it!" is an unfair question unless we ask it for both sides. So let us look at the picture from the opposite side, to see if our question is worth asking.
Do Europeans "get it" — how good their lives are, relatively speaking? Well, in Europe, regressive forces are at work, too — not as badly as in America, but rising, to be sure, in every single nation. So Europeans, too, at least enough to seat extremist parties in parliaments, take their quality of life for granted a little. Why would that be? Probably because they have now grown up with the gift their grandfathers and grandmothers gave them — constitutions in which healthcare, education, dignity, and so on, are essential rights — which are what underpin Europe's stunningly high quality of life. Hence, regressive forces in Europe say "these people must not have rights!", not understanding that those very rights, enshrined in rewritten constitutions, are exactly how Europe rose in a generation from the ruins of war, to the highest living standards ever, period — and to take them away is to begin erasing history.
So just as Americans don't get how bad their lives really are, comparatively speaking — which is to say how good they could be — so too Europeans don't fully understand how good their lives are — and how bad, if they continue to follow in America's footsteps, austerity by austerity, they could be. Both appear to be blind to one another's mistakes and successes.
Now. What does that really mean? We are living in a world unable to learn from itself. What would sane societies do, watching each other, watching each other's fortunes rise and fall? A sane America would look at Europe, see it's tremendously higher quality of life in every possible regard, and say, "My God! That is what we should reach for, too!". And a sane Europe would look at America, see it's falling life expectancy and imploding middle class, and say, "My God! We must never become that!" But you see, the irony is this: both are doing precisely the opposite. Europe is fighting against becoming more American, and America is not fighting to become more European. (Of course, I don't mean culturally — I mean in terms of constitutions, institutions, economy, polity, and social contracts).
History teaches us tragedy with irony. And this to me is the greatest irony of now. We are making three great mistakes in this age. The first is that we cannot learn from modern history — which is the story of Trump and America and tyranny. The second is that we cannot learn from deep history — that the whole story of human progress has been written by lifting one another up, not keeping anyone else down, and so the seductive ur-myth of the fascist, that I rise by pulling you down, right down into the abyss, is mesmerizing societies whole.
The third mistake we are making, though, is more invisible, and perhaps the greatest of all — what this essay is about: we cannot learn from one another anymore. How do we learn things? We can learn only in these three ways: from our own mistakes, from the mistakes all people have made, or from the fortunes and misfortunes of our peers. And of those three, the swiftest way to learn is to simply look at what others are doing, that work, and copy it.
Mimicry, of course, is how babies learn the most basic things — yet we cannot seem to even handle that much. So here is the unforgiving truth. We, in this age, this time, have regressed to something past an infantile state: we cannot even manage the mimicry that babies perform happily, the most basic form of learning that exists. We have regressed beyond regression itself.
And so we live in an age that feels paralyzed, stuck, unable to even grow like a baby does. It is failing the most basic test of all: the test of ignorance, of folly, of being unable to see, hold, mature, develop, grow. History is easy to forget — and it's easiest of all to take it for granted when you are the one who has not learned from it yet. What do you call a world that can't learn from itself? It is not even a baby. It is something more like an old man, on the edge of darkness.