Commentary : American soul-searching and Tiger Woods
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: September 15, 2009
My wife and I went to New York City recently expecting to see some signs, even small ones, of the recent economic collapse. There were hardly any. It’s a very wealthy city where even severe financial losses leave little visible trace on people’s everyday lives. My wife did notice that fewer families grew flowers in their gardens, and people had a little less food in their shopping carts when they left the supermarkets.
What is evident, though, is that Americans show a certain loss of faith in the institutions that once received their uncritical adulation, including the icon of American industry, General Motors. Its managers once said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” and many Americans believed them. Now General Motors is bankrupt.
Wall Street is another fallen idol. Americans always kept a wary eye on Wall Street’s doings, but they were still proud to walk along the short street at the foot of Trinity Church and realized it dominated the markets of the world. Americans now have their worst fears about Wall Street realized.
Another example is American health care. Americans were told they had the “best health system in the world.” Now, in the heat of a great debate over President Barack Obama’s national health program, people are learning that the health system is rated only average among the systems current in developed countries. One commentator called it “islands of excellence (cancer treatment, for example) in a sea of misery.”
Americans get a sinking feeling in their stomachs when they see their armed forces entering one more bloody and extended war in Afghanistan. The signs of it becoming another Vietnam are as prominent as crosses along highways that mark the places where people died. US and NATO troops are supporting a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy. The government forces are untrained and reluctant to fight, while the Taliban are deeply motivated, surprisingly well armed, and outnumber government soldiers. Americans hope against hope this war will have a different ending from the one in Vietnam, but they are also aware of the maxim that to repeat the same actions and expect different results is a sign of insanity.
Finally, Catholics, or at least some of them, worry about the Church’s seeming unequivocal concern for abortion in all the social issues that arise. They share the concern over abortion, but they miss the Church that was prominently engaged in the struggle for labor union rights, that resisted the war in Iraq, and defended the rights of children, immigrants and the poor in general.
The new questioning stance of Americans may be a good thing in the end, even if it leaves them a little more insecure and skeptical of their institutions. Filipinos and peoples everywhere have grown used to failures in government. It is only Americans who have believed they were “special” in any fashion. Skepticism about government is healthy. Why should anyone think a society built by humans should be perfect?
To appreciate America’s new loss of faith we should remember that American children have been taught that the United States was given to the human race as some sort of evolutionary step forward in nation building.
How could Americans have failed to take more seriously the accounts of the bad things done in their name around the world by their government and multinational companies, and the injustice done to Afro-American people and other minorities at home?
I received what may be an answer to this question quite by accident. Just before the recent PGA Golf Championship that began on Aug. 13, our TV set in New York went on the blink. The screen moved up about 1 1/2” which gave all the people big torsos and heads and small bandy legs. We wondered how we could watch Tiger Woods looking so strange for four days.
We sat and watched and the first day was painful. Poor Tiger with his small legs and big head! It was unseemly. Then little by little we didn’t notice the distortions any longer. We no longer saw them. We unwittingly combined the actual sense data and our past experience of what should be before us. We “saw” Tiger in normal size and great golfing shape, up to the very last hole, that is.
Americans didn’t see the facts. They saw instead what their education had prepared them to see. They saw what they wanted to see.
America has much to learn from the countries, like the Philippines, that have become more expert in criticism of their government over many centuries. The world can benefit from the new American soul-searching if it results in a humbler America, more ready to deal with other people as brothers and sisters and not as a master or guru.
(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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