Ten American Myths
I suppose it would be more accurate to say ten common myths, but since I’m an American and I see these in various guises in the media, not too mention spouted by my friends and acquaintances, I’m calling it as I see it. Myths may not be the might word either, misconceptions might be more accurate. Though since some of these misconceptions have driven American policy for decades or longer, often a terrible financial and personal cost to the nation, misconception seems too weak a word. With that in mind, maybe delusion or nightmare would be more accurate for some of them. In any event, these are some commonly held beliefs that I think are inaccurate at best, and my reasoning behind why I think so. So here, in no particular order, ten American delusions:
1. Jobs vs Environment. This one always gets me. The reality is it’s jobs vs corporate profits. Logging is a great example, most environmentalists don’t have a problem with logging, they just want it done in an environmentally sensitive way. In fact doing things in an environmentally sensitive way can create jobs, because environmentalists think the environment should be treated as capital, not profit. In any event when some corporate entity claims that some environmental policy will cost jobs, they usually mean it will reduce top end profits. And considering how much richer the rich have gotten the past few decades in America, I don’t really have a problem if top end profits are hurt some.
2. Regulation is Bad. This one is easy. There was a golden era in America where industry was almost completely unregulated. The late nineteenth century. It was a golden age for the ultra rich, the rest of us got screwed. Other recent highlights in deregulation history include the Enron scandal, the Savings and Loan scandal of the nineties, and the current mortgage meltdown. Deregulation is putting the fox in charge of the hen house, it’s not a great idea. I’m not saying that regulation doesn’t sometimes go to far, but when it doesn’t go far enough we all pay the price.
3. Privatization is Good. This one always makes me blink. Let’s see, an organization whose purpose in life is to syphon off profits is going to be able to perform a task more economically than an organization simply charged with performing the task? How’s that again? There’s so many examples where privatization has cost oodles of money compared to the alternative it’s not funny. The contractors (IE mercenaries) we are hiring in Iraq cost VASTLY more than having the Army do it. Yeah, that’s a good idea. And there’s other down sides as well. A privatized school system locally was a complete failure because the corporate owners worked assiduously to get rid of under-performing or (God forbid) special needs students.
4. Colour Blind America. Yes, after the Civil Rights movement the problem has all been fixed, in fact minorities enjoy all sorts of advantages now. I have a friend of Indian birth who recently moved back to Berkeley from Oregon because he got tired of everyone staring at him when he walked into restaurants/stores…and he got real tired of people picking fights with him in bars because they thought he was Mexican. America is still a white man’s country in a million subtle and not so subtle ways, and white men who say otherwise are the among the most pathetic whiners in history.
5. Protesters Lost Viet Nam/We Tied Our Own Hands. I covered this one more or less in my fine and under appreciated post: “We could have won in Vietnam“
6. War Helps the Economy. I was even taught this in school. Yes, in some magical sense blowing things up and building stuff whose only purpose is to destroy things is good for the economy. I’m not exactly sure how this one got so popular, since it seems self evident that ploughing a field or mining coal with a bayonet would be terribly inefficient. And war is definitely not good for the economy of people who are killed or maimed in the war, not to mention those who simply have their homes and livelihood destroyed. One has to wonder just whose economy benefits from war for this to be true, I have an idea though. I leave it to the gentle reader to “follow the money” as it were.
7. Rural Areas are Safe. This one makes me want to scream. A terrible crime happens in some rural area or small town, and people immediately wail that “This sort of this doesn’t happen here.” Aside from the prima facie absurdity of claiming that this sort of thing doesn’t happen…right after it happens…this is basically a poor understanding of statistics. Yes, there are more crimes in cities…because more people live in cities. But, but, but, even statistically cities are more dangerous! Yes, but that’s because cities have “bad areas” aka slums/projects where crime rates are through the roof. If one doesn’t live in one of those, cities are as safe or even safer than rural areas. The East Bay hills for example are practically crime free, except for the occasional burglary and car break-in. I have no rural living friends who can make that claim about their neighbourhoods.
8. Punishment Works. Another slam dunk basically. Scientists showed in the 1920s what humanitarians had known forever, punishment might be very emotionally satisfying to the punisher, but it’s a really bad way to get people to change their behaviour. In fact punishment and threat of punishment is the least effective way to change an organism’s behaviour. Yet almost daily I read some letter to the editor about how if we just make the prisons harsh enough, why, the prisoners will be sure to behave themselves when released for fear of going back! In reality, where I’m stuck co-existing with idiots like this, the more one “punishes” prisoners, the less they will be able to cope with normal society when released. Yeah, that’s a good idea.
9. Torture Works. Yes, torture works just fine. If you torture someone long enough, they will confess to anything and tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Will it be accurate? Probably not. Are there much better and more reliable ways to get accurate information from suspects? Absolutely. Has there ever been a situation in history where torture was the only option to find a ticking time bomb or what not? Outside of movies, I’ve never heard of one. And would torture even work in those cases? Of course not, people have resisted torture for years, if one knew there was a time limit almost anyone could simply keep lying.
10. Prohibition Works. The sad thing about this one is that as a society we realized in the thirties that alcohol prohibition was causing more problems than it fixed. I mean, rum-running armed gangs were shooting each other in the streets! And enormous police resources were being spent fighting these gangs, not to mention rounding up perfectly law abiding citizens whose only crime was to have some booze or wine in their homes. And hell, the law was routinely ignored by tens of millions of Americans who just kept their drinking private. Yet here we are a few generations later completely ignoring an utterly failed drug prohibition policy, locking up millions of Americans, and accomplishing nothing…while heavily armed gangs control entire neighbourhoods. Our grandparents were a lot smarter than us I guess, or at least able to see the writing on the wall. Or the blood on the street.
There’s more than ten of these myths, but this will do for now. And yes, each of my above points have has codicils and exceptions. And I suppose I come off sounding like we live in a vast sea of ignorance. Well, yes. Prove me wrong.
There is now a follow-up post where I answer many of the comments left below: Ten American Myths Revisited.
(Re image above: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation license“. It is an image of the famous Belgian statue Manneken Pis. I selected it to illustrate another American Myth…the “trickle down theory.” When the rich get ever richer it ain’t money that trickles down.)