As an American writer living (at least part time) in France, I have often had occasion to look at what was going on in the U.S and despair. I have blogged from time to time about some of these issues, especially health care, but here's an insightful article by my former TIME colleague, Don Morrison, who puts it all together brilliantly in an article originally written for Le Monde. He has given me permission to include it in this blog. Read it and think.
Le Suicide Américain
Le Monde, December 2, 2014
Lately it has become difficult to enter a bookstore, open a magazine or turn on a TV without stumbling across the saturnine visage of Eric Zemmour. That sly provocateur has become France’s hottest literary celebrity thanks to his best-selling book, Le Suicide Français, a chilling jeremiad about the perils of immigration, the “feminization” of French men, the forgotten glory of Vichy and a number of other contemporary outrages which, he warns, will soon sweep France into the dustbin of history. At first I thought it was a murder mystery. Turns out, the book is serious.
And dead wrong. Not so much because Zemmour’s analysis is faulty -- France is without doubt suffering from a weak economy, an inability to deal with its restive immigrants and a feckless political leadership. Instead, Zemmour is wrong because he vastly overestimates the seriousness of France’s predicament. A French suicide is extremely unlikely.
To understand why, one need only look at a country that truly is killing itself: the United States. The French may be vexed, but their slump is nothing compared to the demented fury with which the world’s only (for now) superpower is systematically squandering more than two centuries of power, prosperity and prestige. The real danger today is Le Suicide Américain.
Consider that country’s recent mid-term legislative elections. Americans voted to hand control of the Senate -- and a wider margin of control in the House -- to the opposition Republicans, the party that shut down the government last year, threatens to do so again and has blocked nearly every major legislative initiative of President Barack Obama. The Republicans, however, did not seem to be a major issue in the election. Obama did. The President’s approval rating, at around 40%, is historically low among voters of both major parties (though higher than that of his French counterpart), and he is routinely depicted in the press as overly cautious at the same time dictatorial. (His critics are not bothered by that inconsistency.) Exactly why Obama is so widely disliked by his countrymen remains a mystery. After all, he presided over a reversal of the country’s economic decline, an improvement in its image abroad and a bold reform of its troubled health system. But Obama is a proxy for the national mood, and polls consistently show that most Americans believe the country is “heading in the wrong direction.”
That direction is, unmistakably, downward. The U.S. economy is recovering, but the benefits are not being spread evenly. Corporate profits are at record highs, but companies are using their newfound cash largely for share buy-backs and dividend increases, not to hire more workers. Wages for working- and middle-class Americans have barely risen in the past decade. By contrast, most of the gains from the recovery have gone to the top 1% of earners, giving the U.S. highest level of economic inequality in the industrialized world.
America is falling apart, literally. The country’s civil engineers have warned that thousands of bridges and tunnels are in serious risk of collapsing. U.S. airports and highways are stretched to capacity, and there is no high speed rail network (and barely any passenger trains at all) to share the strain. Broadband internet is the slowest -- and yet most expensive -- in the developed world. Despite all the deterioration, Obama’s calls for rebuilding America’s infrastructure have fallen on deaf Congressional ears.
Americans are also killing themselves, individually. Despite the recent health reforms, U.S. doctors, drugs and hospitals remain the world’s most expensive, though rarely the world’s best. Important measures of public health are well below the rich-country average, including life expectancy and infant mortality. About two-thirds of American adults are overweight; half of those are downright obese, (double the levels in France). Because contraception -- and even information about it -- is restricted, especially in the more religion-obsessed parts of America, 30% of teenage girls become pregnant, 80% of them unintentionally.
If their health habits are not lethal enough, Americans have guns -- 300 million of them, nearly one for every man, woman and child. About 31,000 people die of gunshots in the U.S. every year, 16 times more than in France. School shootings have become so common -- nearly 100 in the two years since 20 children were slaughtered at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut -- that such incidents are no longer front-page news. (One gun death, the recent shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, was an exception: It sparked nationwide protests, underlining America's continuing racial divide.) Periodic attempts to impose even minor firearm restrictions -- background checks, limits on automatic weapons -- are routinely thwarted by legislators fearful of the National Rifle Association, one of the richest and most fearsome of the Washington lobbies.
Lobbying has become one of America’s leading industries. Even before the right-leaning Supreme Court recently struck down long-standing campaign-finance reforms, American elections were swamped with money from special interests. Spending for this year’s mid-term elections hit a record $4 billion, much of it from industry groups and ideologically motivated billionaires. Political campaigns are dominated by “negative” TV advertising, composed of slick innuendo and half-true slurs. Partly as a result, American politics, and public discourse in general, have become poisonous arenas where extreme views are reinforced, moderation is discouraged and compromise is impossible. Thus, there is little will to fix any of America’s considerable problems.
Against this grim background, France does not seem suicidal at all. Americans may mock the French for their work habits and other stereotypical traits but, viewed from the U.S., France looks pretty healthy: fast trains, world-class health care, unadulterated food, globally competitive companies, healthy and handsome citizens, and a reverence for culture, leisure and learning that the U.S. has never really known.
More seriously, France is a remarkably durable nation, having survived invasions by the British and the Germans, long and bitter religious wars, home-grown revolutions, flawed Republics, disastrous colonial conflicts and the 35-hour week. And don’t forget immigration, especially that disruptive wave at the end of the Great War of uncouth, non-assimilating, obstinately un-French barbarians, most of them Americans. No, I am confident that France will remain a vibrant, highly successful society, and that national suicide is a Zemmouresque fantasy. I am not so sure about America.