I titled the book I wrote with my evaluation of what is right with America and what is wrong “NEITHER HERE NOR THERE”, which was a reference to my ambivalence about living as a Dutchman in “the land of plenty”. Was I in the right place or should I have stayed east of the Atlantic Ocean? With a lot of hesitation and many caveats I came down, in my book, on the side of America but the ambivalence remains. My choice had a lot to do with wishful thinking and with the reality that my tribe is now firmly implanted on American soil. The die has been cast, so why look back and second guess?
Am I wishy-washy? Am I too picky, not willing to take the bad with the good? Name me one country that is perfect in every sense? China? Russia? Germany? The Netherlands?
America is undoubtedly a land of enormous contrasts and how well anyone of us fits in, depends largely on where we place on the social ladder and how close we identify with the mainstream in public opinion. Outsiders have a tendency to see only one aspect of America. They either see a fumbling giant getting from one mess into another, incapable of keeping its own house clean, or a nation where the sky is the limit and individual freedom is still revered.
Inside the U.S. there is justifiably a lot of reverence for the past. As of the time of this writing there is a fierce debate about the place and symbolism of the confederate flag. The people who want to see it continue flying from State Capitols in the South revere it mostly because their ancestors were willing to sacrifice their lives for it. They are willing to overlook the fact that, long after the War between de States, the flag also became the symbol of white supremacy and hate crimes. In this debate I will side with those who say that the flag belongs, if anywhere, in a museum and not on the mast with any State Capitol or other public building.
But are we idolizing the past more than justified by the facts? At what time in our history were we better off, as a nation and individually for most of our people, than we are now? And how glorious was our dealing with the slavery issue and our treatment of the native inhabitants of the American continent?
I am of two minds about America, because, while I grew up in a free and sovereign Holland where heartfelt gratitude towards America for its leadership role in fighting Nazism and for the Marshall Plan was the norm, living in America of today I wonder if present day Americans would be willing to make the kind of sacrifices the “greatest generation” made in order to preserve not other peoples’ freedom but the future well-being of their children and grandchildren.
With the baby boomers in charge, the population of America has become materialistic, selfish, greedy and in many respects decadent. The French have an expression for this mindset: “Après moi le deluge” loosely translated as “it will last my lifetime.” In other words, let the future generations clean up the mess we leave behind.
In world affairs America looks and acts like a paper tiger, incapable of changing the paradigm in the dominant foreign policy issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fight against militant Islam and the relationship with China and Russia in its favor. In the meantime it has wasted energy, lives and trillions of dollars in ill begotten military expeditions, which have rendered the opposite result of America’s engagement in the two World Wars of the 20th century: instead of gratefulness and admiration, hatefulness and disdain.
So, while I recognize the American legacy as well as its unrivaled potential for the future, I am dumbfounded by the divisiveness permeating the American society and the lack of fury about the sordid under-performance of a nation that is still the envy of the world. I feel like a parent who loves his child dearly but is sorely disappointed with the report cards it brings home.
I am not the only one who is of two minds. In America today, we can’t agree on anything. We are so polarized by the two party system—and their proxies in the media—that all of our myopic focus is on ideology and petty turf wars like the ones being fought about the Affordable Care Act, minimum wage and gay marriage.
The real issues that challenge our future, like the national debt, infrastructure investment, cyber security, tax reform, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, tort reform and the funding of our entitlement programs, remain unaddressed. We allow inequality to grow to extreme proportions and social mobility to become a thing of the past. A big miss in the American system of today is that there is no national strategic agenda and no constitutional mandate to have one. Although there are reasons for the public sector to be governed different from the private sector, there is no reason not to adopt the best business disciplines in public governance. One of those should be the articulation of a national strategy, followed by a determination of the resources required to implement the strategy and finally by a determination of changes in the tax code required to provide the necessary funding. As it is, America puts the cart before the horse: it hangs on to an antiquated and inadequate tax system and then tries unsuccessfully to live within its means, with the inevitable result that the national debt keeps growing even while nothing of lasting importance gets done.
America needs a unifying principle. A rallying cry that makes the people overlook their petty differences and work together on making America great again and living up to its God given potential. When America becomes of one mind, than so will I.