Archive for February 23rd, 2011

Myths and More

flagSomethings Just Ain’t So

How many times have you heard someone say – usually a politician – “Americans have the best health care in the world.”

Or this one – no one goes hungry in America. Or, America is the world leader in – fill in the blank.

Truth be told, we aren’t leading the world in much these days. Our health care is the most expensive in the world, but by almost any measure no where close to the best. And, according to a recent USDA report, fully 15 percent of Americans are now food “insecure,” literally unsure where the next meal is coming from.

One of the great challenges to American democracy, made particularly acute by the vast expansion of “information” available to all of us every minute of every day, is the challenge of separating what we think we know from what is really, verifiably true.

Some of the myths, 51 percent of likely Republican primary voters don’t believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, for example, serve to warp political judgments and reinforce a constant theme of some of his opponents that Obama is “not like us.” It is a myth that serves some political ends.

Other myths, like the oft repeated notion that the NFL Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event in the world, just play to the old notion that if it happens here it must be the biggest, the best, the most important. Actually, the World Cup soccer championship, thanks to a truly world-wide audience, gets more viewers than the Packers beating the Steelers.

Some of the so called “mainstream media” are trying to debunk some of the myths out there. The Washington Post runs a regular feature – “Five Myths” – that puts the facts back into common myths. Its good stuff. A recent piece by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer challenged the myth that the 16th president was “just a country lawyer.” He wasn’t.

Holzer writes: “…in the 1850s [Lincoln] ably (and profitably) represented the Illinois Central Railroad and the Rock Island Bridge Co. – the company that built the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River – and earned a solid reputation as one of his home state’s top appeals lawyers.”

New York Times graphic columnist Charles Blow is another of the mythbusters. His recent piece compared the United States to more than 30 other countries on the basis of the International Monetary Fund assessment of the conditions that contribute to an “advanced economy.”

We don’t fare very well.

Our income inequality has us compared – is unfavorably the word – to Hong Kong. We’re doing better on unemployment than Greece or Spain, but no where near as well as Switzerland, Denmark or even Canada. With regard to life expectancy, we’re not nearly as good as France, but about as good as Cyprus. Cyprus?

We have the largest number of people incarcerated per 100,000 citizens of any place in the world. More than 700 per 100,000 in jail here. It’s about 50 per 100,000 in Iceland. Little wonder our corrections costs are running wild.

Student math achievement is – big surprise – way behind Japan, Korea and Singapore. And, food security. No one goes hungry in Belgium or Austria. We’re the worst of the worst in the “advanced economy” class when it comes to food security.

There is an old saying in politics that holds that you will know that a candidate for public office is in trouble when he or she starts believing their own press releases. In other words, the spin of what we’d like to be able to accomplish overtakes the reality of what we are really living. We start living myths, substituting our opinions for facts.

Amid all the talk about “American exceptionalism” we struggle to separate the myths of our standing in the world from the reality of our challenges. All the while, the rest of the world is catching up, or already leading us and, in many cases, moving on.

Mark Twain said, I think, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”