Several of my Internet friends have not reacted well to recent notes critical of American government and society. It's been charged that I don't understand that country, and certainly do not appreciate its virtues.
It rankles that I note social statistics falling below those of other democracies, and especially of Western Europe. Some are insulted by my reference to the United States as having traits more like the Third World than the First.Irashark@gmail.com
Now for some words in my defense, beyond those of the cherished First Amendment that provides both freedom of speech and press.
A landmark Supreme Court decision limited that language with the standard of "crying fire in a crowded theater," but I doubt that my audience could be compared to anything so large or so put in danger by what I write.
In regard to understanding, I still carry some of what I learned, taught and wrote in about one half of my life and roughly a third of my career, teaching American politics in American universities. The Internet puts a number of American publications on my Home Page, along with others from Israel and elsewhere. .
Early in my studies, I came to appreciate the essence of comparison for understanding.
Explaining what happens begins with comparing something to what occurs elsewhere. Reading helps, but living in different settings adds even more to one's sense of what is distinctive, and what contributes to conditions elsewhere.
My good fortune in getting to know Israel and participating in its universities, politics, military, and government, after similar experiences in the US, as well as extended assignments in other countries, has, I think, added to rather than detracted from my capacity to understand the US, Israel, and other places. Distance provides perspective, along with detailed points of comparison.
There's also my training as a social scientist, and my exposure over the course 55 years to criticism of colleagues and students who thought--often correctly--that I didn't get things quite right.
I'll also defend myself with my frequent assertions that the US provides the best as well as the worst among western democracies. The medicine, science, and technology is as good as you can find anywhere. The size and wealth of the US supports a lot of the good stuff, which is exported and contributes to economic development world wide.
Internally, however, there are greater gaps than can be found in other advanced societies. The structure of the American economy and the nature of American politics works in favor of individual achievement and against the spreading of the benefits apparent in other democracies. The best example of the shortcoming appears in health statistics. They reflect individual choices (bad food habits, too much alcohol and drugs) as well as what's available via health insurance. Overall, the key indicators of life expectancy and infant mortality are, for Americans, the worst among western democracies.
I began thinking comparatively when I examined, in an undergraduate assignment, my home town of Fall River. I found that 30 percent of my age peers did not finish high school, and that the average adult in the city had less than one year of high school. Sixty years later I looked again at the data, and found that they haven't changed significantly.
The most comparable recent data for Israel is that 2 percent of all students do not finish high school, and 3.5 percent of Arab students do not finish high school.
The US Office of Education reports that a bit more than 5 percent of American youth do not finish high school.
My own student experiences at Wesleyan and Wisconsin led me to rethink the advantages of elite private vs public higher education at the undergraduate level. What's happened since then in terms of academic quality, price, and the hassles of acceptance tips the balance even more in the direction of state universities.
Donald Trump has served to sharpen the interchanges I have had with Internet friends. While I have had positive things to say about his distancing himself from Barack Obama's obsession of solving the Palestinians' problems, I have expressed dismay and worry about his style of threats and insults.
What I've written doesn't go beyond White House Chief of Staff John Kelly rolling his eyes when in the presence of his extemporaneous President, or the Secretary of State referring to him as a "moron." The principals are denying that bit of fluff, but original reports appear to be reliable.
Trump's post Las Vegas comments on gun control are in keeping with his constituency, but baffle many of us living in countries with a fraction of the violence that occurs in the US, corrected for varying sizes of population.
Trump's comments on the Iran deal are problematic in several respects. He emphasizes that the Iranians are not living up to the "spirit" of the agreement. Others say that they are living up to the agreement as strictly defined.
Negotiators deal with language as agreed, and nothing as amorphous as a spirit interpreted in different ways by different parties.
We can wonder if Trump's business competitors, or students who enrolled at Trump University, would agree that he generally lived up to the "spirit" of what he had agreed.
Trump supporters are speculating that he is playing a game of chicken, threatening Iran and North Korea for the sake of making them more accommodating.
So far, it doesn't seem that they are caving.
The President has gotten into a verbal slug fest with the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that doesn't bode well for getting anything important through Congress.
Should we view it all as Black Comedy, or as something threatening the US? And since that country is the elephant in the living room, we're all at risk.
In response to the data that I've provided to support my assessment of American society, I've heard that statistics lie, and that many of you know of conditions that challenge my conclusions.
To be sure, there are statistics that distort reality, but the widely cited data I've taken from government sources pretty much tells it as it is. And we all know examples that show different sides of the US (and other countries) than portrayed in the numbers for whole populations. However much they are true, contrary anecdotes do not overcome the general picture.
I also hear that America must be great, on account of the continuing stream of immigrants.
They are still coming, but the overwhelming majority (legal and illegal) are from the poor countries of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
In recent years United Airlines has added a daily non-stop from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, dubbed the Silicon Valley Express. It may carry a few migrants in one direction or another, but much of its traffic represents the interdependence of leading technology, in this case involving both Israeli and American firms and individuals.
A lot of what I hear from Americans unhappy with my notes seems to reflect the senders' encounter with a challenge to what they have absorbed from childhood onward, that America is the best, and the protector and savior of the less fortunate.
What exists is a complex mixture, reflecting a continent-sized country of some 330 million people. It's done very well for many, continues to offer opportunities to people from less fortunate places, including Fall River and locales outside of the US, and has a long history with ugly as well as heartwarming experiences. An antipathy to central government and taxation, along with unfettered individualism has marked its culture from the beginning.
The overall picture defies any simple rendering. Thanks in part to what it contributed to others in the aftermath of World War II, the US is among, but not alone, among the better places in the world. Measured by country-wide social statistics, it's not the best place to live. And like other countries in its league, it provides material for cynics as well as those inclined to praise.
In the spirit of the First Amendment, comments are always welcome--
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem