January 2013 Commentary

American Madness

by J. L. Granatstein

Has the United States gone mad? The American people are among the most generous and idealistic the world has ever seen, genuine democrats all. But there are times when they seem to slide off the road, their ideas careening wildly and their idealism running dangerously amok. The McCarthyism that ravaged the early days of the Cold War when anti-Communism and absurd charges of incipient disloyalty to the principles of Americanism soiled the public discourse is but one example. Today unfortunately we have more.

Think of the many Americans who dismiss evolution as a cockeyed theory because of its conflict with Biblical tales. Consider the Creation Museum in Kentucky which argues that world was created in six days. Or the efforts underway to build a Noah's Ark, following the exact dimensions as given in scripture. This lunacy is bad enough, but anti-evolutionists control school boards in some states and determine how and what children can be taught. Vast majorities of Americans claim to attend church regularly--they don't--and equal majorities believe in the devil. The Tampa Devil Rays baseball team, its name not merely that of a sea creature but apparently synonomous with sin, was literally forced to change its moniker to the Rays six years ago. They still play good baseball.

Then there are guns. The US obsession with weaponry in public hands goes back a long way, but until recently no one considered that instead of a six shooter on the hip,  Americans could now carry a machine pistol or an assault rifle with an easy-to-reload 30-round magazine. The carnage at Newtown somehow seemed inevitable, so easy is access to guns with 300 million weapons in the hands of ordinary (and some regrettably certifiable) men and women. And the reaction to Newtown--buy more guns quick!--only compounds the misery. Police SWAT teams really do need armoured cars and heavy weaponry, merely to stand a chance of survival on the streets.

We Canadians have our own gun nuts, of course, but the prevalence of weapons per capita is far less, and there are controls on the types available for purchase. The push to end the gun registry was not led by a Canadian equivalent of the National Rifle Association but by farmers and sport hunters. Canadian police SWAT teams, motivated more by penis envy than necessity, do feature the body armour and high-powered assault weapons common to their American colleagues, but thankfully that still seems excessive rather than necessary.

Canadians have also negotiated the economic rapids of the last five years with some success. For the first time in eons, unemployment is lower here than in the US, and the housing price collapse has not (yet) occurred, certainly nothing like the 50 percent-plus drops and mass foreclosures in the US south.

But the US economy, after narrowly avoiding one fiscal cliff, is now poised to fall off another one as the time to lift  the debt ceiling nears. Congress remains trapped in an extraordinary political deadlock. The Republicans lost the election--even though the faithful like Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, and George Will believed until election night that the Mainstream Media had connived to distort the polls and their victory was certain. Republican post-election behaviour, however, suggested that Tea Party extremists, weakened though they were, nonetheless continued to set the agenda. Tax increases and a higher national debt ceiling remained anathema to  legislative followers of Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, and Norquist seemed to control much of the House of Representatives. Over the next fiscal cliff we may go, a victim of Congressional ineptitude and a failure of leadership! Unfortunately, much of the world--including Canada--might fall over as well, thanks to a dysfunctional and utterly irresponsible US Congress.

This is all madness, the legislative and fiscal equivalent of the "birthers" (people like Donald Trump) who deny President Obama's US birth, and those others who are convinced that the President is a Muslim or a Communist or both. Lunacy sometimes seems to rule over the land of the free.

Even the most pro-American observers these days are genuinely concerned about the tidal rush of  know-nothing opinion in America. Good sense may return--it always has in the past--and this is important because the United States matters to the world, and not least to Canadians. Our economy still depends on the US market, and even at their looniest, the Americans are more dependable than the Chinese, Ottawa's new best friends. Come home, America, come home. Please.

J.L. Granatstein is Distinguished Research Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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