I am deeply angry at the death of George Floyd in the hands of police in Minneapolis and saddened by the events of the past week in the rest of the USA. Once again, we see the deadly consequences of the “crimes” of driving while black, walking while black or shopping while black. As an older white male, living on the traditional territory of the Lkwungen Chenonein people, coming from a place of privilege, I have never known the fear and intimidation that black people in the US, or black and indigenous people in Canada, experience daily. Here in Canada we are not exempt from the evils of institutionalized racism, with black and aboriginal people being several times more likely than whites to be stopped, arrested, incarcerated or killed in encounters with law enforcement. This overt racism persists despite it being more than 50 years after the civil rights movement in the US.
Why is this? Has it been there all along? Has it been brought to the fore recently by failure in leadership, by the implicit license for bad behaviour that is continually encouraged by the current US Administration? (when the looting starts, the shooting starts). I think, bad as the situation is, it is just part of a much larger set of problems besetting the USA.
Even before the death of George Floyd and the subsequent eruption of anger and protest, I was struck by an article in The Atlantic, “A Study in Leadership”, that asked this question about the US president: “Or is this man a warning signal, a blinking red light, a screaming siren telling all of us, and all of the world, that something about our political system has gone profoundly awry?”
It was amazing to me that the writer is only asking this question now, in 2020, and that the question itself is so narrow. Perhaps the writer answered her own question when she noted that Americans rarely compare themselves with other countries. I think this is in part because, when in America, you don’t actually see other countries. Indeed, whenever I have traveled in the USA, I have found that it is difficult to see anything outside the US, so focused are the US media on domestic issues. Even when you try, it is like looking at the rest of the world through a half-silvered mirror – mostly what you see is America and everything else is fuzzy and distorted. Equally, and for the same reason, it is very difficult for Americans to see themselves as others see them. As a result, most Americans believe that their way of doing things and their society is normal. It is not.
I think it was obvious to most of the rest of the civilized world immediately after the last presidential election, that the state of the US nation was in significant trouble, and that the current mendacious occupant of the White House, he-who-must-not-be-named, is in many ways merely symptomatic of a more serious and pervasive malaise that has long been deepening in the USA.
Consider the evidence of these seven fundamental fault lines in American society:
- Deep-seated and pervasive racism throughout society that not only prevents people of color and racialized minorities from participating fully in the economy and culture, but which literally kills them, often at the hands of the very institutions sworn to protect them.
- Grotesque wealth inequality that is the worst among western democracies, to the point where the top 1% of US society owns more than the bottom 50%.
- Political division and alienation that is no longer merely political, but has transformed into blind, unreasoning tribalism, as bad as any third-world country, and which has so permeated all aspects of society that even the US Supreme Court is hugely politicized, and which threatens the very rule of law and the much-vaunted, but toothless-in-practice, checks and balances of the US constitution.
- A unique and bizarre presidential electoral system that twice in the last 20 years has allowed the candidate that lost the popular vote to nonetheless become president.
- The only country among western democracies with a largely privatized, for-profit health care system, which not only excludes more than a quarter of the population, but whose “you-only-get-paid-when-the-beds-are-occupied” hospital funding model actively works against any attempt at a coordinated effort to create the needed spare capacity to respond to a pandemic like COVID-19.
- Gun culture leading to gun violence deaths at a rate that is an order of magnitude greater than any of the other western democracies, and is rivalled only by failed and narco-states.
- Disproportionate religious influence (and only one religion at that) on government and institutions, with no room for alternate interpretations of spirituality, to the point where anyone who aspires to the highest offices of government must at least pay lip service to being a devout Christian. This is despite official separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.
To be sure, other civilized countries have some of these problems. Here in Canada we have institutionalized racism and a flawed, first-past-the-post electoral system. But we do not have the other problems or we do not have them to the nearly the same degree, and no other western democracies have all of them at once in the extreme way the US does. The USA is an outlier on all these issues, not the norm.
I confess I cannot see a solution to the problems. With all of these severe stresses, I despair for the survival of the United States in its present form. I fear that the country will disintegrate in some way I cannot foresee. If that happens, not only will it be catastrophic for the American people, the collateral damage to its friends, neighbours and the rest of the world will also be incalculable. I hope I am wrong.