Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Our greatest exports are Wall Street-style greed, Will Smith action films, and Schnuckie or Schmuckie or whatever her name is on MTV." Happy Fourth of July, America.

Buzz Bissinger, the guy who wrote Friday Night Lights, the best book about football ever and the source material for one the great (ignored by the masses) TV series ever, is a cranky bastard. Given that, you may not be surprised to hear that I admire and like him.

This section, from his "Half Empty" column in today's Philadelphia Inquirer strikes me as a sad but accurate message about the state of the nation today and a most appropriate slap of reality for the Fourth of July when everybody thinks about hamburgers, beer and fireworks rather than what the day really means. It was written during a visit to Jordan while visiting his ex-wife (part of a set, collect them all):
We are a nation of vast pride. There is much to be proud of. But we are also a nation of vast blinders, dismissing other countries as irrelevant pebbles in the shadow of the great monolith that we believe we still are. Patriotism is wonderful, but not when it becomes arrogant and regressive. Too many Americans think that the Grand Canal shopping complex at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas is the real one, and that depressing ignorance applies tenfold to the Middle East.

Because of the dangerous zealotry of Rumsfeld and Cheney and their feckless toad W., there is a conception that everyone who lives there is an Islamic fundamentalist looking to score a little plutonium at the spice bazaar to obliterate us. It is an absurd stereotype. Instead of dismissing so many countries as filthy backwaters, we need to learn to respect their cultures, maybe even learn from them.

Without exception, every Jordanian that wife No. 3 and I met expressed their like for Americans. It is the foreign policy of W. they hated, and while they think Barack Obama is better, they also think he has been ineffectual and weak.

The literacy rate in Jordan is 91 percent. And the Jordanians we met know more about American politics than most Americans. Their leader, King Abdullah II, is a man of enlightenment, although I venture to guess that the number of Philadelphians who know who the king of Jordan is is less than the age of Jamie Moyer.

The problems in Jordan, or what I like to think of as the old Philadelphia, are quite similar to the problems here, only in some cases with better solutions. The economy is in the tank, leading to new taxes on luxury commodities, gas, coffee, and cell phone services, which is a lot bolder than anything we are doing. Education reform is at the forefront without the debacle of South Philadelphia High School. Citizens are tired of having to grease the wheel every time they need a building permit, a government tradition in which the new Philadelphia probably was used as the model. The main roads are better, the rest stops are cleaner. Many women are covered, but given the obesity epidemic in Philadelphia, it might not be a bad idea if both men and women were covered here, or at least wore robes.

Let's not be too rose-colored. Jordan has its share of very troubling attitudes much like the rest of the Middle East. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center showed that a shocking 20 percent view suicide bombing as justifiable, up from 12 percent in 2009. Fourteen percent support Osama bin Laden, which is also terribly disturbing, but at least a 50 percent drop from 2009. Women are still very much treated as fourth-class citizens and that may never change. In Amman, police have been issuing tickets to motorists hanging flags from their cars in the throes of World Cup Fever, which, if tried in Philadelphia, would create a mass riot. And there is still Jordan's animosity toward Israel since a large swath of the country is made up of Palestinian refugees.

It is easy to use this poll as justification for enmity, but it is too easy. America is still the gatekeeper of democracy, the world's greatest legacy. But we are also in an economic free fall that started under President Bush and has not radically improved under the puzzling and disappointing leadership of President Obama. Our greatest exports are Wall Street-style greed, Will Smith action films, and Schnuckie or Schmuckie or whatever her name is on MTV. Otherwise we don't have much concrete to offer in goods or lifestyle. We are in a war that cannot be won in Afghanistan, forcing our values on a country forever ill-equipped for them; our economic backbone, the middle class, is dying; our students are shockingly lazy and ill-informed; our politicians worse and worse because gossip has become the focal point among the media rather than substance and we lap it up.

So wave that American flag tonight. Watch the burst of fireworks igniting the stars. Be moved and feel a swell in the heart. Say a silent prayer for the 1,125 U.S. soldiers who have lost their lives in the nine-year war in Afghanistan. And then say one for the 1,807 who have been murdered in the new Philadelphia during the past five years alone, some of them publicized but most of them not because that's the cheap cost of life in the pockets of poverty spreading over the city like runaway weeds.

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