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Top 10 Controversial Topics About The US
Anyone who has been following this site for any reasonable length of time knows just how controversial (or, at least, divisive) any U.S.-related list is bound to be (“Too American,” anyone?). This is because, by nature, the United States is a controversial country, one that most people seem to either strongly like or strongly dislike (something we will address very soon). But to what extent is its controversial nature based on misconceptions or one-sided arguments? In the spirit of creating healthy discourse, I’ve decided to compile ten topics related to the country that merit educated discussion. Note that not all topics worthy of discussion are here, nor are all topics here the most worthy of discussion.
We’ll start off with a couple of light ones that shouldn’t be surrounded with controversy as much as misconception, which I will attempt to rectify. As we work our way down, though, you will notice that the topics will become less trivial or one-sided and more controversial. With the touchier topics, my only intention is to elucidate why there are two lines of thought, by presenting facts from both sides. Be warned, as a U.S. resident, I will tend to shed a more positive than negative light on most issues, but wherever I see room for disagreement, I will do my best to give both sides the same consideration.
When people fault American beer for being bland, they almost invariably have names like Budweiser or Miller in mind. What they don’t know is that the U.S. has an extremely rich and diverse craft-brew industry that produces, by many accounts, some of the best, if not the best, beers on the planet. American breweries like Three Floyds, Russian River, Founders, AleSmith, and Cigar City enjoy a level of reverence among beer enthusiasts that equals and frequently exceeds that of the very best European breweries (arguably Westvleteren, de Struise, de Molen, Mikkeller, and Rochefort). Among the most popular styles are the imperial stout, the barley wine, the sour ale, and the double IPA, which are stronger in taste than most German and even Belgian styles – you might consider them opposite of bland. Even skeptics who assert that U.S. craft beers are not as “refined” as their European counterparts admit that they hold a couple of American brews among their favorites.
On the other hand: Americans still largely favor Bud Light and Miller Lite when purchasing beer. There are more than 1.700 craft breweries in the U.S., yet they were able to capture only 7% of the U.S. beer market. In all, while it is inaccurate to say that American beer is bland, it is fair to say that Americans, by and large, drink bland beer.
Controversy: Does everyone else dislike Americans?
After a decade of strong anti-Americanism all across the globe following the “War on Terrorism,” the notion that a majority of people in the world actually like the U.S. almost seems inconceivable. With Bush no longer in charge, though, such is the case. Global surveys indicate that, over the past three years, a plurality of people in the world have approved of the U.S. as a global power. Per the 2011-2012 BBC World Service Poll, 47% of people across 22 countries have a mainly positive opinion of America’s global influence, versus 33% holding a mainly negative opinion. The EU, per the same poll, had a minimally higher 48% approval rating. Gallup’s 2011 Leadership Poll shows that 46% of people in 136 countries approve of the leadership role of the U.S., with 26% disapproving. In that poll, only Germany surpassed the U.S., with a 47% approval rating. Pictured above is a crowd listening to Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in (you guessed) Berlin, as a reminder of how constructive the relationship between the U.S. and other countries can be given the proper leadership – and how responsive people can be to this.
On the other hand: I don’t need to remind you that the approval ratings of the United States five or six years ago were, in fact, abysmal – and I do mean, abysmal. And regardless of the man in charge, Anti-Americanism is a widespread phenomenon, make no mistake. But the next time you hear someone say “that’s why everyone hates [you] Americans,” just remember that, fortunately, the world isn’t as stubbornly hateful a place as it’s made out to be.
Controversy: Do Americans dislike everyone else?
A frequent point U.S. skeptics make is that ethnocentrism makes Americans distrustful and disparaging of other people. Again, the BBC poll on the influence of 22 countries proves exceedingly revealing. In all but four cases, Americans were more likely to have a positive opinion of any given country than people from the rest of the world were. In fact, Americans are much more likely to have a positive opinion of 5 of the other 21 countries than of the U.S. itself. What about immigration? It is a common belief that Americans generally oppose the entrance of foreign nationals to their country. In fact, Gallup’s latest poll shows that 66% of Americans have a positive opinion about immigration, with 63% saying immigration should either be kept at its present level or increased. While Canadians are equally (if not more) welcoming, people in large European countries can be less enthusiastic: 60% of Germans think there are too many immigrants in their country, 66% in France voice similar concerns, and 77% of Britons would either like to reduce or halt immigration.
On the other hand: It is perhaps understandable, sometimes even justifiable, that some people have come to associate the U.S. with aggression and disregard for others – after all, that is sometimes the image the U.S. government can project. But to make sweeping generalizations and say that Americans themselves are particularly hostile to or even distrustful of other people is a mostly groundless notion.
Controversy: Americans are not the only Americans
To most Ibero-Americans (i.e., non-francophone Latin Americans), the entirety of the New World is a single continent called America, not two distinct ones, North and South America. As such, they frequently – and correctly – identify themselves as americanos in both Portuguese and Spanish. This perspective is validated by the existence of the Organization of American States, whose flag is pictured above, or the five-continent flag of the Olympic Games. Many are offended, then, by what they perceive to be cultural insensitivity (some say, imperialism) on the part of U.S. citizens, who almost invariably mean “U.S.-related” when they say American.
On the other hand: While Ibero-Americans are completely justified in defending their use of the word in their languages, taking the fight to the English language – unbound by Iberian practice – is an exercise in futility. First, continents are not legally defined entities; therefore, what constitutes one is not a matter of fact but of perspective. For whatever reason, most people in the world understand North and South America to be two distinct continents, which renders the term American in the continental sense impractical for them. On the other hand, the derivation of American as the demonic of the United States of America is linguistically sound in most languages – and consistent with that of other demonyms, historical or otherwise (e.g. Colombian referred to the United States of Colombia some 150 years ago).
As a result, little ambiguity surrounds the word American in English or in many other languages that use an equivalent term to refer to the U.S. (German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, Arabic, Dutch, etc.). Most importantly, disputes over these matters should not fuel resentments or serve to justify political frictions; one cannot assume that Americans call themselves Americans (which they did before even becoming a world power) out of malice or arrogance. Ibero-Americans frequently refer to themselves as “latinos,” yet they’re far from being the only Latin people by linguistic association; I doubt they willingly exclude Italians or Quebecois from the term out of malicious ethnocentrism.
If there is one thing, besides constant involvement in international conflicts, that reinforces the idea that Americans are a violent people, it’s America’s murder rate. At 4.7 murders per 100,000 people in 2012, it is by far the highest in the developed world. This might be partly due to the exorbitant gun-ownership rates, but mind the fact that Switzerland’s are also high (though nowhere near as high), and yet its murder rate of 0.66 is among the world’s lowest. Some U.S. cities are exceptionally violent: New Orleans’ 49 murders per 100,000 people put it above Colombia or Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, police departments in cities like Baltimore fire more bullets annually than the entire police of countries like Germany. Such dire numbers make one question the effectiveness of correctional procedures in the United States, a country that jails more people than any other and sentences more prisoners to death than any other but China. Gangs, drug-related issues, and poverty are all factors that contribute to this wave of violence. Of course, crime does not affect all equally; income, age, race, and gender are related to the likelihood of both committing a crime and being victim of one.
On the other hand: America’s murder rates are high, but its overall crime rates are similar to those of other wealthy Western nations. We know murder to be the most heinous and violent of crimes, so by no means does this offset the fact that America suffers from unnecessarily high doses of violence, but given that any random, law-abiding citizen anywhere is much more likely to become the victim of a non-murderous crime than to be killed, it would be statistically fair to say that America is a safe country. It has been estimated, for example, than any given person is three to six times more likely to be victim of a crime in London or Paris than in New York. This is consistent with the fact that many variables play into the likelihood of being victimized, which makes crime (and murder) in the U.S. highly localized: where New Orleans has a murder rate higher than Jamaica’s, Fairfax County in Virginia has one comparable to Luxembourg’s.
Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United States’ standard of living is marred by persistent poverty and inequality (both in wealth and income). These issues are aggravated by the fact that, due to the highly capitalistic nature of the U.S. economy, the government does not provide as many services to all its citizens as other rich and not-so-rich countries do (like universal healthcare), which directly affects the poor above all. In that sense, for example, while the percentage of people considered to be “poor” in France is the same as in the United States, any French citizen can enjoy top-notch healthcare without any financial woes, which only those who pay for health insurance in the U.S. can. Because of their higher equality, people in countries like Denmark or the Netherlands tend to show more uniformly that they are all (or, rather, almost all) satisfied with their lives or that they are “thriving” rather than “struggling” (something Gallup periodically asks of people in different countries), whereas there is a more marked difference in the U.S., where a relatively high percentage of people decidedly respond that they are “struggling” and dissatisfied with their lives.
On the other hand: poverty is invariably measured by national standards, so it is difficult to compare poverty rates across countries. Usually, a person or family is said to be “poor” if their annual income is, say, less than 60% of the median annual income of the country. Because the United States’ middle class is wealthy and the country enjoys the world’s highest median household income, the standard by which someone is said to be poor is also the highest. Thus, even though America’s poverty rate is more than twice that of Sweden, 40% of Swedish households earned less than $25,000 (international dollars) in 2010, compared to 26% of American households in the same income bracket that year. Overall, the United States still enjoys a very high standard of living by most measures. The U.N., for example, ranks the U.S. as having the third-highest Human Development Index; tied with the Netherlands; below Norway and Australia; and slightly above New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland.
Surely, you’re aware that Americans continually fail to show geographical awareness, struggle with foreign languages, or have their scarce knowledge of international current events. These are all common motifs in the larger discourse about American ignorance and make the effects of the relatively low percentage of Americans who graduate high school (77%) evident. Americans also come under fire for letting religion hinder their knowledge and acceptance of modern science, as evident in the fact that 46% believe in pure creationism (up – up! – from 40% last year); unsurprisingly, U.S. students rank below their Europe’s in math and science. Americans’ positions on sexually charged issues (gay rights, abortion, obscenity) are also criticized for putting religion above human rights. Lastly, American politics can be so unpopular across the globe sometimes that accusations of ignorance and even idiocy frequently fall on the U.S. electorate. A recurrent theme in these arguments is that U.S. media has a dumbing down effect – both news outlets that fail to provide more than one perspective and Hollywood productions that perpetuate stereotypes and misconceptions of what the world is like.
On the other hand: Ignorance, unfortunately, is not easily measurable. To the extent that it is, there are way too many variables to consider; for the sake of space, I’ll go over only a few here. We know that primary and secondary education are not America’s forte, but what about higher education? The performance of U.S. colleges and universities remains unparalleled, with several international publications showing that anywhere from 50% to 66% of the world’s top-100 institutions are in the U.S. And given that most top private universities offer extremely generous grants to those in need, top higher education is attainable for all. Statistics confirm this: the OECD’s “Education at a Glance” ranks the U.S. as fourth in percentage of adults with postsecondary degrees (fifth including non-OECD countries) and the second in non-technical degrees. Arguably as a result, the U.S. workforce has been at or near the top of global productivity rankings for many years. The last data show that it is only behind Luxembourg and Norway in both per-worker and per-hour productivity. The U.S. also remains a scientific powerhouse, with the third-highest citation index in the world. It’s no wonder, then, that the European Commission ranked the U.S. as the second most innovative country in its Innovation Union scoreboard.
We could write entire lists about lastingly controversial aspects of World War II, but arguably the most frequent (certainly not the most transcendental) one is whether the U.S. “saved” Europe from fascism. Americans are quick to bring up the issue whenever they have an argument with a European, saying something to the extent of, “we saved your backsides in World War II.” Europeans obviously fire back by pointing out a few very telling numbers, which the American is most likely unaware of, as it would be very hard to ignore them: while the Americans lost around 420,000 men in the war (110,000 of whom perished in the Pacific Theater), the Soviets lost a staggering 23,400,000 people fighting the Third Reich. To say that America saved (let alone single-handedly) Europe, in light of such numbers, is almost an insult to the country that took the brunt of the Wehrmacht’s charge. The devastation caused by the war in the Soviet Union was so brutal that it’s even visible today—if you look at Russia’s population pyramid, you’ll notice it looks extremely deformed and asymmetrical. Naturally, far more German soldiers died in the hands of the Red Army than in the hands of the combined Western allies. It is irrefragable, then, that if anyone deserves to say that they saved Europe (i.e. defeated the Third Reich), it was the Soviets.
On the other hand: that the Soviets were the main force behind Nazi Germany’s defeat doesn’t mean they were the sole force behind it. Much has been discussed as to whether the Russians could have won a war against the Germans without Western intervention. Many point out that U.S. and British troops arrived to Continental Europe long after the tide had turned against the Germans, and so without them Europe would have been “saved” anyway. What this position doesn’t account for is the fact that the United States had been furnishing the Soviet Union with lots of provisions (in the form of weapons, materials, and logistics) to sustain their fight against the Germans through the Lend-Lease program long before D-Day. By many accounts, including Russian historian Boris V. Sokolov’s, the Red Army would not have been able to defeat the Wehrmacht within any reasonable timeframe if they hadn’t been aided by the West. Their mobilization and transport capabilities were particularly dependent on U.S. provisions, as a majority of their fuel, trucks, and railcars came from the United States. The U.S. was the main industrial and economic force behind the Allied effort, and a Nazi defeat would have been highly unlikely without America’s contribution to the Allies. The price in the form of lives that the Soviet Union was incalculable and far greater, but the War was an effort that several countries undertook and we should not belittle their respective contributions.
Apart from its murder rate, if there is one thing that separates the United States from all other industrialized countries is its lack of universal healthcare. In 2010, there were almost fifty million people (16.3% of the country’s population) who lacked coverage – that’s more people than there are in Spain. Universal-healthcare skeptics in the U.S. frequently cite costs as the reason why they oppose it, arguing that they don’t want to pay for other people’s healthcare. Nonetheless, the United States spends more money both per capita and as a percentage of GDP in healthcare than any other nation. In a nutshell, others spend less and cover all. The WHO ranks the U.S. healthcare system as 37th in the world, partially due to the country’s poor performance in infant mortality and life expectancy – far from what one would expect from the number one spender. The result is that medical expenses are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the country. With only a third of Americans supporting Obama’s healthcare reforms and Republican leadership pledging to reverse them as quickly as they can, there seems to be no solution in the foreseeable future to any of these problems.
On the other hand: Though coverage and costs place the U.S. healthcare system among the least desirable in the developed world, the country’s healthcare industry counts with some attributes that would probably make it one of the most enviable, if sweeping reform made it more affordable and ensured coverage to all Americans. The WHO ranks U.S. healthcare as first in responsiveness, which measures the efficiency and quality of care. It also counts with some of the world’s most prestigious hospitals (Johns Hopkins, Mass. General, Mayo Clinic, MD Anderson) which have pioneered many of today’s most innovative medical procedures. The U.S. cancer survival rate was also the world’s highest according to The Lancet Oncology Journal, which attributes this high performance to the availability of cutting-edge treatments. These qualities only make it more regrettable that politics, greed, special interests, and an unwillingness to change the status quo make U.S. healthcare so dangerously unaffordable.
Controversy: The United States – a force of good or a force of evil?
There isn’t a more fundamental matter in defining pro-Americanism and anti-Americanism than this very question. With the very likely exception of beer (and you’d be surprised), all of the aforementioned controversies reflect, in one way or another, that core disagreement as to whether America is a force of good or a force of evil. And, more than anywhere, it is here that it is important to acknowledge that both sides have myriad valid arguments to defend their position, as America has done plenty good and plenty wrong. When it has flexed its muscles, it has done great things like standing by West Berlin and carrying provisions to the city when the Soviets cut them off or dispatching its super carriers to aid calamity-stricken countries (Haiti and Japan being recent examples), but it also has done awful things, like lending its support to Pinochet or overthrowing – along with the UK – Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, the aftermath of which resonates with increasing force today in international diplomacy.
But not all of its actions are unambiguously good or bad; most people, for example, believe that its defending Western Europe from being overrun by the Soviets was a good thing as it ensured democracy and prosperity to the region, but some, of course, disagree and argue that the Cold War was an unnecessary exercise that put the so-called military-industrial complex in control of the world’s affairs; most people also believe that America’s invading Iraq was unjustifiable to begin with and became aggravated when all the civilian casualties started to pile up, but others would argue that something had to be done about Saddam, a dictator under whom many perished as well.
Then there is, of course, the matter of the American people, and what they have done for the world. On the one hand, we have people who have spread hatred toward those who don’t adhere to their religious beliefs (I’m looking at you, Fred Phelps) or aren’t of the same skin color, put corporate profits above the wellbeing of their fellow humans, and dedicated their lifetimes to perfecting and optimizing weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, we have great people who have cured or even eradicated diseases, spearheaded the Green Revolution (which has saved over a billion lives, by most estimates – and I’m looking at you, Norman Borlaug), and made great contributions to science and technology, knowledge, and arts.
Regardless of what the big players do, there is one thing that’s certain: the overwhelming majority of Americans are, like most people from all other countries, good people who are simply trying to get by. Like people from other countries, Americans are compassionate, caring, dedicated, and only wish the best for humanity. If they are not perfect and have undesirable traits, it is because of their human condition, which – unless a very capable chimpanzee has finally mastered the art of using the Internet – all of us share.