What's Tony Thinking

Forgetting How To Be A Society


One of you readers drew my attention to a brief piece by Paul Krugman in which he reflected on some recent time spent in Europe. He wrote:

” . . . while I wasn’t engaged in serious journalism, I did come away with an impression — namely, that America no longer seems advanced compared with other wealthy countries. If anything, it’s hard to avoid the sense that in important ways we’re falling behind.”

Krugman went on to discuss, as one indicator, traffic safety, noting that where it was once the case that nations in southern Europe had way more traffic fatalities than we did in the U.S., that is no longer true. As crime is on the rise, so are traffic accidents and fatalities in the U.S.. In fact, for traffic deaths the comparison with southern Europe has flipped. Now, you are a lot less safe on the roads in America.

And in terms of the related topic of life expectancy, we’ve also slipped from being the leading nation to being far behind many of the more affluent countries.

I write from Canada where we’ve been for several days for my work with Vancouver School of Theology on the campus of The University of British Columbia. As we enjoyed some of Vancouver’s parks, beaches and restaurants, Linda said it “feels so civilized.”

I shared that feeling. It was a sense of greater ease, less tension, less low-level aggression. I recently noted David Brooks comment a few weeks ago, shortly after Uvalde, that there seemed to be, in America, a “rising tide of menace.”

Canada has its problems too, of course, but that sense of menace that one feels in the States these days doesn’t seem to be present. People appear more comfortable, less on edge. At least in the parts of Vancouver where we’ve been public streets, parks are shopping areas are pretty clean. No piles of trash. Little graffiti. We haven’t seen encampments here, although there must be some. There aren’t as many huge, honking pick-ups revving their engines and bearing down on you.  Not so many cars with fully darkened windows. Cyclists aren’t going so fast that you feel your life in danger on a bike path. Bus drivers, for one, seem free to do their jobs without worrying about someone going off on them or others on the bus.

More from Krugman:

“True, America still has a higher gross domestic product per capita than European nations, but a large part of the difference is that we retire later and take less vacation. Whatever you think of those choices, they don’t represent a fundamental advantage in competence.

“So as I said, these days America seems no more advanced, and in some ways less so, than other Western nations. I don’t want to romanticize Europe, which has many of the same problems we do — declining regions, growing right-wing radicalization, and so on. But we used to be well ahead, and now we seem slightly behind. So what happened?

“My quick, casual take is that in some ways America has been forgetting how to be a society.”

The political divisiveness, acrimony and lack of basic decency so often evident in national politics and figures like Trump seems in our country to have filtered down, giving rise to a sense of dis-ease and, in Brooks’s term, “menace.” And of course people toting guns doesn’t help.

Being a society means a general adherence to what we might call pro-social norms, taking turns, acknowledging others, not trashing public and shared spaces, being less quick with the horn, middle finger or shouted insult. But pro-social norms are hard to maintain when you have so many in leadership positions or with media platforms that flaunt and degrade social norms, as if doing so were some sign of their freedom or authenticity.

Visiting our near neighbor reminds this on-edge American that it really doesn’t have to be this way.

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