Weekly Briefing

A country of know-it-alls

Americans (and their politics) could use a lot more humility in these challenging times

In just fourteen weeks, voters will go to the polls to participate in an extremely important general election. The election will take place during a period of economic struggles, sharp ideological divides and bitter partisanship.

The coming weeks will not, in all likelihood, be a period in which politicians or pundits will be displaying a lot of humility.

To the contrary, anyone with a media platform or enough money to buy an advertisement will be assuring everyone within eye and earshot that he or she is the best thing since sliced bread and the font of all wisdom when it comes to addressing the problems that ail the state, the nation and the planet.

Sadly, it seems to be an increasingly accepted aspect of modern American politics and general discourse that our public figures are, well, know-it-alls. We seem to want leaders that have all the answers and we are intolerant of those who admit to the existence of gray areas. Whether it’s the supremely self-assured politician, the celebrity CEO or the hyper-confident talk show host, Americans seem to crave a kind of chin-jutting triumphalism. Like addicts who can’t remember the crash that followed the last binge with their substance of choice, we demand and celebrate these all-knowing figures and then complain bitterly when they ultimately fail to meet our expectations.

Not always so smart

The truth, of course, is that most of our leaders and public figures (be they politicians, pundits, business owners or football coaches) know a lot of things, but all of them are also frequently wrong. And even when they’re right or successful, it’s usually as a result of a collective effort that probably didn’t even go exactly as planned.

The recent flap surrounding President Obama’s statements about small business owners is a kind of partial reflection of this reality on multiple levels. Any businessperson who gives the matter even a moment’s honest consideration must understand the President’s intended point (i.e. that his or her enterprise would not exist without the infrastructure of schools, roads, public safety, telecommunications, government loans, the tax code, etc… that makes modern commerce possible).

Governor Romney knows this truth as well and has given voice to it innumerable times. But in keeping with our insatiable American demand for the mythology of do-it-all individuals who triumph by the sheer of will of their personality, scores of business owners, politicians and pundits have leaped into the fray to excoriate the President for the perceived slight to the genius of the entrepreneurial class. And, of course, the President himself probably deserves a knock or two for the incautious tone of his original declaration.

So, what to do? Is there any way to combat the raging case of self-important “know-it-all-ism” that seems to have a stranglehold on the national debate and the body politic? The suspicion here is that it will be tough – especially in the run-up to the election.

In the longer run, however, there is, it seems, at least a chance that Americans and their leaders can regain at least a measure of humility and open-mindedness as they contemplate the challenges they confront. The key will be, at least occasionally, to shut up, listen and learn.

Learning from others

One place to start the listening process would involve our collective national attitude toward the rest of the world. Healthcare, for instance, provides numerous examples in which Americans would do especially well to listen and dispense with the cocksure, black and white claims of so many politicians of both parties – especially those who still brag that the country is home to the “finest health care system in the world.”

Consider the United Kingdom. There are plenty of imperfections in the British National Health Service, but here’s another truth about it: it produces good results, it’s a lot cheaper than ours and the British public likes it a lot. This past weekend, the British and their conservative leaders even went so far as to make their system and its achievements a featured part of the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.

Not even the most prideful and nationalistic American can imagine such an occurrence with respect to our healthcare system. What would we brag about – our insurance industry? Anyone who says we don’t have at least something to learn from the Brits (and the Japanese, Taiwanese, Germans, Swiss, Israelis, et al) – all countries with relatively good health outcomes, lower costs and high citizen satisfaction) is clearly deluding him or herself.

Here’s another compelling example: In the most recent edition of the New York Times Magazine, writer Suzy Hansen describes in detail the promising efforts of some Mississippi physicians and public health experts to import techniques pioneered in Iran – that’s right, Iran – to apply toward the vexing and frequently tragic health problems of poor and rural Mississippians. The effort sprung from an accidental partnership that was developed between a Mississippi doctor and health advocate and an American, Iranian-born academic. A few years ago, the two men brought a delegation of Iranian doctors to Mississippi who had pioneered a system of “health houses” in rural Iran that have made enormous headway in bridging the health divides in that troubled country.

To quote the article description of the doctors:

“They were surprised by what they saw: ‘This is America?’ they asked.”

While only just getting started and undoubtedly far from a panacea for all that ails Mississippi, the existence of these efforts (and the simple shock expressed by the Iranian doctors at the conditions they encountered) must provide proof to any American with the slightest hint of an open mind of the need for some humility in discussing health outcomes.

But healthcare is far from the only area in which Americans lack all the answers. The recent tragedy in Colorado highlights our disastrous national failure to control gun violence. While many free nations have experienced such disasters, the United States clearly endures more than its share. We obviously have much to learn.

And the list goes on: Pre-K, public education, higher education, business development, carbon emissions, civic participation, crime control, family planning and reproductive freedom, food safety, immigration, worker rights and even basic human rights and civil liberties – in each of these areas and many others the U.S. can learn from its neighbors and competitors.

Does this mean that we are without subjects about which to feel justifiably proud or that our politicians ought to retreat into some shell of introspection and self-doubt? Of course not. The United States remains a great and accomplished nation with much to trumpet and much to impart to others.

Ultimately, however, we do not have all the answers and neither do our politicians, business leaders, academics, scientists, think tanks residents or media commentators. The sooner we start to accept the existence of gray areas and imperfection in each of these corners and begin to expect and practice a larger measure of humility in public discourse, the sooner we may get to addressing our problems in a sane and productive fashion.

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