Although I find plenty to complain about with the United States of America, and I'm convinced this nation's freedoms, economy and leadership could use some major reforms, there's still a lot to like about the USA. I'm dedicating this essay to the top things I think are really great about the United States of America.
#1: The heart of the American people
Nothing pulls together the strength of the American people better than a disaster-scale event. Recently, hurricane Katrina not only devastated New Orleans, it also brought out some of the most determined, capable and good-hearted people I've ever seen. Helicopter pilots from Phoenix flew all the way to New Orleans and conducted rooftop rescues. A college student and his roommate stole a press badge and drove right into the thick of the disaster -- posing as a journalist -- to rescue victims and give them a ride out of the chaos. An elderly woman was seen handing out bottled water on the Interstate. A bar patron adopted an abandoned dog and named her "Katrina."
It's a scene of everyday Americans doing the right thing: truck drivers, firefighters, bartenders, teachers, and of course cops and firefighters. Most days, there's an abundance of heroism bundled up in the American people, and it only took the appearance of a natural disaster to unleash it. Personally, I'm just happy to be in a country where even if the government is incompetent, the people can collectively rig up solutions to almost anything. It's the man and woman on the street who deserve recognition on this one. They've saved lives despite the devastating conditions and the utter failure of FEMA.
#2: Freedom of Speech
Next is, of course, freedom of speech. This is something we often take for granted. In many countries around the world, if someone wrote what I'm writing, they would be arrested and thrown in jail. The very fact that I am able to speak these words and publish these essays demonstrates the level of freedom we still enjoy in the United States of America. Of course, protecting that right is a constant struggle, and that's why we have organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation
working hard to make sure that freedom of speech remains fully intact.
If you think about it, there are countries like China where you wouldn't dare speak your mind, because you'd be incarcerated or assassinated. There are countries like Iran, where bloggers are put in jail because the Iranian government does not like their blogs. Certainly in the United States there's a lot of censorship and editorial control in the mainstream press, but a blogger can get online and say just about anything they want (as long as it's not something like instructions on how to make a bomb).
We can freely criticize the government, the president, private groups and even professions. At the same time we can sing the praises of those things we believe are really phenomenal and positive in this country. That's what freedom of speech is all about. It doesn't mean that you have to agree with everything I say, or that I have to agree with everything you say. It means that we respect each other's right to voice our opinions, even if we disagree. Especially if we disagree, actually. We let the conversation take place, so that individuals can be exposed to many different views, and then decide on their own what they wish to believe. It's a remarkable freedom, and it's crucial that we preserve that freedom. It's one of the best things about living in the United States today.
#3: The cultural diversity
The people in this country are remarkably creative; they are independent thinkers, and they bring together the wisdom of many different cultures and background. I don't know of any other place in the world where you can get the same cultural mix that you have here in the United States. I think it's wonderful to have the cultural influences of Hispanics, African Americans, Eastern Europeans, Asians, South Americans and many others.
Racial diversity is one of the things I really enjoy about this country. I would be bored silly to live in a country that had a homogeneous culture with no international influences. I want some diversity; I like to meet people from different cultures. I'm one of the few vocal supporters of (legal) immigration, because I believe it is precisely such diversities that made this nation great in the first place.
#4: Emergency rooms and trauma care
Another thing I really like about America is trauma care. Yes, I'm talking about emergency room physicians. They are the very best in the world, in my opinion. And even though I'm not a big fan of general practitioners and their drug-and-surgery approach to medicine, I'm a huge fan of the technical expertise of emergency room doctors.
These people save lives each and every day, and they do a great job. I've always said that U.S. doctors are fantastic technicians, and when you get into a trauma situation, you want a great technician. These doctors handle high-stress situations and put in incredible hours with a lot of effort and determination. I think most of them are underpaid for the jobs they are required to do. It is not easy being an emergency room physician, and I'm just glad they're there. I probably don't thank these people enough for the fact that they are available.
#5: The health food industry
The fifth thing I really like about America is the health food industry. We have the best selection of health food stores and healthy grocery stores of any country in the world. Of course, it depends on what city you're in. If you are in St. Louis, you're not going to get a very good selection at the grocery store compared to what you might find in San Francisco, for example, or Seattle. But if you're in the right city and you're at the right store, you have a fantastic selection of fresh produce in this country.
Stores like Wild Oats and Whole Foods deserve praise for providing healthy, fresh produce on a daily basis at reasonable prices. It's really one of the modern miracles of civilization that we can walk into a store and purchase bananas or lychee fruit or any of the other exotic fruits that wouldn't be available if we were limited to buying fruits found locally. (At the same time, I always support buying locally when possible, through food coops and farmers' markets. But sometimes you want foods from outside your geographic region, too.)
(I know many of our friends in Canada might argue that their country has lots of health food stores, too, and that's true. But I'll save that for my top ten list of cool things about Canada, which includes downright friendly people, global-minded thinking, real dedication to protecting the environment, and a much more relaxed attitude about everything from hemp to intellectual property.)
The health products industry in this country is fantastic, too. We have nutritional supplements readily available in every health food store that can literally treat, prevent and even reverse chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease. If you have the knowledge of what works, you can walk into any store and buy potent herbs, homeopathic remedies or nutritional supplements that can help reverse these diseases.
That's a great freedom to have in this country. By the way, that freedom may be increasingly under attack because of the FDA's desire to regulate nutritional supplements. If you want to keep your health freedoms intact, stay alert. Pay attention to what's going on and act to preserve those freedoms. You can do that by joining the Alliance For Natural Health.
#6: Food labeling requirements
Moving on, the next best thing about America actually lends credit to the FDA! Yes, you heard it here -- I'm actually going to compliment the FDA for doing a good job on something. All the foods sold in this country have to have nutrition labels that state the ingredients and nutrition facts (such as macronutrient breakdowns, such as protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber and so on). We take these labels for granted here in the United States, but in many countries they aren't required at all.
You can walk into a store in China, for example, and you may not have any idea what you're buying. They can put anything they want in those foods, and sometimes they do, without listing ingredients on the label. So here in the United States, we have the benefit of this federal law that requires food manufacturers to actually tell us what foods are made of. That's not to be taken for granted. It's something we enjoy and it's very important for public safety and public health. Of all the dopey things the FDA has done over the years, at least it got this one right.
#7: Creative expression and Hollywood
The next thing to love about America is the entertainment industry, and in particular, the movie industry. Now you may say, "Well, gee, we make a lot of violent movies and a lot of garbage movies," and that's true, but we also make a lot of fantastic, artful movies that deeply touch the human spirit. Movies that, when you watch them, communicate on many levels about what it means to be alive and be a human being. I'm talking about movies like Schindler's List
by Steven Spielberg, or Castaway
. These kinds of movies are powerful art and powerful healing.
We have some of the most talented movie makers in the world right here in America who are mastering this art and applying it to create these wonderful films that we get the opportunity to view. And in my mind, that's something to really be thankful for. Regardless of whether you agree with all the movies coming out of Hollywood, there are some outstanding human-interest movies that inspire us, teach us lessons and uplift our spirits. Of course, America doesn't have a monopoly on great films, but it contributes a meaningful share to global movie-goers. Special kudos go out to New Zealanders for the breathtaking work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy!
#8: The free market
The next thing to love about America is the free market: The competitiveness of our market results in the creation of highly efficient businesses that deliver necessary products and services to us in ways that simply cannot be achieved under a centralized government system such as communism. I know there are problems with the free
market system; in fact I'm one of the biggest critics of certain elements of the free market system. It creates corporate abuses and corporate ethic atrocities, for one thing. This is a system that has created Enron and WorldCom and Big Pharma, after all. But it's also the same system that has created an environment in which natural health supplement manufacturers can flourish. A system in which computer companies like Dell can reinvent the way we get custom-built computers very quickly at remarkably low costs. It serves our consumption interests very well, overall. It spurs creativity and competitiveness, and it promotes innovation.
That's a pretty good economic system. In fact, it's the best created so far. I would hate to be living under a system of communism or centralized control where, in effect, most of the people in the country were just sitting around doing nothing, or pushing paper from one person to another. If you visit any government-run institution in countries like China or Mexico, you'll find that it's a common practice. Everything's still done by paper, and there's no such thing as good service - there's not even an expectation of good service. You're basically at the mercy of government bureaucrats for everything you need. Even if you want to enter or exit the country, you have to get a dozen stamps from some bureaucrat who seems to actually enjoy making you sweat.
But here in the United States we have an essentially free market system, and it's a system that encourages customer service and quality control. These are fantastic benefits of living in this society, and some even creep into the public sector, where now you can visit DMV offices around the country, and many of them are actually doing a decent job these days (it's not perfect, I know, but it's an improvement). They have streamlined operations by mimicking the operations of private industry to create better efficiencies and a more satisfying customer experience. That's quite remarkable. Again, it's something we might take for granted in this country, but it's not something you find everywhere else in the world, and it is indeed something to be thankful for.
Continuing on, the next best thing about America is signage. That's right: Signage is a big deal here. This may sound silly at first, but let me explain to you why this really matters. Signage comes in two parts: Road and navigation signs, and the limiting of commercial signage.
One of the things that makes America pleasant is the fact that you can get where you're going by following road signs. If you've never toured much outside the country, you might take that for granted, because there are a lot of countries in the world that don't necessarily believe in the idea of telling you where you're going when you're traveling. America does a great job with road signage. The Department of Transportation keeps the signage in place and updates it quite frequently. Armed with even a simple map, you can usually get to where you want to go in this country. Other countries don't necessarily believe in that. You have to ask the locals where you're going, or you have to know the roads yourself. We have a lot to be thankful for in terms of navigation in this country.
Now let's talk about commercial signage. In America, we typically do a pretty good job of keeping commercial signage sufficiently suppressed, which means limiting the extent of signage that is of a commercial nature. Now, you might disagree if you're driving down the interstate and see one billboard after another, but there is actually some merit to the concept of billboards on some highways: they provide a public service. Sometimes you're looking for a hotel or a restaurant, and if you didn't have those billboards, you'd probably be out of luck and wouldn't be able to find them. But that's only in the interstates and highways. I'm not a fan of billboards in cities or communities.
I've noticed a trend in America over the last ten years, where communities are requiring commercial entities to keep their signage more discreet. It's great to drive through a community and not see a giant yellow McDonalds arch polluting the skyline. If you want to find a McDonalds, they're easy enough to find. All you have to look for is a 4-foot tall sign close to the ground that's subtle enough to keep the sky clean, yet informative enough to let you know there's a McDonalds.
This is also something you might take for granted if you haven't lived outside the country. Go to Tokyo or Taipei or Shanghai, for example, and you will find that the Asian cultures don't agree with this concept at all. To them, more signs are better, and simply opening your eyes in one of these cities can be quite disturbing, visually speaking. It's as if every business in town is screaming at you, trying to get you to notice them. That's what happens when you don't have signage laws. The commercial signs get completely out of control and you end up with a polluted setting where you really can't find the business you're looking for in the first place. It turns out to be nothing more than what I call "sign spam."
The next best thing to like about America is its inventiveness. Let's face it: We have a rather creative, highly innovative population here in this country. Per capita, we create more patents than any country in the world (not that I'm a fan of all the loony patents or anything, but at least we're good at dreaming up new ideas). We're inventive people! We come up with all sorts of new ideas and contraptions that ultimately advance our knowledge base and make our lives easier.
Now of course, I'm not a naive promoter of technology, nor do I think that technology is the answer to happiness or any of the more important philosophical questions. But I do believe that science and technology can be one tool in helping us better understand the universe, and here in the United States we are great inventors of technology. We invented the personal computer, the internet, radio, television and even cold fusion technology, which is now being explored as low-energy nuclear reactions (and despite what you may have heard, cold fusion is quite real and replicable. In fact, cold fusion is being duplicated right now in more than 80 laboratories around the world, including many in Japan, where low-energy nuclear reactions are being used to heat water.)
We are also great inventors of software and web-based application services. I think America produces the most innovative software in the world. Of course, Germany produces the most robust software -- software that works without crashing. If you ever want a software engineer that builds reliable applications, hire a programmer from Germany. They will cost you three times as much, but the software will be ten times as stable.
#11: National parks
Moving on to the next best thing about America: National parks. That's right, we have been wise enough in this country to set aside large tracts of land for the enjoyment of the public. Once again, this is not something that's routinely practiced in other countries. Here in America you can visit the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park or any number of other national parks across the country.
If it weren't for the efforts of those who support the national parks effort, these areas would have long since been exploited for commercial or industrial use ("Hey, let's mine the Grand Canyon!"). They would have been destroyed through commercial exploitation. But thanks to some forward-thinking government officials and private supporters, they are now preserved for your enjoyment and that of future generations. That's a visionary strategy on the part of Americans, and it's something that will serve us well for many generations to come.
Along with national parks, there are also enjoyable state parks and other areas of nature that have been set aside for limited use by citizens. It's important for a population to keep in touch with nature. We shouldn't build roads and houses on every single piece of available land, you know. We have to set aside some of it as a preserve. To a large extent we have done that in this country, and we've done very well compared to many other countries in the world. Certainly there are improvements that could be achieved, but we've done a great job so far.
#12 Grassroots activism
The next thing to love about America is grassroots activism. In America, people feel the need and have the motivation to stand up and speak out about a great many things. People hold public rallies and marches and grassroots events. They will rally together for an important cause, such as saving the environment or saving the whales or overturning unjust laws. Americans tend to be activist-oriented, and to me that's a healthy sign of the level of freedom in a country. It's frustrating when these activists are suppressed (like happened at the WTO meetings), but by and large activists are able to get their say in this country.
It's important that we all recognize the value of activism, whether or not we agree with the particular agendas of particular activist groups. As long as activists refrain from using violent tactics, they're healthy for this country. Obviously I do not condone any sort of violent activism, or anything that destroys property or threatens the safety of other human beings, but I'm all for loudmouthed activism, even if I don't agree with what they're ranting about. After all, I'm one of the most loudmouthed activists of all, and I feel quite tolerant of the other activists in this country, even if we don't share the same points of view. As Noam Chomsky said, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."
This country not only tolerates activism; it actually seems to welcome it. People like to get involved, raise their voices and be heard. This keeps the government a little more honest. It helps keep public policies sane and provides a check on the legislative and judicial systems in this country. Now with the help of the internet and online activism, it provides an even more powerful way to connect people who share a common passion. For that reason, online activism is becoming a very powerful force for social and political change in this country.
I'm a tremendous fan of online activism. I think that the more people get together, share ideas, and work toward a common goal in a grassroots campaign, the better off we're going to be in this country. That's why I'm also a huge proponent of citizen journalism, online blogging and freedom of speech in all its forms.
#13: Better treatment of animals
Another thing to love about America is the (relatively) humane treatment of animals in this country. Now, I'm not saying we have a perfect record, and there are many areas that need improvement, especially in the beef and chicken industries (just visit PETA.org
if you want to see some examples), but by and large we tend to treat animals better in this country than in almost any other country in the world. We are far better here than in South American countries or any Asian country, that's for certain.
My own personal belief is that animals are not property. No animal should be exploited for entertainment (circus elephants) or food (cattle, pigs, chickens, etc.). But that's a radical idea to most people, and given that our current civilization has not yet caught up to the idea of treating animal beings as sacred, we at least have a much better situation in America than in most countries.
For example, Americans tend to have a lot of pets. In fact, we are a pet-happy culture. We treat our pets very well, and we have a huge industry supporting and pampering pets. Sometimes we even treat our pets too well, and they get diabetes and obesity and heart disease because we're over feeding them. We like to reward our pets in the same way that we like to reward ourselves: with too much food.
It's not just pets that we pamper. We also have wonderful zoos in this country. If you've ever visited a zoo in Asia or some other country, you can really appreciate the fact that we have top-class, top-notch zoos here in the United States. There are a lot of zoos in the world that are pretty sad, and there are a couple in the U.S. that are pretty sad too, but overall we do a great job in our zoos.
Look, I'm not a fan of locking up wild animals and putting them on parade for the general public, but the fact is that these animals are involuntary ambassadors, and their presence in zoos actually increases the appreciation for all animals by children and adults alike. And U.S. zoos do their best to try to make these animals comfortable, given severely limited funding and resources. It's not a perfect situation, and it's true that zoo animals hardly resemble real animals in the wild, but given that 99% of the population never actually gets to "the wild," these zoos are the only chance most people get to observe these animals. It's amazing what our zoos are able to do with such limited resources.
I think the value of zoos in society is greatly underrated -- it is so important for people to maintain a connection with natural life and with animals from the wild, even if they are held in captivity. People only truly gain an understanding of the biodiversity on this planet when they see it up close. So two thumbs up to the zoos in the United States of America, to all the donors who support zoos and to all the workers who donate their time and effort to keep these zoos functioning.
Things that need improvement
So those are the top things to like about America, in my opinion. There are many other things to appreciate about this country, of course, but these are the ones that stand out as things the United States does particularly well.
Of course, there are many things in this country, as in all countries, that need improvement. I'm often one of the most outspoken critics of things that are wrong in this country. But it's important to realize that if you have a choice of where to live in the world, the United States is a reasonably good destination. In fact, I believe it was Winston Churchill who said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all other forms of government." I think that's quite true. No form of government is perfect or even close to it, but if you have a choice of what government to live under or what jurisdiction to live under, the USA is a pretty good choice, even today. Even with what was lost in the last four years, in terms of civil liberties, it's still a good place to live. It was also Winston Churchill who said (paraphrasing), "America always does the right thing, after first exhausting all other alternatives."
Needed improvements are especially obvious in the pharmaceutical industry today. Over the last 15 years, Big Pharma has over-exaggerated and over-marketed its drugs, and now we're seeing the backlash of the harm caused to Americans and the harm caused by direct-to-consumer advertising. Now things will probably swing the other way, and Big Pharma will once again be relegated to a more limited role in conventional medicine. Things will change in this country. It may take time, it may be frustrating to see this slow rate of change, but in the end I think we still have the sensibility and the level of activism necessary to eventually do the right thing.
So what can you do to keep this country great? Stay informed. Be an activist for something you believe in. Vote with your dollars: if you don't like something that a company or a government is doing, then don't buy that company's products. Let your dollars be congruent with your beliefs. Be active in politics. Vote every chance you get. But more than that, speak out and talk to people about your beliefs.
Start a blogging site and write about your beliefs. Or if you feel strongly enough about a subject, get out there and rally with others who share your beliefs. Be active -- if you aren't part of the system, then you have no right to complain about it. Help move this country in the direction that you think it should be moved.
And take care of your health; improve your nutrition and watch your diet so that you can maintain a healthy, sharp mind. You can stay mentally sharp all the way to 100 years of age or beyond, but it's up to you to make the lifestyle choices that keep you healthy. If you stay healthy and sharp, you can remain an active participant in shaping the direction in which this country is headed.
As long as we can all do that, we will continue to have the best country in the world. It is only when we disengage -- when we abandon the country and throw up our hands in despair -- that we turn over power to those who would seek to change the course of our country for their own selfish gain. As long as you and our other fellow Americans stay engaged and recognize what's valuable in this country and seek to protect it, then we will all be well on our way to not just maintaining America as a wonderful place to live, but making it even better.
Who knows, with enough activism and information, we may be able to return this country to fiscal sanity, meaningful public education, decent health care and qualified leadership. All it takes is people like you and me getting engaged with the process of change.
If you aren't affecting change, change is affecting you.