There were many sermons on Memorial Day, a lot of reverent waving of Old Glory, pledges of allegiance and endurance, pronouncements that we live in what many believe is the greatest nation on Earth.
A week later, on the first weekend in June, a string of shootings left at least 15 people dead and more than 60 others wounded in eight states – another spasm of gun violence as mourning continued for the dozens of lives lost last month in mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., and an elementary school Uvalde, Texas.
Flag Day approaches. We’re a great nation at odds with ourselves. If we hope to be the greatest, we have work to do. The rest of the civilized world, apparently, has resolved many issues that still tie Americans in knots.
For openers, guns. Our predicament is tragic and embarrassing. Americans, the great champions of world peace, can’t stop killing each other.
America, stout champion of human rights, is paralyzed over immigration and voting laws, snarling about race and religion, enacting new restrictions in the name of freedom. Protecting the unborn is crucial; the born, not so much. Child poverty in Finland is five percent; it’s 25 percent in America, richest nation on Earth.
Troubles persist, some patient and others pressing. Among them gasoline prices, student debt, affordable housing and health care, abortion, affordable college, affordable groceries, and that bugaboo over “acceptable” books in schools. Democracy itself stands in the dock for congressional hearings.
About those books. Arguments over proper content for books in schools has been with us for ages. A lot of districts are swimming in criteria, enough of it to keep many good books off the shelves. Curiosity and passion about things held sacred – religion, race, politics, gender and so forth – have jump-started a lot of authors, and will again. Writers so subdued by controversy that they present both sides fairly are not likely to burn any holes in the pages. The greatest books are heavily slanted, by the nature of significance and consequence. School children are better informed on both sides of a controversy by reading several books on a subject, not one. A school district should strive for a well-balanced library, not a well-balanced book.
And health care: Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist who has lived in the United States, several years ago wrote a critique, “The Nordic Theory of Everything ‒ in Search of a Better Life,” in which she noted the “surprises” that confronted her while living here. For one, she could not grasp the concept of co-pay. “… a reminder that when it comes to health care, you will be nickel-and-dimed until you draw your last breath.”
Partanen notes the many policy choices that each country has made for its citizens. Americans, for example, still seem to place parental responsibilities chiefly with the mother. In Finland, ten months of parental leave are split between mother and father, not to mention subsidized day care and health care.
“Without a strong support for education, universal health care and other benefits, Americans must rely on their partners and their employers to take care of them in sickness and health,” said Michelle Dean, a Canadian who writes for The New York Times. “In Finland and other Nordic countries, that kind of dependence would be intolerable.” There, the government provides that path to independence; here, it stays away. There, a person can leave one job (or one city) for another without worrying about health insurance or child care.
Taxes are high in those countries for a reason, in the view of their citizens. Benefits, writes Dean, can include efficient and comprehensive health insurance; a full year of partially paid disability leave; nearly a year of paid parental leave for each child and smaller monthly benefits for additional years, if needed; affordable high-quality day care; among the world’s best K-12 education systems; free college, and free graduate school.
Atop the personal and family benefits are the Nordic highway and public transportation systems, grants and aid for rural development and agricultural research, urban transit and renewal. High taxes and magnificent benefits do not seem to leave populations starving, or without clothes, or homeless. Citizens of these social democracies appear to be fit, pleased with their lives.
Americans, meanwhile, say their country is on the wrong track. Even if we aspired to reform our ways, the Canadian Dean and the Finn Partanen do not suggest how we get there. “I doubt any American not already sympathetic to her (Partanen’s) argument will be persuaded by her book,” Dean said.
Still, it’s useful to know there are other ways to organize humanity.