First of all, I want to take a moment to thank you for the responses I received to my post-election post, “oceans rise.” It was the most-read and -shared piece I’ve written on this site. My typical post attracts about 500 readers. “oceans rise” flew past 2000 very quickly, thanks to the number of you who shared it with your networks. And I received more side-texts, emails, and attaboys than I can count. I do not take any of this feedback for granted. This blog is only three months old, so when I hear from you, it really means a lot. So again, thank you.
Since the piece connected with so many of you - and since our President-Elect’s initial decisions have done little to allay our considerable fears - I thought I’d attempt to continue, and hopefully sharpen, the conversation. It is becoming more and more clear that going forward, we are all going to need the very best of each other’s thoughts and ideas.
One of the more thought-provoking responses to “oceans rise” came from my good friend Rick Zednik, with whom I used to collect baseball cards and Star Wars action figures back on the gritty streets of Scarsdale. Rick is now CEO of Women In Parliaments Global Forum (WIP), an independent, post-partisan foundation established to advance society by building the global network of female parliamentarians.
Rick is also a American expat, who has lived in Brussels for the past 14 years, and thus has endured the distant, queasy experience of watching from afar as his home country has taken this remarkable, unsettling turn. And needless to say, Rick has also felt the ground beneath his feet in Europe begin to shift as well.
The core of Rick’s response to my piece was some thoughtful pushback on my central premise: that America’s founding charter was rooted in the prioritization of capitalism over morality: c > m. I know that this premise resonated with many of you. And I'm certainly not backing down from it. ;) But I was intrigued by Rick’s suggested tweak. I think you will be too.
Here’s Rick’s response to "oceans rise," in full, followed by a brief Q & A.
That's some great writing there. Weighty, incisive stuff. Thank you.
My main quibble [with “oceans rise”] is that I don't see it as a question of "morality" and "capitalism", but one of "collective interests" and "individual interests". Capitalists are not immoral people. (Capitalist behavior -- a decision or act -- is not immoral, but in fact probably amoral.) In fact, many highly moral people are also very capitalistic people.
So I would not say "racism being the spine of the biography of this country". In fact, I find that a very unfair and potentially destructive premise. But I would find it fair and accurate to say that "self-interest is the spine of the USA". The ethos of the US is founded on advancing and protecting self-interest. This is both a massive strength, as it drives people to innovate and solve problems, and a vulnerability, as it risks a society that is not really a society but a collection of individuals.
Having lived 22 of my 45 years outside the US, I can say that the US is extreme in its ethos of self-interest. It is a very Anglo ethos, which is also strong in the UK and, from what I gather, Australia. I understand it also exists in some other hotbeds of individualism, like some Latin American countries. But I'd argue it is nowhere stronger than in the US. This is why what is happening now in the US is so hard for others around the world to comprehend.
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JOSH: Rick, thanks again for your thoughtful response. I have known you for almost 40 years (!), and one of the things I admire most about you is that you have always chosen your words carefully. I, on the other hand, tend to write more emotionally, and perhaps a hair histrionically. So I’m intrigued by your more measured self-interest > collective interest vs my capitalism > morality. What are the most critical differences between European-style capitalism and US/UK/AUS-style capitalism?
RICK: I wish I'd always chosen my words carefully! I'll start with a couple of caveats. First, I am not a sociologist, anthropologist or historian. I'm a news junkie who recently made a career shift from media to politics. Second, this discussion requires a big dose of generalizing if we are to draw any conclusions. Some readers may criticize the resulting lack of precision, but let's forge on nonetheless in hope of shedding some light.
Europeans are nearly as committed to capitalism as Americans are. Both Americans and Europeans believe the individual drives society for better and for worse, and that individuals do not operate in a vacuum -- they have both rights and responsibilities vis-a-vis the society around them. The difference is one of degree. Americans put the balance closer to the self-interest end of the scales, where as Europeans put it closer to the collective interest. The degree of difference is usually not large, which is why the US and Europe have been such good friends for nearly all of the last two centuries.
JOSH: Do you see these differences as top-down or bottom-up? i.e. Is the typical American simply more self-interested than the average European, more likely to leave the toilet seat up, etc., and therefore more likely to elect self-interested representatives? Or does it work in the other direction - i.e. is self-interest baked into the ways and means of the US's government and leading institutions, which then trickles down, informing the typical American’s behaviors, actions, and values?
RICK: It is a combination of the two. And it starts with the most basic element of all: geography. The US spreads a little more than 300 million citizens across a land mass that is nearly double that of the European Union, which has a population of 500 million. Many Americans can carve out plenty of space for themselves without stepping on each other toes. In contrast, most Europeans are constantly bumping into each other -- in apartment buildings, on trains, etc. And these Europeans speak more than two dozen official languages, meaning they are accustomed to confronting challenges of communication and culture.
These differences have encouraged the development of very different political cultures. The pioneering history of the US has fostered a system focused on individuals -- candidates running on their own personal brand, legislators elected to solely represent a group of constituents, and presidents with powers of executive order, veto, appointment and pardon. Centuries of conflict and compromise in Europe have created a system centered on parliaments composed often of half a dozen parties or more and whose prime minister is selected from among their ranks. A high premium is put on coalition-building and consensus.
I find it instructive to look at the maps. Every single one of the 49 US states on the continent has at least one straight-line, man-made border. Now look at Europe. Not a single one of the EU's 28 member countries has a single straight-line border. The US is an artificial construct, carved up by treaties and contracts. Europe is an organic one, divided mainly by rivers and mountains. Americans imposed their will on a sparsely populated continent. Europeans inherited physical realities in a densely-populated continent.
JOSH: “Collective interest” is a loaded term in US culture: it conveys collectivism, which feels like the start of a slippery slope to socialism, then communism, then Jews from Vermont running for President. I’ve always felt that US views on collectivist principles were reductive, fear-based, distorted by jingoistic propaganda. In your view, which country/society (European or otherwise) demonstrates the best, healthiest, and most successful balance of self-interest and collective interest…and do those countries/societies utilize aspects of socialism/communism?
RICK: Any virtues offered by communism with a small "c" were forever ruined by the 20th century Communist Parties with a capital "C", including across Europe. That said, socialism remains alive and well in all corners of Europe. To be "socially-minded" to one degree or another is accepted as important across the political spectrum.
The Nordic countries tend to have the most successful balance of collective and self-interests. Denmark makes it easy for companies to reduce their work force when necessary, but they also provide some of the world's best programs to re-skill workers who have been laid-off so they can get new jobs. Sweden has high taxes -- many say too high -- but the country offers excellent public services, while still allowing capitalists to found and grow world-class companies like Ikea, Volvo and H&M.
JOSH: Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen feel overwhelmingly like the opening paragraphs of some future history book’s chapter on the opening chess moves of World War III: all we need is a dead Archduke, perhaps somewhere in Syria, and boom. To what degree is Trump part of a movement much greater than US socio-economic forces? Are we seeing a tidal wave of self-interest, sweeping across the West? If not self-interest, what is the common thread binding these movements together?
RICK: People -- especially in smaller towns and rural environments -- have felt that they have been losing control over their lives. And they blame bureaucracies run by urban, educated "elites" -- especially in Washington and Brussels -- for taking that control from them. They also perceive the media as being of the same out-of-touch ilk as the bureaucrats. So they are gravitating towards politicians and media who speak to this frustration. And, thanks to the more democratic nature of social media, they are finding their own voice and becoming increasingly confident in using it.
JOSH: Finally, how serious a threat to the world’s stability is Vladimir Putin? Who is the best historical comp? Is he a Napoleon, a Stalin, or someone more benign? What does Putin really want?
RICK: Putin is battling to retain influence. Russia is not the match for the US that the USSR once was. Its economy is now around the 12th or 13th biggest in the world, behind fellow BRICs Brazil and India and hovering around the same nominal GDP as South Korea, Australia or Spain. Militarily, Russia remains a major power, and its presence in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova serve to underline its influence in its "near abroad". I would not compare Putin to Napoleon nor Stalin, but finding a good comparison is not easy.
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Thank you Rick, for your thoughtful responses.
As always, I welcome your feedback, in the comments below, on Facebook, or in a private message - however you prefer it. When I launched this blog back in August, I certainly did not intend for it to take on a political dimension. But since the election, like so many of you, I have genuinely craved my friends' and colleagues' most intelligent takes, simply to keep my emotional fear-spirals at bay. So by all means feel free to use this space to keep the dialogue flowing. And I would encourage you to bring into the conversation the best and brightest voices you know. I am most grateful for the exchange.
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