Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In the wake of the terrorist attack in New Zealand, much of the conversation in the US has dripped with envy.
That’s right, envy.
First, a great many voices have pointed to the outpouring of empathy by the Kiwi public after the attack as exemplars of just what a “nice” country New Zealand is. Television hosts intoned that New Zealand is full of the friendliest and kindest people that they have ever met. Videos of Haka performances in tribute to the slain were posted across the Internet as evidence of Kiwi high-mindedness.
All of this, even though anyone who grew up as a racial minority in New Zealand as I did can tell you that there’s as much racial tension to go round there as anywhere else. Kiwis have mostly been helping along this idealization of New Zealand, at least Kiwis who are Pakeha. I suppose we all want to think the best of ourselves. But Americans have been pushing it as well, because they have long idealized New Zealand.
A second reason for envy might be more justified. Six days after the shooting, the New Zealand Parliament adopted legislation to tighten gun laws, banning all assault weapons. It’s the sort of swift action on guns that Americans can only fantasize about. Political cartoons bitterly contrasted Kiwi action against the American cliche of “thoughts of prayers” repeated after each one of the country’s all-too-common mass shootings. Prominent figures like Hillary Clinton lauded New Zealand.
More justified, yes. But is it fully justified? There is no Second Amendment in New Zealand. There isn’t even a written constitution. So there can’t be the sort of constitutional litigation that might be stop reform, as happened in America in cases like District of Columbia v. Heller. There is also no NRA. It is also a far smaller country, with a bit more than one percent of the US population on a landmass a bit smaller than Italy, or roughly the size of Colorado if you are an American and can’t picture how big Italy is. Of course it would be far easier to find political consensus.
But all of this projection, of holding up another country and lauding it in contrast to one’s own country, is a time-honored tradition, a polemical device for the ages.
The French philosopher Voltaire wrote Letters on England while living in exile in that country. It was addressed to his compatriots back in France. And although it was ostensibly about England, its real and obvious goal was to spur the French: by portraying English institutions as superior to the French, Voltaire hoped that his countrymen would be shamed into improving themselves. In one chapter on the new and miraculous science of vaccination (which, remarkably, is once again being disputed), Voltaire took his polemical device one step further. Not only were the English widely adopting vaccination, Voltaire claimed, but the art had long been customary in the wise and ancient empire of China.
Voltaire was no sinologist, and he soon saw his most tenuous claim dispute by those who passed for China-experts in Europe back then. No, the Chinese did not practice vaccination as widespread custom, even though some Chinese physicians may have known about it as far back as the 10th century. Voltaire was ridiculed for his idealization of China, which as the 18th century wore on came to appear more and more unjustified.
Back in our times, it is not only New Zealand that has been the target of American idealization. In the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders bitterly demanded to know why it was that Romania enjoyed faster Wi-Fi connections than the US. Bemused Romanians rather resented the implication that Romania was supposed to be a backwater. The truth is that Internet speed in Romania is among the fastest of any country in the world, so it was hardly surprising that it outpaced American Wi-Fi.
And just the other day Sanders did it again, this time comparing American healthcare to that of Finland. Now, certainly in my experience, the American healthcare system is by far the most absurd of any industrialized nation. But specifically Sanders was referring to the cost of delivering a child in Finland: $60 according to him. Former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley rather unwisely tried to rebut him, claiming that if Sanders asked the Finns, they would tell him all about how horrible their socialized medicine is.
Predictably, Finns replied: “It’s pretty great, thanks for asking,” wrote one Finn. Others pointed out that all that Haley had to do to know to expect this response was to Google: “healthcare in Finland.” What Haley did, then, was the mirror image of what Sanders and Voltaire did. She thought she could contrast Finland unfavorably with the US to prove how much better America was, as Sanders sought to do the opposite.
The truth is, from Hillary Clinton to Voltaire, from Sanders to Haley, they are all wrong. But that’s what happens when you use someone else’s country as a rhetorical device. Maybe it helps you prove a point. But the truth in that other country is always more complicated than your polemics can allow. Every country has its difficulties and areas where it excels. Every country has its unique set of issues and circumstances.
Or as the Chinese expression goes, “Every household has a tough-to-read book on its shelves.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."