By Clive Lindley-Jones | August 12, 2011 10:35 am
The New World
As some of you know, earlier this summer Kerstin and I took a month off to go and visit the many family and friends we have in the United States. We had a wonderful journey travelling, mostly by train, across large swaths of the country and reconnected with
many people we love.
This was my seventh time visiting this extraordinary country over nearly 40 years and naturally it engendered some thoughts along the way. So, for this summer’s combined July/August bumper blog, I want to, briefly, reflect on life and health in the USA, still the richest country in the world.
It is hard not to have a jumble of opinions about the United States. With our rich historical, linguistic, political, financial, cultural and family ties, British interest in all things American far outweighs the attention we give to our closer European neighbours.
Very quickly opinion divides between polar opposites, of love or hate. It is hard not to slip into this, especially as one gets older, and sigh with a knowing sense of superiority as one happily flies back to a ‘more civilised’ Europe. However, as nearly always is the case with such vast subjects as whole societies, a more nuanced view needs to prevail. I note in passing the influence of Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens.
Picture the scene. We are driving the endless, great, flat, hot, plains of west Texas; Buddy Holly country. We pull into a gas station and with the prospect of two days of rather featureless driving, check out the audio book section of the shop. A desultory array of unknown and unappetising American thrillers seems to pour cold water on the whole idea, until, I chance upon Hitch22, A memoir, by Christopher Hitchens. Hitch-22: A Memoir: Amazon.co.uk: Christopher Hitchens: Books.
While I have never met him, nor knowingly read a great deal of his considerable journalistic output, I must admit that I had not altogether formed a positive impression of my contemporary Brit, turned American, master pamphleteer. However, this wonderfully written memoir has been a revelation. As the Voice Literary Supplement say of Hitchens;
“Well travelled, hyper-educated, pissed off, always funny, Christopher Hitchens has no equal in American Journalism”.
At least on this evidence I would have to concur. His atheistic polemics, which I have not read, I suspect, sadly miss the radicalism of the true perennial philosophy of the great mystics. But then most discussion of religion generally leaves true spirituality out of the discourse and get stuck at a very basic level of dogma, belief etc. All very tedious, if understandable, given the abysmal level of the public discourse in this area. He is probably no worse than all the rest on both sides of that argument, and given the baby out with the bathwater aspect of his probable focus on religion rather than that which lies behind all these fingers pointing to the moon, he is , I suspect, a lot more incisive, thoughtful and amusing. No doubt his jousts at the mullahs and dogmatists would also be equally enjoyable, witty and brilliant, just lacking any awareness of the more hidden reality of the, non dualist, mystics. Reports from those adepts, of their profound experiences of the nature of our true self, at all times and places, are invariably, ignored by the world at large, why should Hitchens be any different?
But enough of that. It is Hitchens’s insightful, intelligent prose, both on his interesting life on the left at Oxford, London, Washington and all the worlds conflict hotspots as well as things American, that force one from the over simplistic pro or anti camp and demand greater thoughtfulness and nuance.
So I shall try hard to hold back my distaste for the kind of dynamic but rampant capitalism that prevails and shapes so much in the United States, instead to look at the whole and see the good with the bad, knowing that I can never match the Hitchens mastery of the written word and incisive argument.
The world’s richest country
Living in the world’s richest country comes at a price, and it’s measured in life years.
Men in the US are on average aged 75 when they die. That is 1.5 years younger than men in the UK and 3.5 years younger than men in Australia, says a new study.News – Why do Americans die younger than Britons?.American women live on average to just under 81 – about three years younger than the average Australian woman.
While the rich can get some excellent top quality health care in America, and British teeth, not least my own, are something of a running gag in such a highly orthodontised country (yes, I wish I had had access to all that wonderful dentist in dower, post-war, NHS dental England). It is hard not to see the increasing inequality in America, which is also partially replicated in the UK, as the route cause of, not only such relatively poor general life expectancy figures, but much else besides. While the difference in life expectancy in the UK between the lowest and highest social groups were around 7 years in the 1990’s and are no doubt higher today, some studies have shown ever larger differences, such as a 28 year difference in life expectancy at age 16 between blacks and whites living in some of the poorest and some of the richest areas in the United States.The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone: Amazon.co.uk: Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett: Books.
There are many things to wonder at and admire in the United States, not least its openness, the beauty and vastness of the physical geography, the no-nonsense, democratic friendliness in so many encounters, (I loved being addressed as ‘honey’ by the southern, Amtrak restaurant car attendant) as well as the dynamic nature of aspects of its economy, I am, after all, happily writing this on a wonderful i-mac computer designed, if not built, in America.
However, science is increasingly pointing to the fact that what seems to determine the overall mortality and health of a country is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed.
Expensive Health Care Myths
The myth, that has until now, driven the American health care model, that the more a society spends on health care, the better the health of its population will be, is now utterly bust. The USA spent $1.4 trillion on health care in 2001, and this has probably risen to $3.1 trillion over the last decade. This is 2 1/2 times as much as the, not very successful, UK model. With 1/3 of the population born in the year 2000 expected eventually to have diabetes, both, a miserable, life shortening and highly expensive, disease, it is instructive and chastening to watch our own possible future work its way out in the USA first.
The more equally wealth is distributed, the better the health of that society.
At almost any level of income, it is better to live in a more equal society. An example of this is the UK during the two world wars. Somewhat ironically, increases in life expectancy for civilians during the war decades were twice those seen throughout the rest of the twentieth century. During the second world war, for example, according to Wilkinson & Pickett, working class incomes rose by 9% and middle class incomes fell by 7% with rates of relative poverty halved. Furthermore, despite the huge stresses of the war, camaraderie and social cohesion not only led to better health but crime rates also fell. Of course such extreme circumstances as a war are not to be desired. But perhaps one of the abiding lessons of our time is the the growing awareness that chronic stress caused by inequality may be a highly plausible pathway which helps us start to understand why unequal societies are, almost always, unhealthy societies.
Something in the way we are as social animals means that with increased inequality many, if not most of us, not only the poorest, suffer the effects of chronic stress. While we have a wonderful biological system to handle acute stress, something in greater inequality leads us to a chronic stressful state that has detrimental effects on a number of our systems.
Unlike the kinds of acute stress we can quickly recover from, chronic stress tends to impair our memory, increase depression, damages our thymus gland and other immune tissues deteriorating our immunity, elevating our blood pressure, increasing our risks of cardiovascular disease, increase our adrenal activity, raising our stress hormones, slowing our ability to recover from acute stress, and raise our risks of infertility and miscarriage.
No doubt such ideas will be fought over. Some things will turn out to be more complex and slightly different from how they seem now, but, I suspect, the main thrust of these facts, will prevail.
Watching our own future?
What one sees in UK society is write larger, and therefore slightly more overtly visible, in the United States. The general thrust is for the wealth and opportunity to continue to shift to a smaller and smaller proportion of society. Lobbyists for industrial and financial interests increasingly take greater control over the leavers of power and political decisions. This is dressed up to appeal to the man and woman in the street, but they are increasingly driven by the needs of tiny, but powerful, interests. Whichever of the two dominant, right wing parties one votes for, fundamentally the needs of the 1% dominate, and those of the majority are cleverly ignored, or placated, so that the turkeys are regularly persuaded to vote for Christmas.
These interests do not have the health or well being of the people as their driving focus, but rather the profit for their executives and share holders. All this has become more obvious to all since the twin sisters of New York and London brought down the world economy in 2008, and the rest of us have been busy trying to pay for it since.
It is hard not to see the rise of obesity as one of the major causes of this declining life expectancy in America and Britain. And so it is. However why are people getting so increasingly obese? It is not enough to say that they just eat too much. There is a considerable sociological factor in this, as there is in smoking.
Obesity among men and women (see graph), as well as calorie intake and deaths from diabetes, are related to income inequality in rich countries. In addition, obesity in adults is also related to inequality in the 50 US states; and the percentage of children who are overweight is related to inequality both internationally and in the USA.
It is clearly a complex epidemiological issue that professionals will no doubt argue over for decades to come. However there is something both very interesting and worrying about such trends across the world. And such graphs seem to be replicated for all sorts of social malaise, not just obesity. Where ever you look the same shameful cluster of the UK and USA tends to be lurking at the wrong end of the XY diagrams.Why More Equality? | The Equality Trust.
Cities, Cars and Whole Food
Fine American Cities have certainly been more comprehensively trashed by voracious freeways and the unstoppable love of the car than, even we, have managed. A recent New York Times article compared the drive in European city culture to reverse the dominance of the car with the still prevailing, American orthodoxy, of letting the car shape, and often, destroy civic life. Like our own cities, the surrounding nether world of fast food chains and used car lots make a dispiriting arrival point which, in some cases, seem to have all but swamped and swallowed up the city centre itself, leaving a destructive, anomic urban environment. But all is not gloom and doom in the new world.
Stepping into the hallowed halls of a Whole foods Market Video | Whole Foods Market. can be a mind boggling experience for anyone who likes good food well served. If, like me, you remember and rather mourn the loss of all those funky whole food stores of the 70’s where you could buy real food with less packaging and more heart, stepping into a modern American Whole Foods Market can be an overwhelming experience.
On the one hand here is what Americans do best, gathering together a lot of stuff, you want to buy and selling it to you. In this case attractive, mostly organic, whole food, in more wonderful varieties than you ever imagine existed.
Wittily dubbed ‘The Church of Perpetual Consumption’ by my friend Lee, or ‘whole pay cheque’ by customers, these temples of cool consumption can rattle your chain and momentarily send you into a spine of desire, scuttling down isles of interesting grains, past mountains of impressive organic veg, the likes of which cannot be seen on such a scale anywhere in Europe. You are in a consumers heaven and then, slowly, you start to wonder about all those other smaller, perhaps a little friendlier and less super-marketed, whole foods stores that you have not seen recently, that this behemoth gobbled up, to get to this market dominance. Welcome to America.
One comes away from the United States, humbled by the wonderful examples of progressive ideas that were first conceived and executed in America and only much later in Europe. A simple example,away form the purely political, is the impressive US National Park Service, and other wild land management schemes, one small section of which I was able to enjoy in New Mexico.Wild Rivers Recreation Area.
It took the UK a further 85 years to implement such an idea, in our National Parks National Parks in the UK | Britain’s breathing spaces. Admittedly the Yosemite National Park their first, had not long been stolen from the native people who lived at the time in the area, when it was first designated as a National Park, but, there are so many impressive advances instigated in the United States, long before we copied them, here in Europe.
Today, with the differences more ironed out, we tend not to see the impressive, far sighted advances of some of those radical American visionaries, because we have sometimes learnt and caught up. However, as in this example, it is salutary to remember that such democratisation of our upland treasures, while they date back to the likes of Wordsworth, were only instigated, after much struggle, in my life time.
So, the next time you are confronted by the ‘Evil Empire’ remember the United States is all of those things you both respect and despise, but, like everywhere else, it is really just another place, occupied by human beings much like you and me, struggling to get by and do the right thing. Don’t let their more conspicuous, bizarre and ignorant ranters and ravers who make the news, blind you to the warmth and wonder of what was, after all, a creation in reaction to the more destructive and crushing brutalities and inequalities of an older, harsher, tyrannical Europe.
Sumi Komo’s upcoming visit to Helix House
While I was in Austin Texas this summer, I was privileged, briefly, to join Sumi’s Alexander Technique school Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain — Little et al. 337 — bmj.com. and share a small spot of teaching with Sumi. Having studied in London in the 1970’s with Alexanders leading students, Sumi is one of the senior teachers of this remarkable system. Her rare visits to Helix House are a chance, for a lucky few, to experience her skills and the profound effect that her hands can have on one, even in a few lessons. If you are interested in seeing Sumi while she is here on her way to Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, Findhorn Foundation | spiritual community, education centre, ecovillage. with us this summer, do make sure you contact the office as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.
Book of the Month
People’s History of the United States Modern Classics: Amazon.co.uk: Howard Zinn: Books. To prepare for my recent journey across the United States, I listed to the excellent BBC audio book version of David Reynolds, book, Empire of Liberty and started reading Howard Zinn’s magnum opus.
While Reynolds more standard account is full of fascination, interest and detail, Howard Zinn’s work specifically sets out to write the Peoples History. The first scholarly work to tell the story of America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant labourers. From the genocidal horrors of the early years of Columbus, through the war of Independence, the meat grinder of the first modern industrial war, the Civil War, right up through World War 2, Vietnam to the infamously misnamed, ‘war on terror’ of our own time. Zinn’s unabashed attempt to tell this side of the story is an essential counter weight to the familiar half truths and down right lies that are told by most country’s power elites to ensure the compliance of the people and the stability of the minority who, sadly, seem always to cream off the largest chunk of wealth and health, leaving a sorry state behind them.
The United States, sadly is no different. In fact in some ways, ironically, given its idealistic origins and advanced ideals in its radical beginnings, that special brand of industrial, military capitalism has meant things have always been particularly stacked against the poor and powerless who, at the same time, are bought off by talk of freedom and tacky bread and circuses… just like here. Perhaps the difference being that, if you can make it through the considerable hurdles, the United States, still is, for some, a greater land of opportunity and possibility, and we should not forget that.
Of course, there is so much to admire in the openness of this dynamic country, and there are enough exceptions to this rule, probably more than in most countries, that for all its ruthlessness and bombast, one cannot but still have a sneaking regard, and affection, for this extraordinary, wonderfully contradictory, country. If you want to get a vision of this history, it is hard to imagine any other writer matching Zinn’s sweeping and poignant panorama.
An interesting footnote. I discovered from my old friend, Frank, in Saratoga Springs, that I had in fact, met Howard Zinn, one long 12 hour lay over, in Bangkok airport, in 1972. Zinn had been Frank’s professor at Boston University in the late 1960’s, and so, when they bumped into each other, I too shook hands with the Professor. Only decades later was I to appreciate his eminence as a brilliant, radical historian.