I have not forgotten that I am going to write on systems-thinking and its problems in Christian theology. I am thinking about it a lot, actually. But in the interim, I have noticed something about how people think of good things versus bad things in their respective cultures. PenGun mentioned either here or at Assistant Village Idiot about a serious medical condition he had, and how grateful he was to the Canadian Health System that everything went well. I have noticed the same thing from the Brits*, that when they recover from something it is because of the NHS. Scandinavians say such things about almost everything, actually. They perceive their system of everything to be better: policing, military, diplomacy, education, healthcare, traffic. When I went to Romania to pick up my boys for adoption, I went to the schools they had been attending to discuss how they were and what material was being covered to help integrate them to the private Christian school they would be attending in America. None of the teachers were able to discuss what they were covering this year, and none knew anything about my two children individually. They all wanted to talk about how the Romanian system was so superior to what we were doing in America.
You might think that just by law of averages alone that the Americans could have gotten something right, seeing as by objective measures…
My cousin-in-law from Belgium would speak in similar fashion, that the system of schooling she was used to from childhood was so far superior to the schools she was sending her children to now (Concord, NH, very good. Their boys went on to do well at MIT and UChicago). Relatives of my sons who moved to Norway for better jobs took their girls out of Tromso abruptly and moved back to Transylvania, with part of the reason being that they felt the school system was much better. Similarly, when I speak to people from Quebec (and thus maybe all of Canada, or maybe not) it’s the same thing. They believe that Quebecois everything is better in general. Stores, food, politeness – oh let me guarantee you that this is not so. They have old-world gestures and customs but are solidly insulting – This attitude is so strong among Swedes that even other Scandinavians notice it, and resent it. It is considered arrogant to put yourself forward as better at anything in any way, but there is this universal idea that their systems, their way of doing foreign policy, or religion, or serving food, or crossing the street is simply better. It is fascinating that all of these cultures consider Americans arrogant because individuals are boastful, or because we notice that we clearly have aspects of our culture that show considerable success – such as a longer life expectancy than any other country after receiving a cancer diagnosis, regardless of what your income level is – and say so. To most other places, you can brag about your culture in extreme fashion, but you should not give the merest hint of excelling in yourself. It’s an interesting value. Once adopted, people outside of that will seem unconscionably rude, sure. We offend them in this way, and that we do not change even after they have pointed this out repeatedly just infuriates them more.
I think I get it. I see the point, and see why that would be annoying to others. We regard New Yorkers the same way ourselves, as braggarts who can list for you why their bagels, their coffee, their hospitals, their museums, and a hundred specific items are better; while our Californians, Texans, and probably a few other groups are more like the Europeans and Anglospheric cultures, lauding their entire culture as superior. But mostly, this way of looking at things strikes Americans as insane. We are more granular. This particular hospital is outstanding, because it saved my son’s life, or because it is a great teaching/research facility. This particular school/college is world class, though another college might suck. No one says “Whew! The American health care system saved my wife’s life!” We attribute such things to the specific expression of a doctor, a program, a hospital, not the system. We do have the somewhat contrary, somewhat ironic belief that the American system is better precisely because there is independence and variation. The system is a non-system, and we like that. There are no better hospitals than here. There are no better militaries, though we have an amazing array of stupidities in all of our branches. The highways are better, though we have some terrible roads. Yet we do not even think in terms of saying “All American hospitals are better than those you find in other countries.” Though we do note that people from everywhere come here, but also know that they don’t come to any random American hospitals because the average is better, but come to specific hospitals.
Critics would say that this is precisely because our results are so uneven. The excellences may be real, but look at all your citizens who don’t have good things because of the inequality. That would be a fair criticism in theory, if it could be backed up. Yet because a black family in Mississippi has a higher real income than an average family in Sweden, I have to call that criticism a bit weak. There actually are poor people in those other countries, you know. They just don’t talk about them, and pretend that this is an American phenomenon.
You could call either arrogant with some justice. I think Americans are more used to dealing with the accusation and acknowledging it. I don’t think Brits or Scandinavians or Canadians think they even have to consider the question, so certain are they that they must be right. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Update: There may be a midpoint in that granularity that I did not originally credit, though I intuitively came close. Americans are more likely to think of themselves in terms of regional, state, or even urban units and describe things that way. I might say “In New Hampshire we are likely to…” while Southerners, Westerners, or Midwesterners might give credit to their entire region for getting things right. LA, NYC, and DC think of themselves as cultures in their own right. This is not the same as a Canadian, who would never say “In New Brunswick we have designed things so that…” or a Dane breaking things down by region. Yet even there, in Newfoundland they do think that way a bit, and the Scots or Welsh certainly do in the Isles. I think the contrast between America and other places does hold and is worth noting, but I think I drew the lines too sharply.
*The UK, especially the English, still has more of this “American” attitude than other places. We got it from them, after all. Hence Oxford and Cambridge, perhaps overrated but still exceptionally good.