by Vincent Guy
Chicago Photo: Vincent Guy
The other day I was pulled up short by a headline from the USA that a school district in the state of Utah had banned the Bible, King James’ version, from its school shelves. Utah? Where the Mormon majority holds sway, and declare King James’ Bible a primary source of spirituality, as do the Fundamentalists and other practising Christians in this God-fearing State.
Grounds for the ban? It contains too much “vulgarity and violence”. It seems descriptions of “incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape and infanticide” had been brought to the attention of school officials who were shocked to find the book violating the standards of decency required for access by pupils under Utah Code Ann.§76.10.1227. They hastily purged it from the shelves. If you, dear reader, would like to do a little delving, you will find plenty of support for their decision. The Book of Ezekiel is particularly rich in details that were never mentioned in my childhood Sunday School.
In fact this cat had been set among the censors’ pigeons by a liberal-leaning parent, furious at the recent eviction of quality literature from Utah libraries. She wanted the authorities to admit their favourite volume was a grave offender, and not above their law. (Except of course that it was: demonstrations by angry mainstream parents soon saw the Bible re-instated.)
After all, the Fundamentalists, perhaps a quarter of the nation, insist the Bible contains all truth; so nuclear physics, climate change and evolution are illusions sent to try us. Since there is no mention of the New World in the pages of the holy book, it would be reasonable to conclude that the existence of America itself is some sort of fantasy.
Military might or might not
The USA is the world’s greatest military power, the greatest in history, with economic resources and technical sophistication unmatched elsewhere. Military spending is nearly 40% of the world’s total. Expressed per capita, America scores 3rd after Qatar and Israel which might be thought of as special cases.
US Americans deployed these resources across the world to defeat two sophisticated military powers, culminating in the atomic weapons dropped on Japan. But within four years, the Russians, their new enemy, had their own nuclear weapons. The Korean War ended inconclusively with a divided Korea. Fidel Castro, after his hostile takeover of Cuba right on their doorstep, the Americans were unable to dislodge. In Somalia, a small number of losses due to incompetence led the Americans to abandon their intervention. In Vietnam and in Afghanistan, peasant armies drove the world’s most sophisticated force into chaotic withdrawals. The Iran hostage affair left the US humiliated in more ways than I have space to describe.
It’s been said that the Americans go to war in order to learn geography. They certainly hadn’t done their homework before they went to Iraq. Here again, substantial losses led to confused withdrawal, and a country, indeed the whole region, left in chaos by American action. Iraq itself shifted into alignment with Iran, America’s principal foe in the area, a result that might have been anticipated had American leaders glanced at the local pattern of religious affiliations. A couple of modest successes: they removed the President of Serbia (population 7m) by bombing from the air without putting boots on the ground. And the President of Panama (population 4m) they overwhelmed with ear-splitting rock music.
Loosen your belts
With GDP at 78 dollars per capita, the US is the 7th richest nation on earth (after oddities like Luxembourg, Qatar, Switzerland and - surprise! - Ireland). One of the richest countries in history has possibly the worst diet. This plays a role in increasing fatness. This century, cases of obesity have increased by 12%, while severe obesity has doubled. Someone has probably calculated how the total inches added to American waistlines since the lunar landing compare to the distance to the moon.
Allow me to furnish you with some nourishing anecdotes:
You can eat well in the United States. One of the best restaurant meals I’ve ever had was in Chicago. It was also by a country mile the most expensive. I have yet to confess to family or friends just how much I paid for it.
With my Greek friend Kalliopi I was invited to the home of a couple in Michigan, not poor folk or youngsters: she’s a head teacher, he’s a successful attorney.
“We don’t cook.” says the wife.
“So what do you do?”
“Pick up something on the way home from work, pizza or a burger or maybe a Mexican.”
Kalliopi offers to cook a meal for them. The wife looks on in wonder, tinged with disgust:
“But you don’t wear rubber gloves! Oh Yuk! You taste the sauce with your finger!”
She happily tucked into the resulting meal.
In a provincial eatery we watch two men at the next table share a dish of ice cream. The rainbow-coloured pyramid is up to their noses. We engage in conversation.
“Is it good?
“Sure, wonderful! Mmmmm, awesome!”
“Do you eat this often?”
“Yeah, he’s my pop.”
“Yeah, he’s my son. He lives on the West Coast, he’s a lawyer”
“Yup, he’s a finance guy. Right here in Illinois.
“We get together every year.”
“Uhhuh, it’s his birthday”
We leave them to demolish their mountain of ice in peace.
The Americans manage to tot up the world’s biggest overall expenditure on healthcare in the world per head of population. At nearly $800 billion per year, it’s three times that of the next country in line: China, whose population is more than 4 times larger.
Surprisingly for a nation so vociferously against the “nanny state”, the Federal Government’s health outlay, as share of its total spending, comes in at no. 3 in the world (yielding top spot only to oddities Costa Rica and Palau). But a substantial part of this is deployed on medical research, which has developed into a huge, well-funded industry. State financing is boosted by private benefactors and corporate players. The results are sad.
For life expectancy at birth, different sources give widely differing answers, but in any case it’s shocking: US citizens rank somewhere between 29th and 46th in the world tables of longevity, with the average age of death around 76 years. And even as I write, it is falling further, the only developed country where that is so.
Americans have learnt nothing from the rackety days of Prohibition. Back then the booze business was handed over to the gangsters. Principal beneficiary: Al Capone and his buddies. Now we see widescale addiction among rich and poor Americans to both illegal and legal drugs, while the “war on drugs” is carried on, whether in Chicago or Mexico, by gangs slaughtering each other. Addiction continues to increase with a new twist. The free enterprise approach to healthcare means pharmaceutical companies push their products to both patients and doctors even harder than elsewhere. This leads to over-prescription and addiction.
The opioid crisis is the latest manifestation. Doctor prescribes pain relief, patient gets addicted, doctor stops prescribing, patient goes to black market. Nearly 200 Americans die every day from opioid overdose. OxyContin is the best-known example. The Sackler family, who own the company making it, are worth an estimated $13 billion. The Sacklers have made an art form of “artwashing”, funding cultural events and buildings to make their name appear benign. London's Victoria & Albert Museum had a Sackler wing until recently. The wing has been renamed in the face of criticism but the Museum has yet to update its signage (this photo was taken in July 2023).
OxyContin is still available, though you’ll need – yes -– a doctor’s prescription. In the US today the leading cause of death in adults under 55 is drug overdose. A drug is a drug, legit or not. Al Capone’s ghost is laughing.
Guns are fun
Almost uniquely in America, guns are not confined to warfare, police-work or hunting. They are in regular use in the streets, in the classroom, in the home. One third of households owns at least one gun. There are more guns than people. Gun deaths are enormous, though more than half are suicides. Until recently federal law put restrictions on research into the causes of gun crime. As to guns per person, the US is far from the top, a position taken by El Salvador. British readers may sleep easier in their beds knowing the UK sits near the bottom of this list.
The pattern is energetically held in place by a lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), who cite the 2nd Amendment to the 1776 Constitution, which gives American citizens “the right to bear arms”. But the words are taken out of context. The Amendment reads:
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country.
In other words, you can have your gun as long as it’s for fighting the British. I am baffled that lawyers and reformers cannot point to the militia phrase to bring about legal control over guns.
The U.S. is the only country among its peers in which guns are the leading cause of death among children and teenagers.
Six-year-old child at NRA convention Photo: Daily Star
Trump is, of course, the outstanding current example of paradoxical America. You must admit that he’s good at his job, if we define that as grabbing and maintaining a place in the headlines. His promises to build a wall, restore prosperity to the working poor, lock up Hillary Clinton, and to make America great again were, of course, not fulfilled during his presidency. The extraordinary thing about “the Donald “ is that, after all that let-down, he still got around half of the American electorate to vote for him. Then came the events of January 2021. His subsequent arraignments before the law may have dented his support, but at the time of writing he remains the likely Republican candidate in the next presidential election, and possible winner.
In the UK by contrast, such flamboyant politicians generally lurk in the margins, like Oswald Mosley or Enoch Powell. Nigel Farage has had considerable, even decisive, influence, but never got his hands near the reins of power. Britain’s charisma merchant Boris Johnson is perhaps the exception. But his move to suspend the constitution involved the silent signature of Queen Elizabeth, not a crowd of gun-toting ruffians. And Johnson has now resigned, something Trump has yet to do.
There is nothing new in this contradictory nature of American life. Dr Johnson asked a question in 1775:
“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"