Sneer away, America


Once, when I was eight years old and feeling deathly ill, my mother asked me if I felt okay. I said I felt fine, with the naà¯ve young mindset that things couldn’t go wrong and that I couldn’t possibly be that sick. Five minutes after telling her I was fine, I vomited across our living room, and then found that I had a 103-degree fever. “When something is wrong, Brendan,” my mom scolded me later, “you really need to tell me, or else we have no way of making you better.”

I believe Alex Hartzell’s recent opinion article, “It’s Time to Stop Sneering at America,” suffers from the same problems I did back then: a stubborn, categorical unwillingness to acknowledge problems. Throughout his article is an attitude that any criticism of the United States and its systems is wrong and downright un-American, despite the fact that such problems need to be addressed.

Take healthcare, for example. Forget simple bread line analogies: Americans aren’t even bothering to get in line for necessary medical care because the system has priced them out. A report published this week by the New York Times stated that “just three pharmaceutical giants hold patents that allow them to manufacture insulin”, allowing these three to dominate the market and inflate prices so that “in much of Europe, insulin costs about a sixth of what it does here.” And this is just the most recent example. It is extremely well-reported that the sick and dying are often exploited and left helpless by our healthcare system. When examples like this keep showing up in healthcare and other industries, you will forgive us for raising concerns about the way our free market system operates.

However, Mr. Hartzell’s article allows no room for qualms. He opens his article with what seems like a reasonable series of criticisms of the United States, both past and present, and presents them as the elitist attacks of “sneerers.” Sneerers focus on “our nation’s moral failures” and highlight uncomfortable realities about our country, which is apparently too “ludicrous” a notion for him to understand.

All the Japanese-Americans who marked the recent anniversary of internment policies by expressing their dismay and disappointment? Sneerers! Native Americans who don’t view America in the best light? Sneerers! People upset that they pay six times as much for insulin as they could elsewhere? Sneerers!

And of course, anyone who questions whether the US of A is the best country that has EVER existed is being “simply and categorically irresponsible.”

The article makes a huge leap between such criticisms and radical, unbridled socialism. You criticize income inequality and Wall Street? You must want the government to buy your bread for you! You don’t understand basic economics! This link is the premise of the entire piece, and the connection is lazy, poorly supported and just untrue. No, not everyone who criticizes the United States wants to see us become Denmark, as he insists. Most of us do it because we love our country and want to hold it accountable. When the only defense of income inequality is that poverty in the United States “is far better than living and working in other nations,” we have a problem. “The greatest country in all of world history” (unquestionably!) should not get a pass just because it beats the lowest common denominator, and saying so doesn’t make me a Marxist.

Mr. Hartzell ought to learn the lesson I learned when I was eight years old: It is okay to acknowledge when something is wrong. People “highlight our worst moments” because that is the only way to improve! We can either try to find solutions for income inequality, or we can tell people stuck in a cycle of poverty to suck it up because hey, things could always be worse. We can try to help people who are being exploited, broken and left to die by pharmaceutical and insurance companies, or we can say government involvement is a socialist takeover that destroys our country’s ideals. We can acknowledge our country’s history of residential discrimination, which has doomed much of black America to an isolated and unacknowledged life of concentrated poverty, crime and suffering, or we can pat ourselves on the back for giving black people access to the ballot a century too late.

Greatness is not maintained with heads planted in the sand. We need to actively improve on our shortcomings as a country. We may all have different ideas on how to fix these problems, and I agree that socialism is not the answer. But those points can be made the right way or the wrong way. If we are dismissing people who acknowledge areas for improvement as “sneerers,” then I am perfectly happy to sit here and sneer.