10.24.2005

The War on Tourism

We're back Empire-side. The overall impression I am taking from the trip is that Europe is strengthening and moving forward with putting people first, while America is weakening and moving backward with putting criminal politicians and corporations first. Some sort of new breaking point surely lies ahead. Our paths are diverging.

First, Holland, where when you start a job you get six weeks vacation. If you get pregnant, you get three months paid leave. No one argues about these things. In fact, the issue in the news (here and in Britain) is how much to extend such benefits as self-evident contributors to actual family values (in Britain you currenty get six months maternity leave -- now going up to nine). Numerous political parties represent such citizen initiatives, and the government responds accordingly -- instead of having its hands tied by massively funded corporate lobbyists who, naturally enough I suppose, in their self-interest, don't want to give up a red cent in benefits, and who base their political power on fanning the flames among the most ignorant, fearful constituencies. It's just bracing to be in a place, however briefly, where the main things the people are concerned with are improving and expanding public benefits, transport, and rights -- instead of bogging down in the intricacies of incessant right-wing politics. America by comparison is terribly disfunctional.

The Netherlands remains among those at the forefront of tolerance and progress. It is hard to be a criminal in Holland. The police don't have to spend time and (macho) energy on "soft" drug users or prostitution. This opens up vast opportunities to focus on actual crimes with actual victims. Marijuana and magic mushrooms are grown, sold, taxed, and distributed within a well-organized and established system of coffeeshops and smartshops. Prostitutes have unions, safe, monitored areas to operate, and the same free health care as anyone. The dangers of such vices remain, of course, as they have everywhere since the beginning of time. The difference is that the society is not obsessed with spending huge sums of scarce money to hunt down, harass, arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate those who engage in them. Instead, they "fence off" such activities and easily monitor them because they're now above ground. The police in the red light district patrol, watch over, and isolate trouble when it happens instead of simply treat it all as illegal. We strolled around these places for five nights and never once felt unsafe. Unsavory, perhaps, but never in danger. More to the point -- if you don't like it, don't go there. Holland is the actual land of the free and home of the brave. They should be able to sue us for usurping those terms.

As for Ireland, we were in Galway and Dublin, and the impression is a booming economy bent on continuing to transform the country from an impoverished traditional culture into a modern, wealthy one. Construction is everywhere, roads are being built and widened (with proud signs: "Paid for by the EU and the Irish taxpayer"), and stores are bigger, more varied, and open later. Progress is in the air. (Smoke is not, by the way. Unlike the situation in Holland, where you may as well smoke, you cannot smoke in pubs in Ireland.) We stayed with family in Dublin, where they have a bright, clean new rail link from the particular neighborhood to the city centre. Extending rail service into the suburbs cuts down on traffic, pollution, and fossil fuel use. Duh! It is a very strange feeling to be struck about the head so much by common sense. In Holland, too, they are beginning to restrict "big cars" from city centres. Because why in the world do you need to drive an SUV into the middle of a city? There are cars in these countries that are barely bigger than a riding lawn mower -- that can park in the bicycle areas. But mostly, of course, you don't need a car at all. Gas is taxed to the hilt, both reflecting the true cost of fossil fuels and acting as a disincentive to pollution and energy waste. Duh! Duh duh duh. The people we were with in both countries bestowed on us kind, sympathetic smiles (was there a hint of told-you-so pride? Hard to tell). I was patted good-naturedly on the back more than once when the topic of my country came up, when what I (and all of us) really deserve is a scowl and a swift kick to the bum.

So while Europe is moving aggressively forward into an era of sustainable, people-centered policies, their economies are booming, and the receipts are channeled back into furthering the progress. It's astonishing how strong the Euro has become. It's been less than four years since its introduction in Holland and Ireland. Remember how it was mocked in the beginning? Maybe even that wasn't newsworthy here. Well, in that short span of time the Euro has increased in value by 25% against the dollar -- roughly 6% a year. So it wasn't just from a social progress standpoint that it seemed I was a visitor from some backwater, dictatorial nation -- from an economic standpoint, I felt like a Guatemalan coming to America. "If we could only make Euros!" we kept saying.

And it all feels of a piece with the Bush era. The Furners are to be kept out, the Murcans kept in. Mordechai, the Israeli who owned the shoarma shop underneath us when we lived in Holland in 2001, has always wanted to move to Miami, because his sister is there and he thinks he could make shoarma popular there. "Is difficult now," he just told us. "You can be coming to the U.S., but only for short time, and is difficult to make shop there, and if you stay even one day more, you can never return again. Is too difficult." Difficult! A lifetime ban for overstaying a visa by one day. The harshness of merely visiting the US from Europe is legendary there -- photos, fingerprinting and so forth. The indignity alone of rough treatment has turned many a tourist Euro elsewhere. Meanwhile the newspapers here are not reporting how far behind we are falling compared to Europe with regard to standard of living, and the monetary policies are making it harder and harder to go experience the bloody thing for yourself. Stay here and read and swallow the lies that say we are okay in the good old USA. Buy a car, eat a cheeseburger, vote for Coke or Pepsi, watch TV -- but whatever you do, don't go to Europe.

Care for a final, mind-blowing stab in the eye? In Holland and Ireland, writers pay no taxes. That's so liberal, even I can't really agree with it. I mean, gimme all that stuff, but shouldn't I pay like anyone else? (Not that I would, heh heh, um, currently qualify...)

11 comments:

bihari said...

We were walking through downtown (such as it is) IC the other day and a FLEET of SUVs cruised past. The Tall Doctor observed, and labeled them thus:

"Toyoto Tyranosaurus--drive it and become extinct.
Ford Tremendous--so what if your dick isn't?
Honda Harridan--for when you just have to get to the white sales at the Coralville Mall, even if there is an inch of snow on I-80."

He then announced he wants a Smart. You know, the kind you can park sideways in a parking space (and which people do, all over Europe.) I'm with him.

Brando said...

I though Holland was the land of the free and the home of the baked?

Bihari, I'm with you on the Smart. I think Mercedes is planning to bring them to the US.

Grendel said...

The Tall Doc is very astute and humorous. I'm not even talking about Smart cars, though. The tiny cars I saw were more like golf carts. They make Smarts look like SUVs. I saw two women get into one, which almost defied belief, start it up, and pull out of their bicycle space. The engines are moped engines,according to one guy I talked to. When our pics get developed, I'll post one.

As for free and baked, it's true there is a Dutch cannabis subculture, as there is for every country. But in every age group, a smaller percentage of Dutch use cannabis than Americans, adding hypocricy to our failed prohibition experiment. As one Dutchman put it to me, "Yes, you can go to a shop here and buy a joint. But you cannot buy a gun to kill someone. In America, you can buy a gun, but not a joint. This makes no sense to us."

Jane said...

While I wholeheartedly agree with you, Grendel, that in many ways, places like the Netherlands and Ireland are more enlightened than the U.S., in a way it's like comparing apples and oranges.

Both countries are tiny in both population and land mass compared to the U.S. and have much more culturally/racially/religiously/economically homogenous populations. Not to mention radically different histories from ours.

Certainly we can aspire to adopt some of their more progressive laws and outlooks, but a strict side-by-side comparison doesn't seem particularly relevant or productive. We're not even playing in the same ballpark.

We can look to Western Europe for inspiration, but the solutions we come up with need to reflect the unique reality of our own country.

Jane said...

Sorry -- I didn't mean that to sound quite so preachy and humorless. I'm just increasingly wary of the liberal tendency here (and I do it myself, god knows) to compare ourselves to Europe when we're so different.

Brando said...

Growing up, I always saw the Puritans as these noble pioneers, but they were probably closer to the thumpers attempting to drag us back to the 17th century (culturally, at least). They were the folks who were so strict about various religious rules and regulations, the other people pushed them to another continent just to get them out of their hair. Maybe if we buy Antartica and set it up as a special Church 'n' State fornication zone, we could get some of these folks to move there.

Grendel said...

Roper, although I agree with your caution, and would add that my post was a little excitable and simplistic, and that I tend to put on Europe-colored glasses every chance I get, I'm not sure your specific objections hold water.

It's true that both Ireland and NL are smaller and have higher population densities. NL is way up there, and Ireland's is about twice the pop density of the US. However, a similar comparison could be made to Canada and Australia, both huge countries with roughly one tenth the population density of the US. Both nevertheless managed to sign Kyoto, tax fuel to discourage, have better public transport, and so forth. They have sane environmental policies and histories more similar to ours. We can look to them for apple to apple policy comparisons, and when we do we still come up puzzlingly backward and idiotic.

As for the homogeneity, I grant you Ireland is overwhelmingly white and Catholic. But Holland is split religiously and has always been a haven for tolerance due to its choice to include people of all races and beliefs. Amsterdam, among others, has been an important international shipping port for half a millenium, and was especially attractive because of its progressive policies. Abroad, while Japan refused to open its society to Europeans, whom they rightfully distrusted, they made an exception for the Dutch and traded with them exclusively. The Dutch have always been open and practical, and it has served them well in business and trade for many centuries. They resemble us in many ways, and in fact are sometimes called "the Americans of Europe" because of their enthusiasm for commerce and business and trade and the entrepreneurial spirit. Yet somehow they manage to not let their religious fundamentalists and corporations shut out citizens from decision-making. As for history, sure it's different, but they did
gain independence from a foreign power (Spain) and establish a republic, too, so it's not totally different.

Point being, it's not so much apples to oranges as it is apples to oranges to grapes to cumquats to pomegranates and so on, but we are all fruit, and we are all becoming more interdependent and mixed up into a very large fruit salad, and I don't understand why America insists on rotting so much faster and spoiling the buffet for everyone. I'm not even sure that makes sense, but I've only had one cup of coffee so far.

Jane said...

Agreed, Grendel, that it's a big fruit salad and America, more and more, is like that one, nasty, rotten grape that throws everything off. And agreed that our current administration is the most backward we've ever had. Our various differences from other first world nations are no excuse for the short-sightedness and arrogance of Bush & Co.

When I referred to population, though, I didn't mean density as much as sheer numbers. According to the CIA factbook, the US population is 295 million. The nearest to that of the countries you name is Canada, at a mere 32 million. Ireland clocks in at a paltry 4 million. I'm just going on gut here, but I'm guessing that the bigger and more diverse your population, the harder it is to build consensus and implement major change. And the more complex problems and conundrums you face.

And that's just people. What about GDP? What about commercial revenues? Can the Netherlands really be compared to the US when you're talking about corporate influence? We're an immigrant nation built on the promise of free enterprise to a greedy extent (pilgrims shmilgrims; they came 100 years after planters started developing Virginia). We're also a nation built on slavery -- a mistake whose racial and economic percussions we still feel today.

As for geography, do Australia and Canada really have better transportation policies than the US? We're all big old frontier-tamed, Manifest destiny nations. Aren't the majority of all three countries' towns, rural areas, and sprawling cities more suited to (bigger-than-a-breadbox) cars than the compact and close-together towns and cities of Europe? Maybe so.

Ah well, we could go on drawing parallels and making contrasts forever, but I suspect the truth is the arguments on the ramifications would require volumes, not posts. And lord knows I'm not expert enough to make those arguments. Anyway, we're essentially in agreement on the larger, more important point: George W. Bush is a big fat weenie head!!

SER said...

Haven't (hasn't?) the Netherlands been having lots of tumult lately re: immigration? The Theo van Gogh killing, the Somali-born lawmaker who's under constant death threats, a backlash against lenient asylum and immigration policies, etc.? I feel as if the NYT has been full of such articles that I vaguely skim on my search for content about what really matters: Will my boyfriend Patrick Fitzgerald kick some White House ass?

There was an article on tiny cars in the NYT yesterday, incidentally, including the Smart. The Smart apparently has yet to make any money (it has never sold enough cars to cover even development costs). Daimler Chrysler is deciding this year whether to enter the US market, which will require making adaptations so the car complies with safety standards.

Informatively yours,
SER

Grendel said...

SER, yes, that is what I was expecting, because that's the only thing about NL that has appeared in the American media for the past few years. Ooh, look, tsk tsk, the Dutch were wrong to be so tolerant! Because Van Gogh's descendant was slain by a Muslim and they don't like that! Then somebody burned a mosque! That must mean the Dutch have seen the error of their ways and have joined our moralistic warmongering and will surely be throwing their prostitues in jail soon and repealing national health care and giving out school vouchers while dismantling public education! That's the extent of our media's interest in Holland.

And a piece of it is true, they made some adjustments to their immigration laws. These adjustments bring their inclusion policies from 10,000% as liberal as ours to about 9000%. For example, you used to be able to buy a plane ticket from Morocco, fly to Holland, find an abandoned building, claim squatting rights, sign up for national health care, get on the dole, and sit back and watch the checks roll in to the address where you don't pay rent. Moreover, if you then moved back to Morocco, YOU GOT TO KEEP YOUR DUTCH HEALTH CARE COVERAGE. That is how a Dutchman put it to me. So now you have to go hrough more hoops to squat. You can't keep that health coverage, you have to learn Dutch when you become a resident, not as many people are allowed in every year.... and that's about the extent of the famous "death of Dutch tolerance." Otherwise, the place is still astonishingly liberal in every conceivable way, as it always has been.

SER said...

I don't doubt that the Dutch are still way more liberal in their laws than we are, but I don't really think that the New York Times is out to portray The Netherlands as an example of tolerance gone wrong. After all, Judy Miller wasn't on that beat. Right-wing blogs may have that message, but I don't think the NYT international desk is all over it. If anything, it could be a reaction to overly glowing coverage in the past, resulting in too big a swing the other direction, as these things seem to tend to go.

That old situation you describe is really kind of nuts. Just as I deride the conservative goofballs who think that a total lockdown of the country and loss of civil rights is the only way to keep this place safe, I also think a dose of common sense would come in handy for some of these exceptionally loose asylum laws in Europe (specifically the Netherlands and the UK). I mean, of COURSE people will take advantage of systems like that, and even the most cheerful taxpayer might get a bit ruffled by that sort of thing. If they're able to tighten up the system rationally and in advance of any crisis occurring, then that is ideal. But that unfortunately doesn't seem to be a strength of governments, especially the Disunited States of W.

On another, semi-related note, I can hardly wait to see what nutjob gets nominated for SCOTUS now. Sheesh.