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...)