What’s Working (and Not) in America

A reader drew my attention to the 7 January 2010 LA Times opinion piece by Orville Schell in which he lists the “aspects of U.S. life that are are still vigorous and filled with potential,” those “that still function but need help,” and finally those which he feels are “in need of drastic intervention.” Schell was inspired by his observations during travel.

In the last few months, as I’ve roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai, I’ve taken to keeping a double-entry list of what works and what doesn’t, country by country. Unfortunately, it’s become largely a list of what works elsewhere but doesn’t work here. In places such as China, South Korea, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and (until recently) the United Arab Emirates, you find people hard at work on the challenges of education, transportation, energy and the environment. In these places, one feels the kind of hopefulness and can-do optimism that used to abound in the United States.

Many of Schell’s entries in his three lists make sense to me, but a few are at least debatable if not clearly misplaced. For instance, are civil society and the spirit of cohesiveness still vigorous and full of potential in the U.S.? If so, it is in spite of regular claims of increased polarization, cynicism, and apathy that are the mainstay of social commentary. I’d put this in the “debatable” category, especially in light of Schell’s comments on the federal government, “which is essentially paralyzed by partisanship and incapable of delivering solutions to the country’s most pressing problems.”

I also disagree that the electronic and print media are in need of intervention. As for the former I do not perceive as Schell does that the electronic media is “an overly commercialized, broken-down mess that have let down the country in terms of keeping us informed.” I feel very well informed and not at all let down. And print media may be in dire straits but I don’t think it is self-evident it is in need of intervention. I think the market place will sort this out, albeit in a manner that will be painful for many journalists.

There are other entries in Schell’s list that one could debate. Take a look for yourself, and let me know what you think.

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