Les rêveries du retraité solitaire

Les rêveries du retraité solitaire

The Cradle of the Best and the Worst


In his song Democracy [1], Leonard Cohen describes America as the cradle of the best and the worst. Whether we like it or not, the United States is a country that exerts a lot of influence on all of us, from the technology that we use to a lot of the music that we like and movies that we watch. Even the way we live and think is shaped by the omnipresent American culture. In this article, I will make a list of some of what I personally consider the best and the worst of what that country has produced.


I like

  • The Constitution that guarantees the separation of power by dividing it into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. Some historians believe that the American Constitution was inspired by a treaty adopted by the Iroquois Confederacy in the mid-16th century that reflects "concepts of checks and balances and separation of powers that impressed such later Americans as Washington, Franklin and other Founding Fathers." Others mention the influence of the Magna Carta of 1215 that was written by a Frenchman by the name of Gérard de Montfort to limit the power of the king of England and give the citizens more freedom. Personally, I believe that the Constitution owes a lot to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Anyway, it's a very important document to prevent a dictator to take over the government. So far, it worked.


  • Great writers like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck; comedians like Charlie Chaplin, George Carlin, Bill Maher, Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman; thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Malcolm X, Chris Hedges and Cornell West; journalists like Tom Brokaw, Diane Sawyer, Anderson Cooper and Bob Woodward  who used or are still using their talent and freedom of expression to defend their country against those who would like to take away the rights of the people.


  • Lawyers who sacrifice lucrative careers to defend the falsely accused and sentenced (often to death) innocent victims of unscrupulous prosecutors, district attorneys, detectives and police officers who perjure themselves or fabricate evidence in order to convict people that they know are not guilty.


  • The Civil right movement initiated by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. I remember hearing about some of young activists who had a leg broken by racist thugs when they were peacefully protesting against segregation, who were able to find the will and courage to go back protesting only to have the same thing happen to them again. That’s courage! There is also all the artists (writers, song writers, film makers),  politicians, preachers and ordinary people who fought racism and contributed to change people’s minds. I remember a student from Alabama that I had in 1977 when I was teaching in Baie-Comeau who told me that his father, who was a Baptist minister, would punish him if he dared use the “N” word.


  • The Marshall Plan, an American initiative to aid Western Europe, in which the United States gave over $12 billion (approximately $120 billion in current dollar value) in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. While this initiative was not entirely altruistic because the main objective was to fight communism and make sure that the Europeans would be able to buy the products that only the Americans were in a position to produce at the time, it was nevertheless beneficial to the world and the welfare of a lot of people.


  • The progress made towards the defense and promotion of the rights and equality of women, minorities, gay, transgender and handicapped people. A lot of the changes in our attitudes regarding those minorities came from movements that originated in the United States.


  • The creation of the national parks to protect the landscape, plants and animals for future generation that has inspired so many countries to do the same. Theodore Roosevelt, often called “the conservation president” doubled the number of sites within the National Park system. 


  • Jonas Salk, the medical researcher and virologist who discovered and developed one of the first successful polio vaccines. His sole focus had been to develop a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible, with no interest and personal profit.


  • The wonderful and profoundly human documentaries created by Ken Burns on the Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War, national parks and baseball, very good movies like Citizen Kane, Deliverance, Platoon, Dead Man Walking, Driving Miss Daisy and many more, good quality T.V. shows like All in the Family, Seinfeld, Law and Order, The Simpsons, 60 Minutes.


  • The different accents that we can hear in many regions of the United States (the New-York and Boston accents, the accent of the South, the Midwest, etc.) that make American English so interesting.


  • The styles of music that were born in the United States (jazz, blues, folk, gospel, rock'n roll, country, bluegrass, Cajun). Singers, musicians and songwriters like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Tom Waits, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald and many many others who brought so much pleasure and beauty to the world.


  • The A.A. (Alcoholic Anonymous) movement that helped so many people recover from alcoholism all over the world. Preachers who, in spite of their personal flaws and shortcomings, really believed in what they were preaching (like the one portrayed in the movie "The Apostle" played by Robert Duvall). The unknown and truly religious people who, inspired by their faith, loved, forgave, suffered and fought for justice in order to make their country a better place for the poor and the weak.


  • The emotions that we shared with the Americans when John Kennedy Jr. saluted his father’s casket in 1963, when Mahalia Jackson sang at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, when the first man walked on the moon, when we saw the tears running down Jessie Jackson’s cheeks at the inauguration of Obama as President of the United States.


I hate

  • The hypocrisy of a Constitution that denied basic human rights and equality to so many people based on the colour of their skin. Kurt Vonnegut, in his satirical book "Breakfast of Champions", wrote that his high school (Thomas Jefferson High School) was named after a slave owner who was also one of the world's greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty." Thomas Jefferson is considered as one of the authors of the American Constitution.


  • Talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Medved and others who promote hatred and intolerance. We have the same type of hate-mongers in Quebec City (Jeff Fillion and André Arthur) who paved the way to the the horrendous attack that took place in a mosque of that city.


  • District attorneys, prosecutors, detectives and police officers who frame innocent people and are willing to leave the wrongfully convicted rot in jail for years, or even be put to death, in order to advance their career, save their reputation, or cover their mistakes (sometimes “honest mistakes”) 


  • Everything related to slavery: the capture of the people in Africa, the way they were brought to America, sold like live stock on the slave markets, put to work on farms and cotton fields, segregated, murdered, tortured and raped. The terror and the murders carried out by the Ku Klux Klan, the postcards of the early twentieth century, that were sold as souvenirs, showing actual pictures of black people being lynched in public. The black soldiers returning home from the war, an athlete like Jessie Holmes who had won so many gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, a musician like Louis Armstrong who had toured the capital cities of Europe, who were not allowed to sit in a restaurant or rent a hotel room after returning to their own country. And it’s not over. Even four years after the election of the first black president, in Florida, a 17 year old boy was shot by a vigilante who was later acquitted. It turned that the accused, George Zimmerman, was a violent and abusive man. There is also the way the native people were almost completely wiped out when the Europeans who would later call themselves Americans invaded their territories.


  • American intervention and support of ruthless and corrupt dictators in Latin America and the Middle East to block democratic, economic and social reforms. Those interventions are at the root of religious extremism in the Middle East and illegal immigration in the United States.


  • The Westboro Baptist Church which is known for its hate speech, especially against LGBT people, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, American soldiers and politicians.


  • Las Vegas, that fake and phony city in the middle of the desert, built by the East Coast organized crime with money from drugs and racketeering. Billboards that are seen along the highways and just everywhere in the country. Can you imagine what the quaint villages of England, France and Germany would look like if they had the same in Europe? Unfortunately, here in Canada, it’s no different from the United States. 


  • Martin Shkreli who increased by 5,000% the price of a drug used by aids patients when he became the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. The price of a dose of Daraprim went from $13.50 to $750. The guy, who is probably one of the worst assholes that the United States has ever produced, was later arrested for securities fraud probe. Shkreli could be the poster boy for the unregulated and brutal capitalism known as neoliberalism that started with Reagan in the 1980s, and culminated with the hedge fund financial crisis of 2008. I personally believe that capitalism, when it’s properly regulated and controlled, can bring wealth to a nation and increase the standard of living and happiness of its population.


  • The distasteful and vulgar pageant shows in which 10 year old girls have to dress and behave as if they were a lot older, the sad and ridiculous circus given by the guests of Jerry Springer, gun shows, the big fuss in the media about everything happening to the members of the Kardashian family (before it was Paris Hilton), tons of crappy action movies and romantic comedies that are shown everywhere in the world. A lot of crappy detective shows and not so funny comedies T.V. shows that are also sold to networks all over the world.


  • The way some people (mostly younger women) tend to end all their sentences as if they were questions, and the way they keep using the word “like” for no reason. This also goes for Canada. I don't know why but that way of speaking really gets on my nerves. I have to admit that this one is no big deal. It's a personal thing.


  • The way the entertainment business turned everything related to arts into an industry.


  • All the crooked T.V. evangelists like Benny Hinn, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Morris Cerullo and a lot more who took advantage of so many people for their own personal profit.


  • The hateful and violent speeches of Donald Trump during the electoral campaign, and even after he was elected President, that brought so much negative emotions to a country that was already divided.


Personally, even if I don’t agree with a lot of the things that the American government did in the past and is still doing today, I like the Americans. I lived in the United States for almost a year and I've met wonderful, open-minded, generous and easy-going people. America is still a very powerful country that plays an important role in the world. If it wasn’t for America, even with all its imperfections and faults, I think the world would be a much dangerous place to live. With the election of Donald Trump, a lot things have started to change. For the better or the worse, the United States won't have the same power and influence in the future. The Roman Empire, even with its violence and greed, maintained a political and social stability that was known as "Pax Romana." When it collapsed, it unleashed forces that made the world a chaotic place for many centuries to come. Maybe the same applies to America today.


Leonard Cohen concluded an interview during which he was asked a few questions about his views of the United States by saying this, “Oh, and one more thing, you aren’t going to like what comes after America!” Leonard Cohen passed away on November 2017, the eve of the American election that brought Donald Trump to power.


[1] This song is in the album The Future.

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