Rick Steves: ‘After each European trip, my favorite souvenir is a roughed-up perspective. Time and time again, Europeans make this liberal feel like a crusty old conservative. Even though I’m a committed American capitalist and would live nowhere else, I’m fascinated by European attitudes and solutions. Consider these recent jolts to my American outlook:

‘Hiking along an Alpine ridge with a Swiss friend, I asked, ‘How can the Swiss accept such high taxes?’ Without missing a step he asked, ‘What’s it worth to live in a country with no hunger and no homelessness?’ Then, as if to hit me when I’m down, he added, ‘In Switzerland our minimum wage is double that of America’s.’

‘Chatting with friends in an Amsterdam coffee shop, I boasted that crime is down in the USA. ‘Yes,’ my Dutch friend told me, ‘but American jails hold one-quarter of all prisoners on earth.’ He added, ‘A society must make a choice: tolerate different lifestyles or build more prisons.’

‘In Rome, I enjoyed the colorful dance of searchlights on the 2000-year-old face of the Coliseum. Once a theater of death, today the Coliseum is a symbol of life. An Italian explained, ‘Every time a death sentence is commuted in the USA, Romans celebrate with a light show on our Coliseum.’

‘Biking through a forest of sleek modern windmills on the Danish island of Aero, I clucked about how the USA led the world in Olympic gold medals. ‘In number perhaps,’ my Danish friend said, ‘but per capita, the Danes have triple the American total.’

‘Aero’s residents are in a race of their own: to be the first completely wind-powered community in all of Europe. They’re on track for a gold medal in environmentalism. Like many Europeans, the Danes don’t measure standard-of-living in material consumption. Compared to Americans, they consume less and believe they live better.’

Antoine: ‘When you don’t live in the US and you haven’t been there for a while (I’m from Switzerland, I live in Canada), you may start thinking that all of the richest, most powerful nation on earth looks like Park Avenue or Rodeo Drive and is populated by high-tech wizards earning six-figure salaries. When you think about it, you realize that much of the country is dilapidated, millions live in shacks and can barely read and write, life in the inner city is getting worse, inequalities are growing, millions are still without health insurance while an increasing number of people choose to equip themselves with guns and lock themselves up in private gated communities. I could go on and on. I think there is a case for taxes. As long as the US trails behind most industrialized countries in quality of life/human indicators, I don’t think anyone can possibly argue for lower taxes and lower government involvement in the US. The rest of the world is watching. Please don’t disappoint us.’

Pam Murray: ‘Being a foreigner, I’m not even allowed to vote in this election. That doesn’t preclude me from pointing out that you should be ashamed of yourself for calling Ralph Nader a big fat idiot. Stick to policies, not personalities. It is possible that the challenge which Ralph Nader made, and the support he has garnered has swung the ballots cast in favor of your opponent, but bear in mind that intelligent people made a conscious decision to support someone other than your candidate. Al Gore stands for many good things, but ponder on why exactly approximately one half of those who stood up to be counted, chose to count against him. Perhaps what you are really implying is that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is the idiot — and that is indeed the true sign of an idiot. An apology and a retraction seem to be in order.’

☞ Thanks, Pam. What makes Ralph a big fat idiot (which of course is not meant literally, as almost everyone realizes) is that the issues he cares about could now be set back drastically. I suspect more than a few of the 100,000 Nader voters in Florida are now wondering ‘what have I done?!’


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