How historical accidents combined to make the USA in every way the sickest nation on Earth
Most people have a totally false notion of the USA. Outsiders see what Hollywood projects: slender happy people having all sorts of interesting adventures, albeit very often involving firearms. US citizens, meanwhile, are from their earliest years fed propaganda about how their country is “the greatest nation on Earth” and because very few ever live elsewhere or bother to study history, no one knows it’s a lie.
The reality of the USA is far more complicated and far more interesting.
Whereas most other nations evolved slowly, gradually morphing from one type of society into another, the USA evolved in a succession of abrupt shifts. First of all, Europeans colonized tiny portions of the North American landmass. The British established a colony at Roanoke 1587 and created tobacco plantations in the area of Virginia commencing from 1612 when John Rolfe began planting tobacco seeds he’d obtained from Florida. This was to take advantage of the growing British desire for “the stinking weed” that had begun to flourish in the late sixteenth century.
The French had already begun to colonize North America, commencing with the development of Fort Caroline in Florida in 1562. The Spanish, of course, were likewise interested in this exciting lump of real-estate and leveraged their presence in the hemisphere from 1565 onward.
All this meant that the indigenous peoples were variously slaughtered, enslaved, or dispossessed as more “enlightened” Europeans leveraged their superior technologies in pursuit of material gain. This ensured that the “development” of the North American landmass was from the very beginning focused on securing superior financial returns on investments.
So it was that by the time the thirteen English-speaking colonies broke away from the British Crown, the essential characteristic of society was firmly in place: the pursuit of profits at any cost.
Although the US Constitution was the product of a small group of highly educated men strongly influenced by Enlightenment ideals, the population of this new country was largely drawn from the lower classes who left the lands of their birth because they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by heading to the Land of Opportunity.
Subsequent waves of immigration from all over the world reinforced the fundamental disconnect between high-minded superstructure and the daily reality of a grim determination to pursue material gain, ideally at the expense of others. When de Tocqueville traveled through the USA in 1831 he noted how there was no “culture of the mind” but rather that commerce and riches were considered to be the ultimate good, the only reason for a person’s existence. As most immigrants had little or nothing in the way of culture, the US never developed the appreciation of intellect seen in France and Germany, nor the culturally stabilizing influence of a hereditary aristocracy as professed (if not actually much practiced) by places such as Britain and Spain.
Unencumbered by the dampening hand of “how we’ve always done it here,” the ever-expanding United States was the perfect place to try new things. Many people failed, but usually it was possible to try again. And it was inevitable that with so much innovation and striving, occasional success was assured.
With each success, others were encouraged to make their own attempts, and so the ball kept rolling. If this sounds a lot like Silicon Valley today, that’s not surprising because each age has its own version of the startup culture. Four hundred years ago, tobacco was the sexy startup opportunity; later it was cotton; later still the center of gravity shifted northward as the Industrial Revolution made manufacturing the hot place to be. When oil was discovered across the south-western States, people rushed to get rich on the back of “black gold.”
Largely unnoticed was the fact that all this exuberant economic activity resulted in a very mobile society in which the kinds of enduring social ties prevalent in Europe and Asia were largely excluded.
Instead of people seeing each other as friends, neighbors, and descendants of those who’d cultivated an area in common for centuries, US citizens increasingly saw each other as rivals or customers. Because there was no great appreciation for matters of intellect, social status was achieved not by commissioning works of art or subscribing to the literary productions of authors, nor by holding soirées in which philosophy and science would be discussed and luminaries invited to hold forth. Instead, social status was achieved in the USA entirely through ostentatious displays of wealth.
The USA has always, therefore, been quite unlike Europe despite some superficial similarities. Although the USA produced some notable literary figures in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were few and far between. From the USA came Poe, Melville, Thoreau, Dickinson, Emerson, and Whitman who were prominent in a population of nearly forty million people. Meanwhile Britain, with a population barely more than half the size, produced hundreds of notable writers and poets during the same period: Browning, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskill, Coleridge, Arnold, Rosetti, Morris, Swinburn, Hopkins…
The point is not to claim that Europe is culturally superior to the USA. The point is to demonstrate that the motive force of US culture has always been to make money. Moreover US citizens are above all else consumers. And because there is relatively little appreciation for culture, those making items for mass consumption aim for the lowest common denominator in order to ensure the greatest possible volume of sales.
Thus US mass-produced food is loaded with fat and salt and sugar because that’s what unsophisticated palates crave. US mass entertainment is loaded with infantile jokes and heaps of violence because that’s what unsophisticated minds crave.
If we think about the USA, what comes to mind? McSlop, Kentucky Fried Cancer, Type II-Cola, Disney, and violent action movies. All these things, and millions more, make us very sick but we humans are notoriously poor at making wise choices, least of all with regard to what we eagerly consume.
That’s why the USA led the way in obesity and violence. Unfortunately it also exported its lowest-common-denominator products, spreading physical and mental sickness across the world. When we chart obesity rates and plot them against the expansion of the Coca-Cola and McDonalds franchises we see a clear case of cause and effect. As US food companies come to dominate a country’s food supply the population becomes more and more sick.
A similar phenomenon is seen with mass entertainment: as countries accept more and more US-manufactured content, they see higher and higher levels of dissatisfaction and agitation and more and more “telenovela” type behavior among those who consume US entertainment products.
And in every nation that begins to consume US-style outputs, the pattern is the same: the lower economic classes suffer most because, lacking both education and perspective, they are the most vulnerable to the lures of US products. Simple people are always attracted to surface glitter and simple slogans.
So it is that a unique set of historical factors combined to make the USA the ultimate incubator for meretricious outputs that are deeply unhealthy. As global trade expanded during the 1970s these outputs infected much of the rest of the world, with predictable results. Today the British are nearly as fat and indolent as the typical US citizen and Mexico has surpassed the USA in obesity and obesity-related diseases despite having a much lower income per capita.
Now that the UK has crippled itself through the folly of Brexit the overwhelming probability is that it will become a vassal state of the USA, consuming more and more US outputs and becoming more and more sick in every way. Other European countries, failing to grasp the problem, will more slowly but equally inexorably become sicker too. Today, French TV shows feature far more guns as a matter of course than even the most violent shows of the 1970s and the spread of McDo continues unabated. In the 1970s it was extremely rare to see a fat French person; today it’s sadly become common.
There’s no easy solution to the US problem. US corporations have become expert at exploiting hardwired human weaknesses for salt-fat-sugar laden foods and for low-IQ entertainments. The USA was the perfect incubator and the result has been perfectly-adapted products for the world’s proletariats.
The commercial results of all this contagion are highly positive: huge food companies churn out deeply unhealthy products that make consumers sick; pharmaceutical companies churn out endless palliatives to mask the effects of consuming unhealthy foods. Everyone is fat so yet more companies make fortunes from selling diets and exercise equipment.
Entertainment organizations generate profits by pumping mental junk food into billions of homes, thus making consumers mentally ill. Which means there’s even more opportunity for the pharmaceutical companies to sell even more products: tranquilizers, sedatives, SSRIs, depressants, stimulants, and of course even more drugs used to offset the side-effects of the first set of drugs.
In short, US citizens are merely buckets into which large corporations pour their products. Much of the rest of the rich world is heading in the same direction. It’s easy to imagine a near-future in which almost everyone is fat, sick, and mindless. Trump and Brexit show we’re pretty much there already in some countries.
There is a cure, but it’s not easy to implement.
Each one of us needs to understand that everything we do has consequences. If we eat junk we’re making ourselves very sick. If we watch junk we’re making ourselves mentally ill. If we buy things we don’t need, we’re wasting our time and money on pointless trash.
We can make a choice to eat healthy foods and stimulate our minds with worthwhile inputs. We can go for a run and take advantage of that guilt-induced gym membership we purchased after bloating out over the winter holidays. We can throw away our TV and stop being slaves to our smartphones.
Chances are, however, we won’t. Because it’s easier to sit and gawp at a screen while cramming McSlop down our throats, telling ourselves we’ll do better tomorrow, than to take action today.
The USA may be Patient Zero, but the contagion has long since spread and its virulence shows no sign whatsoever of diminishing.
We have no vaccine against self-harm.