on the difference between Belgian and American politics, by James Coder.

This is an excerpt from a Facebook discussion That I found worth sharing. James Coder is an American living in Belgium, and he is better positioned than me to see the differences between my country and the old US of A, who can seem pretty alien to me from time to time.

I’m sort of “in both camps” being an American who has lived in Belgium for 20 years.

Mr. Brambonius points out something very interesting: in politics, here the word “liberals” means something more akin to the “libertarians” in the… U.S. – and then, the agnostic/atheist variety. They believe that just about everything should be controlled by the market, with very little that’s set aside as “not for sale” – including some things which conservatives tend to think shouldn’t be for sale – like sexual intercourse and “recreational” drugs. Yes, socialism is much more significant here than in the U.S., but many Americans don’t understand how it works. Unfortunately, Americans tend to be so centered on “civil rights” and their own rights that they lose sight of the notion of obligations. One of the main reasons that health care in the United States is so expensive is because of our focus on civil rights, and that any citizen should be allowed to easily bring his doctor to court for malpractice. The problem is that it’s always possible to suggest that, in tragic cases where someone dies or is paralyzed, that the doctor could have done something differently which may have averted the tragedy, and millions of dollars are sometimes awarded in such cases, even when doctors do their best – it’s that “alternative” out there that sometimes swings juries to award people who are crippled, or grieving relatives, millions of dollars, assuming that the doctor or insurance company can afford it. In reality, medical insurance is thus being used to cover the expenses of human tragedy. This is something which can’t be measured economically, so the “system” will always be economically paralyzed and unaffordable to many Americans. In Europe, there is not so much incentive to sue doctors, and not so much of a feeling in cases of tragedy that one has “the right” to sue one’s doctor (unless there is real clear evidence of actual malpractice). Nor is it usually a trial by jury, which means that the European medical system isn’t paying so much to people who have tragic results even though they have had medical attention. It’s the social welfare system which is meant for these cases, and not the “lottery” system of the American medical malpractice courts.

Americans tend to think of almost all ethical issues in terms of “civil rights,” partly because of our history. Europeans think of civil rights more as limit cases, but apply other values when thinking about ethics (which I think is much healthier).

The European social systems simply wouldn’t work for the United States because of Americans’ focus on civil rights – i.e., if one person has something, then everyone needs to have it. Europeans are better, in my opinion, of asking the question: “do we really need this, will this actually help the group we intend to help?” Americans will say: “even if we don’t need it, we SHOULD have it because it’s our RIGHT, and if we don’t get it, then it means that we are second-class citizens and discriminated against and our human dignity violated and likely to commit suicide etc. etc..” We tend to make more of a “drama” out of such things. If we tempered our thoughts on civil rights with thoughts of obligation and sacrifice for the greater good, it would be more likely that European-type social programs would work for us. As it stands, though, imitating the European medical system will just make healthcare much more expensive for most citizens, and decent healthcare will be unavailable to an even larger group of Americans than is the case now; and imitating other European social programs is likely to have a similar effect in the U.S..

A nice example here is abortion. In the U.S., partial-birth abortion – abortion at the very last moment of pregnancy, when labor is artificially induced resulting in part of the fetus leaving the mother’s body, to facilitate the termination of the pregnancy, is legal (though curtailed in some areas), and is regarded by most Belgians as barbarous and hideous. And Belgium women in general don’t feel that they are second-class citizens, or are being withheld the rights over their own bodies by men, simply because they aren’t allowed to have partial-birth abortions. This kind of thinking is particularly “American.” Belgians also have other things on their ethical radars than the simple question of rights: i.e., obligation, and some notion of coherence with the greater good.

Another example is pornography. There is less of a feeling here, “it’s my right, so I can do it, and anyone who expresses disfavour at what I am doing is violating my civil rights.” So there isn’t much porn made here (compared to the U.S.). Prostitution is legal here, but it’s not “mediatized” the way sex things are in the States – and we don’t have the same weird mediatization of prostitutes here, the way porn stars in the U.S. are being mediatized. There’s more of an attitude here: “If I’m doing this, I don’t have to be way out-and-proud about it;” and amongst the public: “this may be a social problem; but we still need to care for the people involved, and if we object, we needn’t yell about it.” So in general, there’s just a lot less polarity, less yelling. I think it comes from an attitude toward ethics which is not based almost exclusively on the notion of “civil rights” and “offense,” but pays more attention to obligations and other values.

I never thought of it this way. I never have been in the US, so I am not able to compare… And James had one more addition about the ‘civil rights’ idea, that’s experienced very differently here than in the USA…

I should add – we have good reason for being obsessed with civil rights.

A profound emphasis on civil rights helped “save” us from some of the effects of one of the worst types of slavery history has seen. We needed to dwell on these civil …rights issues for a few generations, in order to free ourselves of attitudes and systematic forces present which were profoundly unjust toward African American people, and blighted our whole society.

However, since this focus on civil rights was so important in helping us recover from the awful legacy of slavery, we tend to have a rather “knee-jerk” type reaction with regards to ethical problems in general, with the question “how does this relate to civil rights? Is someone’s rights being violated here?” being one of the first things which comes to mind – rather than, e.g., “is there anyone here we can help? Are there any societal bridges which we can build? Are there important values here that we should be considering?”

As a result, it ends up too often being a debate about the “rights” of one group compared to another group. In actuality, in my opinion, civil rights should be more like a last-point defense – it’s more like the “heavy artillery” in an ethics debate. A society should first ask about obligations and the general good. Only when a group feels that its interests are being threatened in an essential manner, should it take recourse in the language of civil rights. E.g., women, by focusing on a “right over my own body,” end up losing sight of the value of mutual respect, and respect for the place of sexuality within society.

The rights of African Americans were seriously in jeopardy for many decades after the abolition of slavery. But in my opinion, many interest groups invoke rights (a kind of ethical “trump card”) when they would do better to recognize conflicting values, and instead search to find resolutions which seek to honor the values present, instead of focusing on a single “right” which theoretically “trumps” the other values in question. This is, after all, the whole point of civil rights which are “inalienable.” It is a line which the state, and individuals, must never cross – that line where civil rights are violated. But when we are always referring to our civil rights – we become a society of individuals who continually insist: “that’s my space, you can’t touch that!” And persons who are too insistent in such a manner – never learn to cooperate. Europeans didn’t have to wrestle with the evil of slavery as Americans did, they did not have this “trauma” – as a result, their ethical discourse itself is less traumatized – and is not so entrenched in the language of the victim whose rights have been violated. Europeans do well to realize that Americans are still somewhat traumatized by slavery – and that we see the effects of this in the way that we talk about ethics (which, like effects of trauma in general, should not be emulated, but rather avoided).

[From this facebook discussion, but I’m affraid you have to be a friend of a friend there to read it through…]

I’ve never realised the depth of these differences. I’ve always kinda noticed that Americans are affraid of something called ‘socialism’ that has nothing to do with our socialist party, and that they project weird fears of their president or on the healthcare isuue… Maybe one day I’ll be able to understand them more… Much thanks to James for this explanation!!



2 responses to “on the difference between Belgian and American politics, by James Coder.

  1. Interesting post. I am an American (who has visited Belgium) and never viewed health care from a Civil rights point-of-view. I believe, however, in health care for all Americans, but agree with the author that the European model wouldn’t work.

    Americans are Americans and our collective mindset won’t change anytime soon. President Obama needs to address the health care issue through an American lens, not European.


  2. Interesting blog and post. I will be back!

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