The following was adapted from an unsigned editorial that appeared in the July 28 issue of the Economist.
LONDON -- Considering the alternatives, it has been easy to admire the American way these past few decades. It was and is demonstrably better at making its average citizens rich and free than rival systems. Culturally, too, the world has voted for America by seeking everything from jeans to Michael Jackson. Yet if you stop the average European, Japanese, Latin American or, for full effect, Canadian in the street and ask him what he thinks about America, you are as likely to hear contempt as praise.
The Japanese will probably mention idleness and self-indulgence, the European philistinism and naivete, the Latin American boorishness. Someone will use the word "materialist." Drugs, guns and crime will feature; so will a TV culture catering to the lowest common denominator, a political system corruptible by money, shocking contrasts of wealth and poverty and a moralistic and litigious approach to free expression.
America attracts such bile partly because it is more self-critical than other nations. Hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder: How dare a European look down his nose at a country to whose universities his brightest fellow-citizens choose to flock? Foreign criticism often attacks American habits that the critics themselves happily adopt a few years later: from refrigerators and Elvis Presley to negative campaigning and aerobics. To criticize America's culture is to criticize what the future holds. And that's precisely why there are misgivings about it.
The worry is about what might be called a "decadent Puritanism" within America: an odd combination of ducking responsibility and telling everyone else what to do.
The decadence lies in too readily blaming others for problems, rather than accepting responsibility oneself. America's litigiousness is virtually banishing the concept of bad luck: A drunken driver can sue his host for allowing him to get drunk.
If a prominent citizen becomes an alcoholic or is caught indulging some illegal appetite, he all too often claims he is a victim, not a fool. Increasingly, people are blaming their genes and finding sympathetic (and often foolish) scientific support.
To allow legal redress for negligence, or to seek to rehabilitate rather than punish victims -- these are worthy aims. But fair redress is not always appropriate; sometimes the buck must stop. America's legalism breeds shifting burdens onto somebody else. It saps initiative out of the economy quite as effectively as the state-sponsored variety.
To see how far such evasiveness has caught on, look at the new abundance of euphemism. Prisons are "rehabilitative correctional facilities," housewives are "homemakers," deaf people are "hearing impaired," a cerebral palsy society tells journalists never to use the word "suffer" about those with that "disease" (forbidden), "affliction" (forbidden), condition (allowed). Jargon cannot alter reality. How refreshing to hear a politician who favors both abortion and the death penalty described bluntly as "pro-death."
As for Puritanism, America's search for fairness has begun to conflict with its famous tolerance for new peoples, new ideas and new technologies. A conformist tyranny of the majority, an intolerance of any eccentricity, is creeping into America. An increasingly Puritanical approach to art, married to a paranoid suspicion of child abuse, has made a photographer who takes pictures of parents with their children naked on the beach into a target for the FBI.
A whole industry of pressure groups has arisen to persuade TV producers to push "correct" ideas on their (fictional) programs: Smoking is bad for you, concern for the homeless is right, plastic bags are bad for the environment. All true, all admirable. But fiction is fiction, not cautionary tales.
As Americans get ever richer, they seem to grow more risk-averse, so that they become paranoid about hazardous waste, obsessed with their cholesterol levels, and ready to spend large premiums for organic vegetables.
Careers can collapse because of a single "gaffe" that does not pass some ideological litmus test. Television seems to have done its best to drive humor out of politics. Can you imagine Lyndon Johnson getting away with half of his witticisms today? If we are all to enjoy the 21st century, America must lighten up a bit.