I love the idea of Bloggers all around the world uniting around a topic to effect positive change. If I learn new ideas from the countries I visit that I can take home, one of the things I can do is bring ideas from my country that have worked and would be helpful to other people.
Today bloggers are uniting around the idea of "No Tobacco." If you would like to read the entries of other bloggers who are advocating for no tobacco, click on my title.
Since both of the countries I have lived in as an expat LOVE their tobacco, I repost a post from last year that celebrated one thing my country and specifically, my government, did well. The American government began a campaign to teach citizens how life-threatening tobacco is to smokers and the people they love. It began over 40 years ago, and today, America has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. Here's my post:
I moved to Prague in November of 2008. It was the day after the Presidential election so I left full of hope and excitement for my country's future. The preceding month, however, with the credit crisis and the bank bailouts pretty much drove American belief in the fairness of our system out the window. It would have been so, so easy to give up in cynicism. I was grateful to be in Prague where I would be avoiding the continual depressing drumbeat of economic calamity in American news.
When I came to Prague, I discovered Czechs had their own cynicism about democratic politics. I'm not talking about before 1989, but after. Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs felt all of the assets of the country were stripped away in a big "grab" by politicians and carpetbaggers.
I don't want to be cynical. It's not my nature and cynicism never advanced the cause of humanity. So as I made my transition to living in a new country, I vowed to celebrate one wonderful thing about my government and the Czech government so that I could keep cynicism at bay. In my next post, I'll talk about one wonderful thing I admire about Czech government, even though there are actually many things (just as there are for America). Today, I'd like to celebrate my own government's actions. It actually ended up saving my life.
I am grateful to the United States government for providing leadership in my country on the elimination of smoking as a socially acceptable practice. This wasn't a grass-roots movement from the people pushing up but a top-down campaign from the Surgeon General of the United States (our top public health official) to the people.
In 1964, the Surgeon General declared that "smoking causes cancer." That took real courage to say back then because 46% of American smoked. They smoked in cars, elevators, planes, offices, and their homes. The 1964 report was issued on a Saturday, so great were the worries about what it would do to the American stock market.
The news that smoking causes cancer finally sank into my brain in 1991 when I was 31 years old. Up until that point, I smoked more than I care to admit (okay, I'll admit it: 3-4 packs a day).
When I came to Prague, I had never seen so many smokers! Not even when I was 17 years old and thought smoking was cool. Just walking down one of Prague's very lovely streets, one has to be careful not to get a cigarette burn in one's coat because people are actively walking and smoking at the same time! I once chatted up a young Czech college student who was smoking and he was astonished by the idea that anyone would want to quit. "It relaxes me." I don't even think he knew it could kill him. And it's not just Czech young people who smoke.
Most educated people in the USA have educated themselves about the danger. In America, the majority of smokers left have less than a high school education. I've entered salons frequented by Prague intelligentsia where nearly 100% of the people had a PhD. But they are uneducated about the dangers of tobacco. The air was so thick with smoke you could see it move!
I was mystified by how unlikely it would be that my country led on this and the Czech Republic lagged on this. After all, in a socialist health care system, wouldn't the government want to eliminate preventable chronic disease because it would eliminate expense? Wouldn't Czech people resent their neighbor's smoking if that drove up national health care costs and their taxes? Isn't it in a socialist government's fiscal interest to change this smoking culture?
Maybe the taxes raised on cigarettes more than cover the cost of the increased disease and people who smoke are used for financing public budgets. I don't know. I will occasionally razz, with a joking smile, my smoking friends who are huddled outside for warmth where they've been banished nationwide in America: "hey taxpayer, thanks for paying more than your fair share through your smoking. You make it easier on the rest of us. But you don't have to kill yourself in the process - why not just mail in the money if you're so insistent on paying these extra taxes?" One of my young coworker has taken to calling his smoking breaks "paying everybody's taxes."
Why did my country lead on curtailing smoking culture when we had a giant tobacco industry that was hugely powerful, created tons of jobs, and lots of export income? The government continually, over and over again, did the right thing despite all that. We have all kinds of industries back home that sway the government from doing the exact thing in the best interest of the public as a whole. I would love to understand why the American government was so terrific on this issue when the government didn't even bear the health care costs of increased smoking, insurance companies did. What do you think, Americans? How could this sort of extraordinary leadership on an issue be reproduced? We sure could use an awful lot more of it.
I am so grateful to the Surgeon Generals of the United States for saving my life. Thank you for continually reminding the public that we were killing ourselves. And since all movements have a drum leader, I would like to take a moment to honor the individual human beings who have led this movement in my country. Thank you!
American Surgeon Generals from that period onward:
Leroy Edgar Burney (first federal official to state that smoking causes lung cancer)
Luther L. Terry (commissioned landmark 1964 report on smoking)
William H. Stewart
Jesse L. Steinfeld
Julius B. Richmond
C. Everett Koop (led a campaign to create a smoke-free society by 2000)
M. Jocelyn Elders
Richard H. Carmona
Regina M. Benjamin
See, it's not so hard to keep cynicism at bay! Next post I will talk about what I most admire about the Czech government.
Monday, May 30, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it" ~Atticus Finch, "To Kill A Mockingbird"All around the world today, bloggers are uniting to celebrate our human quality of compassion. I love participating with other like-minded souls on a project like this because it then also becomes a celebration of the new kinds of connection that the internet makes possible. You can find other blogs on compassion by clicking on the "May 15 - Day of Compassion" badge to the right.
Compassion allows us to sublimate the feeling of "other" that we see in people and instead find out how we are alike. To really feel compassionate, we have to do what Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of "To Kill A Mockingbird" suggested to his daughter Scout. We need to consider life from the other person's point of view.
How do we do that when the "other" is "the other?" If a group of people is unknown to us, and we fear them, we don't know any of them, we haven't talked to any of them, we will probably let fear of them grow in our mind.
I suggest the quickest way to grow compassion for others that we do not know or understand is to consume each other's literature and media. My country would be a different place if the American people had access to Al Jazeera and could see the Arab point-of-view. My country would be a different place if it would choose to have a more global appetite for media, and not just consume home-grown American books, TV shows, and movies. I believe we would literally be nicer.
The useful thing about consuming media of "the other" is that it is not threatening. We can hear the opinions, emotions, feelings of those who disagree with us or see things differently without having to instantly react.
I remember when I saw the movie "Cesky Mir," a thought-provoking Czech movie describing how Czechs were working to end a possible American-installed radar system on their land. What stunned me was not the arguments against the missile system, but the knowledge the Czechs had about how corrupting all that American money floating around would be to their tiny little democracy. I believe Americans are so used to that wash of money over our government we can hardly see its influence anymore - it seems normal.
In the movie Cesky Mir, one old village lady asked, "how can we trust the Americans? You see the kind of crap they send to our country for our young people through their movies!" Yikes, that cut me to the quick because I knew it was true. We do create a lot of crap movies! I acknowledge and agree with her point-of-view.
Could that be the future? Citizens of one country getting citizens of another country to question how they do things through media? This could be the start of mass grass-roots diplomacy!
One area where I feel that I have a lot of compassion and where my country has grown a lot of compassion is in race relations. That has been the work of my generation of white Americans: opening our heart to the full participation of African-Americans in American life. I have consumed untold quantities of African-American literature, music, and movies. I defy anyone to read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" or Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and remain compassion-less.
Ralph EllisonThis is why literature is so incredibly important and why I am so proud of my profession of librarianship. It heals society. It strengthens our heart muscles and makes them more daring and more loving. I have scads of African-American friends because I feel comfortable with them because I am comfortable with their outlook on life (as much as one can generalize about a whole group of people) through the consumption of their media.
I can see both the good and the bad in African-American culture just as I can see the good and the bad in my Caucasian culture. What is so healthy in my country is that we can laugh at ourselves and each other and discuss all of these things publicly. We are listening to each other and enjoying each other. I would hate to think of what my country would be like if we never choose to become more accepting of each other. I think it would be similar to this parallel, non-touching existence of Coptic Christians and Muslims that a famous Egyptian blogger describes in his blog "Rantings of a Sand Monkey" here.
In contrast to how comfortable I am with African-American culture, it was recently announced that America is now 16% Hispanic. I have consumed hardly any Hispanic literature, hardly any Hispanic music, and hardly any Hispanic movies. I tried to think if I had any Hispanic friends (one may call me on it later, we'll see). I couldn't think of any. That doesn't surprise me since I have opened no window into their culture other than food.
I had never been inside a mosque until I moved to Turkey. It has been so darn healthy for me to come form my own opinion of Muslim societies rather than stick with the image Osama Bin Laden thought I should have. The more I learn from Turks about who they are and what their culture is about, the less distance I feel between me and them. It is impossible for a group of people to be "the other" when you can see yourself in them and feel what they are feeling.
If I could ask something of you today, gentle reader, ask yourself: "whom do I fear? Whom do I resent? Or who is invisible to me because I choose not to see them?" Then go out and find their best literature, movies, or music. Start a relationship with an entire culture. You may end up with wonderful friends who will enrich your life.