Rant: On Standards Here and There

From DJ Mitchell, who just returned from 2 weeks in Sri Lanka volunteering with Sarvodaya, an organization working towards peace.

I flew out of an ultra-modern airport with excellent amenities. The bathrooms were clean, the airport was pleasant and well-lansdcaped, and there was even free internet for passengers. My destination was a bit different. The lines to get in were long. There were plenty of service windows, but most of them weren’t staffed, and bureaucracy slowed everything down. Inside, I found a dingy airport facility with dirty bathrooms. There were janitors on duty, but they didn’t seem to have much appreciation for sanitation. There were flies in the fast food restaurant, and I knew from experience that I might get sick if I drank tap water. And there were no clocks in the airport; as a traveler, that really bothered me. The short-hop to my final destination, flown by a domestic airline with notoriously poor cabin service, was an hour late departing. Maybe they figured people wouldn’t get upset if they didn’t know how late they were.

There’d been a natural disaster, a terrible thing that had killed many and left tens of thousands homeless. Pictures of hungry brown faces were still in the news. But that wasn’t why I’d come. The country was at war, and I hoped that I could somehow help to do something about it. Yet I was saddened when I arrived to see how much lower the standards were than in some other places in the world.

OK, that last part isn’t strictly true. It was a country at war. But the reason I went was because it was my home. My description is not of my recent trip to Sri Lanka, but rather my arrival at Los Angeles from Singapore yesterday. The country with the lower standards is my own, the United States. There were indeed flies in the McDonald’s, and my United flight was over an hour late. (Not surprising, since four out of my five United flights this year have left late.) In a terminal wing of eight gates, there was a single clock, and it had tiny numbers that were not readable from a distance. And lets just say that the restrooms at LAX won’t be getting any awards this year. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

What saddens me is that when I was in Singapore in 1987, they were trying hard to match us. We were still one of the best in the world. Now, that little one-party democracy near the equator has better
infrastructure, more modern technology, more efficient systems, and far more cleanliness. Singapore has advanced. America has declined. And we don’t seem to notice.

There was a time when we Americans looked askance at countries with lax sanitation. Bureaucratic holdups were a thing for banana republics and corrupt dictatorships. Stories of brutality and anarchy after a disaster were frightening tales we told each other to remind ourselves of how great our nation was. And our nation was great. But those were different days.

Sonehow we become comfortable with standards that we used to believe were restricted to the Third World. Can we blame it on a political party? Conservatives and liberals? Immigrants and multinationals? How far will we allow it to go?

The sad answer is, we are a nation in decline. And though we have the resources to stop that decline, the odds are we won’t. Because, like a balding fat man who thinks the college girls still want him, we think we’re still the greatest nation in the world, the one that can do no wrong. We look in the mirror, but we see what we want to see.

Sri Lanka helped their people far better and far faster after their tsunami than the US is doing after Katrina. And they declared a cease fire in a raging civil war to do it too.