Professor Joe Goldblatt
Ernest ‘Non Stop’ Chenau is a 75-year-old taxi driver in New Orleans, Louisiana who loves to drive.
Upon our recent visit to the Deep South city known as “The Big Easy”, ‘Non Stop’ told us of driving a couple eight hours without stopping from New Orleans to Memphis, Tennessee so they could attend a family wedding on time.
When I asked him if he had stopped briefly on the way back to see the famous home of Elvis Presley, he said, with his hands clenched on the steering wheel and eyes focused upon our distant airport destination, “No! I could not stop!”
Americans are known all over the world for their love of speed. After all, they are credited with having built the first-ever super interstate highways, which were actually designed by President Eisenhower to serve as landing strips for military air planes after the Second World War to protect the homeland. The concept of speed for Americans is perhaps motivated by the desire to be first in various fields including space travel. They do not always succeed, however, this often prompts them to try and travel faster than before. Speed is a value embraced by many of my 300 million fellow Americans and for nearly 300 years.
Whilst visiting friends and family in America for the first time in many years, I have learned that despite the slowing characteristics of the recent global pandemic, Americans’ love affair with speed, getting there first, has continued, non stop. The question is now will this lead to a faster arrival at a better destination or a major crash.
Close family members told me that they believe that America did not take time to consider the detrimental impacts of not slowing down when considering the dangers of the pandemic and their shockingly low vaccination rates in Louisiana (currently 60 per cent for the first dose, compared with over 90 per cent in Scotland), with a similar situation in other southern states.
I heard tales of close friends who refused to be vaccinated and became very unwell. Despite their sudden brush with near death, some of these folk still refused to accept the proven scientific value of the vaccine and even told others that the federal government was conspiring against them.
A few local doctors told me they were somewhat suspicious of the rapid federal testing used to approve the Covid-19 vaccines in the USA and therefore they hesitated to be vaccinated at first.
When I told those local doctors of the much higher vaccination rates in Scotland, they countered by immediately saying “yeah, but because of socialised medicine, you have long waiting lists for cardiac surgery”.
I further explained that whilst we do have long waiting times for other operations, those with life-threatening conditions receive immediate attention. They still appeared to be suspicious of my assessment despite published facts confirming that in Scotland we have one of the best healthcare systems in the world. By contrast, in America as of 2021 over 31 million citizens did not have health insurance. Furthermore, the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the USA is medical bills.
One positive example of finding a solution to improve healthcare in America was when New York University (NYU) in 2018 received a $100 million gift from the billionaire philanthropist Ken Langone and his gift was used to insure that their nationally-ranked medical school would be the first US institution to waive tuition and fees for all medical students, regardless of their financial situation or academic record. According to the Dean of this School, the University recognized a moral imperative that needed to be addressed, as institutions were placing an increasing debt burden on young people who aspired to become physicians. By removing this financial burden, perhaps the quality and number of physicians in the USA may be increased.
Despite positive developments such as the one at NYU, many Americans in the Deep South have little knowledge of Scotland’s government and health and social care system. However, those rare individuals who have visited our bonnie land often describe our moors, glens, mountains, and lochs as particularly beautiful, memorable and appealing.
One told me that the poor dental care Scots receive is evident because of our crooked teeth. Upon hearing this, I found myself pursing my lips tightly when I really wanted to smile broadly to display my gleamingly beautiful American-Scottish choppers.
My southern friends in the USA are deeply aware of the great divide that has been growing in their country over many years. One highly successful young business executive told me that he was sick of the conflicting politics of red and blue – Republican and Democrat – states and was looking for a purple solution to this negative and often vicious divisiveness.
Other family members told me that they refuse to discuss political issues such as vaccination with their other friends and family because it creates such strong and often hostile emotions.
One of the most positive emotional experiences I had during my recent journey through the southern USA was meeting, face to face, a man who bears the same first and surname as myself.
We met over a year ago on social media and we agreed to meet with our wives during my journey to America. This Joe Goldblatt – whom I fondly call “Segundus”, because he is the second oldest of the three Joe Goldblatts that I have identified – is a remarkable man whose career once included a stint as a race car driver.
He even won some races and told me that the only challenge in racing is stopping. He confided to me that sometimes stopping is a bad thing because it is sometimes the result of a deadly crash.
As I continue my journey throughout the land of my birth and observe nearly 330 million American’s (of whom nearly ten percent do not have health coverage) I witness some of them speeding toward many unknown destinations, I often wonder if this will end in a crash such as a financial collapse due to an unwell ageing workforce, or if they will finally arrive at a new and previously unknown destination that is better for their long term health.
After all, the American pioneering way of life, whether opening the wild west or exploring outer space, has always included exploring unknown territories.
However, one thing I have learned from watching these Americans in the Deep South and Midwest going full speed ahead is that they are also becoming more thoughtful and concerned about the potential negative cultural, economic and environmental consequences of continually keeping their feet upon the pedal during an age of increasing global uncertainty.
Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is currently serving as visiting professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Jonathan M Tisch Center of Hospitality in New York City.