As the first book by Francesco Costa, also deputy director of the Post, begins on a country that we know less than we think
The first book by Francesco Costa, journalist and deputy editor of the Post, was published today. The book is entitled. This is America. “There are many places in the world that we know less about than the United States of America,” Costa wrote at the beginning of the book, “but there are no places with a wider gap than the United States between what we believe we know and what we know. Because of the gigantic American influence in our consumption and culture, in fact, “we think we know America well when in reality, in most cases, our idea is a mixture of clichés and little concrete information”, mixed with our “local political cheer”.
The book – the result of years of journalistic activity and field trips that Costa told through the newsletter and the podcast Da Costa a Costa – tries to bridge this gap through some stories that allow us to know a little better the people who live in the most powerful country in the world, answering some frequent questions about America and Americans: why this absurd health system? Why do they not want to get rid of weapons? What is the secret and cost of the economic dominance of the United States? How do you get Barack Obama and Donald Trump to the presidency within a few years? We publish below an excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which deals with one of the great contemporary American stories less told and understood: the abuse of painkillers and its enormous consequences.
There is the 50-year-old teacher who has never even touched a cigarette but starts taking opiate painkillers during chemotherapy and becomes addicted to them while recovering from cancer. There is the worker who has worked all his life in the factory and starts taking them on his doctor’s orders to treat chronic back pain. There is the young football player who is prescribed painkillers after a bad injury. There is the rock star known for his monastic life – Prince – who takes a sedative to relieve hip pain and dies from an accidental overdose. The starting point is always different; the point of arrival rarely.
The size of this epidemic is unprecedented. […] From 1999 to 2018 nearly 800,000 people in the United States died of an overdose; the vast majority from opiate overdoses. In 2017 alone there were 70,237 deaths, twice as many as ten years earlier: about one hundred and ninety every day, eight for every hour, one every seven minutes. Ten times the total number of dead soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, more than all the fallen soldiers in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. All in one year: like the year before, like the year before and like the year after. Let that sink in; they would say, take a moment to absorb and weigh this information. The number of opiate overdose deaths that year in the United States did not only exceed the number of gun deaths in the United States: it exceeded the highest ever recorded several gun deaths in a single year (2017). It did not just exceed the number of HIV deaths: it exceeded the highest number of HIV deaths ever recorded in a single year (1995). Not only did it exceed the number of road deaths: it exceeded the highest number of road deaths ever recorded in a single year (1972). […]
If the press in the United States was late in noticing this phenomenon, the international media have almost completely ignored it: very little has been said about it, and less than almost everything else. This is nothing new, nor is it a surprise. There are many places in the world that we know less about than the United States of America, of course, but there are no places with a wider gap than the United States between what we believe we know and what we know. The American influence in our consumption is so gigantic and long-lived – and so great is our bar culture and our need to show how much we know about it – that we think we know America well when in fact, in most cases, our idea is a mixture of clichés and little concrete information.
When we describe the absurd U.S. healthcare system, we often do so by choosing two inaccurate and misleading arguments, among the many valid ones we would have at our disposal: the one for which if you don’t have insurance “they let you die on the street” (false) and the one for which “healthcare is paid for” (why, in Italy who pays for it?). We believe that the Americans are all armed to the teeth – there are more weapons than people – but we do not know that half of the guns in circulation in America are owned by 3% of the population. […] Let’s cultivate the cliché that the United States would use its heavy hand against tax evasion and the crimes of the c
When we describe the absurd U.S. health care system, we often do so by choosing two imprecise and flawed arguments, among the many valid ones we would have instead: the one for which if you do not have insurance “they let you die on the street” (false) and the one for which “health care is paid for” (why, in Italy who pays for it?). We believe that the Americans are all armed to the teeth – there are more weapons than people – but we do not know that half of the guns in circulation in America are owned by 3% of the population. […] We cultivate the cliché according to which the United States would use the heavy hand against tax evasion and the crimes of the so-called white-collar, but in prison, they still go mainly black boys. […] We are used to reading the entire U.S. foreign policy primarily based on oil, the need to find and import it at ever-lower prices. Still, today the United States is practically independent in terms of energy. The list could go on.
In the impossibility of declaring ourselves surprised – it would mean that something, of these Americans, has perhaps actually escaped us – at the end of the fair we welcome the most sensational election result in over two centuries of U.S. history, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, as the logical and predictable consequence of our clichés, also entrusting them with the problematic explanation of its accidental, contradictory and never seen before – Trump got three million fewer votes than his opponent – as well as the fact that the same country, almost the same voters, a few years earlier had twice chosen Barack Obama by a vast majority. We do all this based on the things we think we know, our growing inability to answer “I don’t know” to any question or, even worse, by adapting our local political support to the U.S. context. All of this without having any account of unavoidable events such as the one concerning painkillers, for example, the meaning that triggered them and their importance in defining what the United States of America and the people who live in it are today.