Nearly half of this blog’s readers live in countries other than the United States. Maybe you’re one of those and you’ve heard of the recent self-inflicted shutdown and near-default of the US federal government (as an attempt by Republicans to block a new law that expands health care coverage among this country’s fifty million uninsured). You may be wondering, “Are Americans out of their minds?” or, “How did the United States become the world’s most powerful country when so much of what it does seems so… dumb?”
As an American, I’ll try to sort things out for you (a very American thing to do). I mostly avoid politics on this blog, but since I deal a lot with curiosity and learning, I want to say something about the large number of my fellow citizens who seem to lack curiosity and avoid learning. I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations below — bear in mind that they don’t apply to all Americans all the time, but these things are common enough to get us in trouble:
1) We still think America is the best at everything. This is obviously not based on evidence. It’s an article of faith. America is the best, period, and suggesting otherwise will get you branded unpatriotic by many of your friends and relatives (I speak from experience). This national arrogance makes it difficult for us to learn from other nations. For example, most nations of the developed world provide health care for their people more effectively and at less expense than does the United States. We have any number of models to choose from that would be an improvement over what we’ve been doing, and even an improvement over the much-compromised Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”). But will we actually learn from any of these countries? No.
2) We think America has a special role in the world. Back in the nineteenth century people spoke of America’s “Manifest Destiny.” This was the idea that God willed us to rule the continent and conquer anyone who stood in the way of our superior civilization. This is certainly not unique to the US. But today many of our politicians still speak of “American Exceptionalism,” which is the belief that the United States has a right and a duty to play a unique role the world’s affairs — which is another way of saying that we think we have a right to spy on you, interfere with your country’s internal affairs, destabilize your government if we don’t like it, bomb you and maybe even invade and set up a new government more to our liking. Anyone who opposes us is a “terrorist.” No other country on earth has the right to do what we do — that would be wrong and dangerous — but we mean well, and we’re spreading “democracy” (except when we’re propping up dictators) so whatever we do is for your own good.
Americans started seriously questioning this belief during the Vietnam War, but we mostly forgot about all that by the 1990s. Now, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of us are questioning that old belief again, but it’s hard — it’s really hard — for us to admit that these wars may have been a colossal waste of lives and money. Which leads to the next point:
3) We don’t really understand war. There’s an old song from World War I (still popular in WWII) that sums up the American war experience:
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware —
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.
Since the time of the US Civil War (1861-1865), war for America has always been “over there,” not here. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are as close as the US has come to experiencing what war is usually like for everyone else. For us, war isn’t about bombs falling on our cities; it’s not about massive American casualties or slaughters of our civilians. We think our wartime suffering is the true measure of the misery of war, but for most of us it hasn’t been all that miserable. We think we defeated the Nazis in World War II and that everyone else was a bit player in our grand drama. It isn’t that we think war is wonderful; it’s that we don’t really comprehend its chaos and suffering. It’s not personal for most of us. It isn’t part of our national psyche. So we’re a bit cavalier about it. We elect tough-talking leaders who have mostly avoided war when they were young men, and they teach us to think of war as a tool, like an adjustable wrench. Is there a problem in the world? Give it a crank or two with some war — that’ll unscrew things in a hurry. God bless our troops!
We wish every war were like World War II — remember, for us, that’s “The Good War.” Clear-cut bad guys. A clear moral purpose. A definite beginning and a definite end. Victory. Every time we’ve gone to war since then, we’ve been disappointed with the result. We generally assign the blame for this to the people we were only trying to help.
4) We like knowing better than we like learning. Let’s face it: ambiguity is hard to live with. The probabilities of science can be unsatisfying. We’re a faith-based country, and for many that’s an evangelical faith — a faith of absolutes, a faith that frowns upon questions that run too deep, a faith that sees the world in simple terms of black and white, good and evil, a faith that feels destined to rule the world. Not everyone accepts all that, but this style of thinking (or of refusing to think) has seeped into the culture as a whole. We’re crusaders.
We like strong leaders who speak plainly and keep things simple. In our TV and movie series Star Trek, Spock is smart, cool, and disciplined, while Kirk is a reckless hothead who relies on gut instinct. Spock is smarter, but Kirk is the captain, and we think that’s as it should be. We elect presidents on the same basis. We like them reasonably smart, but not too smart, because our gut tells us that in a crisis (which is usually the result of our ignorance) gut instinct trumps careful, informed thought. We feel it’s better and more manly to be wrong than to be uncertain.
The problem here is that the smartest people tend to be cautious, skeptical, and keenly aware of contingencies and uncertainties. If we were smart, these are the people we would listen to, but we usually ignore them in favor of macho ignoramuses who tell us what we want to hear.
5) We’re still obsessed with race. OK, by now we know that racism is wrong. Or we kind of know it. Obvious racism is wrong, or at least tacky. But if you want to get Americans to vote against their own economic interests, it’s really quite easy. Bring up race. Not directly, not like the old days. But plant the idea that most of the people who benefit from Medicaid, food stamps, Obamacare, unemployment insurance, are people who are… how shall I put this delicately? Well, they’re not like us. Lazy people. You know, from the inner city. Or they’re illegals. Those people. We’ve been falling for this old trick for generations now. Once upon a time it was the Irish, then Eastern Europeans, Italians… always the blacks… now Mexicans and Muslims. The Other. As I said, we know this is wrong, and we’re embarrassed by it, and so a lot of us refuse to see it in ourselves. We define it into a corner — we think racism equals anger and obvious hatred, and hey, that’s not me! “I’m not racist, but…”
There was a time when racism in America wore a white hood. It doesn’t do that anymore. But it still wears a mask.
6) We think sex is kind of icky, but violence is OK. Make no mistake. Americans love sex. It’s everywhere. It’s especially good for selling people things they don’t need. That’s really its main function in America. But there’s a lot of guilt and shame attached (mostly based in religious teachings). We also worry — often rightfully so — about the way our marketing practices and our entertainment culture (which are pretty much the same thing) tend to sexualize children before they’re mature enough to handle it. But violence? Hey, not a problem! As long as you’re on the side of the Good Guys, violence is OK, even admirable. Freedom isn’t Free! See point 3 above.
7) We think being a strong individual means not having to stick together with others. Call it Rugged Individualism. Call it the cowboy myth (real life cowboys worked in teams, but we’re talking about movie cowboys here — think John Wayne). Think of it as a cultural leftover of the Western frontier — or the myth of the frontier. Don’t like your life? Go West, young man, and start over. No need to work for a more just world here. No need for government. Go West and make your own destiny. But the fact is that most of us aren’t very powerful by ourselves, and up against governments and corporate interests (which are pretty much the same thing) we don’t stand a fighting chance. Will we admit this? What, and look weak? Hell, no! We have an entire political party (in a two-party system) whose members achieve long careers in government by publicly condemning government and promising (falsely) to get rid of it. This, we think, will bring us more Freedom.
The idea of making government our servant, our tool for mutual benefit and mutual protection — the idea that ultimately, we are the government — that’s always been a tough sell in this country. We grew closer to this idea during the generation following the Great Depression, but have been steadily led away from it over the past thirty years.
OK, we probably have more insanities than that, but I’ll stop here. Of course, your country has its own insanities, too (and maybe it shares some of these — and I’d love to hear about them). But these, I think, are typically American flavors of self-defeating craziness.
Americans have our good points, too — not the least of which is that so many of our citizens (but not enough! not enough!) question and challenge all of the above. And I want to be clear that as an American, a citizen of a country founded on dissent, I believe that one of the highest forms of patriotism involves taking an honest look at your own country and asking, ‘How do we tend to go wrong?’ and ‘How could we do better?’