The American National Character


1. Selfishness: The New National Value
2. For the Greater Good
3. A More Nuanced Explanation

1. Selfishness: The New National Value

What do recent issues roiling the American polity tell us about its national character? The "American dream" is symbolic of the idea that anyone can make it in this country, so long as they have a combination of talent and a willingness to work hard. Underlying the idea is not only the notion that America is a land of opportunity and equality in which merit is rewarded, but also a collective belief in the shared American character - a people who while fiercely individualistic, are also a people of faith, defenders of liberty, and believers in the values of democracy. Essentially, a good and decent people.

There is much in American history that bears out that self-image. But a review of recent issues would suggest that selfishness, egocentricity, and utter disregard for one's fellow man have also become defining characteristics of the national character. Take health care. This is a fiendishly complicated issue, but cutting through all the complexity, the most prominent objection of the massive numbers of American opposed to health care reform, and particularly the so-called "public option", is intensely personal. In the face of almost 40 million countrymen having absolutely no health care insurance whatsoever, the objection is basically: "damned if I am going to risk any reduction in my current health care". Rather they have none than me risking less. Similarly, aside from the 40 million people without now, in the face of the knowledge that the system cannot continue as it is for many more years, the collective response is simply to let future generations fend for themselves. The older generation is the most resistant to reform! To hell with the kids.

Similarly with global warming. The world is approach a point of no return. Nonetheless, the climate change legislation before the Senate is facing an uncertain future, and it is already too weak to really make a difference anyway. Everyone knows that a global agreement will be impossible without American leadership (American is responsible for over 20% of global emissions, and has by far the highest per-capita emissions in the world), but the collective American response is to avoid the economic pain of emissions controls. On one level this is somewhat suicidal, but on another it is an unbelievably selfish shunting of the problem to future generations, while externalizing the current costs to be borne by the rest of the world.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Again, while these are less clear cut or obvious, both of these wars can be explained as being efforts by Americans to ensure greater security at home. Flowing from the deaths of some 3,000 Americans, arose a policy to do "whatever it takes" to prevent any recurance, leading the United States to invade two countries, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans, not to mention the other costs imposed on the region. Better them than us.

But as with health care, this selfishness is not simply reserved for foreigners. From issues as disparate as gun control and urban violence, gay marriage, the incredible disparity between Americans in terms of wealth, income, and access to basic education, the American political responses reflect a me-first, beggar-thy-neighbor, callous selfishness. It is often couched in terms of individualism and conservative anti-big-government ideology, and expressed in terms of the benefits of competition and realism. But at the end of the day, both the tenor of the public discourse and the actual results of the political process, make for a society that is on many levels morally bankrupt, and utterly at odds with the carefully nurtured self-image of its people. - Gamma

2. For the Greater Good

First, Scrooge McDuck is Scottish, not American.

Second, it shows an unnecessary harshness and distinct lack of civility to call Americans "morally bankrupt." And it is simply illogical to call them selfish. As you so eloquently point out, their actions only hurt themselves in the long run.

What makes the American psyche so astounding is, in fact, the opposite: their pure selflessness. Few other people on this planet are willing to put their personal interests aside for the sake of a higher good. Scratch that. Few other people are willing to put their personal interests aside for the sake of a perceived higher good.

You can disagree all you want with the substance of the right-wing, heartland, homeland, god fearing, I-hate-not-just-big-government-but-all-government, paranoid, racist ideology that has imbedded itself into the DNA of 15% of the American populace, but it sure as hell ain't selfish. These are people who are willing to do just about anything in support of what they believe to be the greater good. It just so happens that the greater good means no health care, a collapsing environment, and and indifference to international law.

And it is not just the extreme right - this is a characteristic that runs across the American political spectrum. As much as we may have sympathised and respected what Obama stood for in the last election, his success and the unprecedented enthusiasm that he generated reflected the same dynamic - not selfishess at all, but a hope for a greater country. It was the same energy that propelled Bush to power, only redirected towards a different end.

Looked at in this way, the great American character flaw may be simply pure gullibility. The history of the United States is larded with charlatans and snake-oil salesmen who have managed to convince great swathes of the population to put aside their self-interest join on some quixotic misadventure. More than any other people in the history of civilization, Americans demonstrate an indefatigable appetite for conspiracy theories, flights of fancy, huckster religions, paranoid alternate realities, simplistic political orders, and a range of other major and minor secrets, ideologies and empty myths. Easy marks? Maybe. Selfish? Never.

But the really notable thing about America and Americans is neither their pursuit of self-interest nor their capacity to believe any monorail salesmen that happens by, but it is that they, as a country, as a people, consistently defy odds and expectations. Despite how they can seem to get so many of the details wrong, they usually manage to get the big picture right. Here's hoping that continues. - Beta

3. A More Nuanced Explanation

Beta makes some very good points here, but they do not negate my argument. Rather, they illuminate the complexity of an issue that is difficult to do justice in a thousand words.

I quite agree that Americans demonstrate a remarkable capacity for mobilizing behind movements perceived to be for some "greater good". Sometimes that greater good is even fairly broad and inclusive. And as I alluded to, this tendency has often resulted in magnificent examples of apparent generosity. The Marshall Plan, under which massive amounts of financial and other support was lavished upon the defeated nations of Europe after World War II, can be seen on one level as one of the most extraordinary instances of magnanimity and altruism in history.

The problem is that the Marshall Plan was also very much a result of sober strategic calculation regarding Cold War realities, and the need to ensure that Germany remained out of Communist clutches. And so it is with much of American idealism. There is, as Beta says, an incredible desire to believe in campaigns for some greater good, but there is also a great talent for packaging policies that are entirely self-interested and instrumentalist as serving some grand and selfless ideal.

This perhaps captures some of the complexity and nuance of some generalizable American character. While disdainful Europeans so often view Americans as naive, simple, and yet hypocritical, this is at least partly due to their failure to understand an inherent paradox - an aspect of American culture that simultaneously embraces extreme competition, ruthless self-interest, and the application of cynical functionalist cost-benefit calculation to almost any circumstance on the one hand, and on the other, reveres grand ideas and ideals, the heroes that pursue them, and the notion that everyone has some duty to serve in their cause.

This is captured in the character of Alden Pyle in Graham Greene's allegorical novel "The Quiet American", an agent operating in 1950s Vietnam, at once naive, idealistic, deeply earnest and self-righteous, yet ruthless and cynical in his pursuit of both his own desires and American interests, under the guise of helping the people he is killing.

But while some Americans may manifest this paradox personally, my point really goes to the political system, the social structure and cultural dynamic, which together operate to produce results that can be incredibly harsh. It is often dressed up as serving some greater good, and many buy into that bill of goods, but at root it is pure calculated self-interest that drives the decisions. And to the extent that such collective results can be described by reference to a personal characteristic, selfish is the word to use. Making a collective choice to leave 40 million compatriots without access to basic health care cannot really be understood any other way. - Gamma


Anonymous said...

Scrooge McDuck is an immigrant to the US from Scotland. He took a position as cabin boy on a Clyde cattle ship to the United States to make his fortune. So, in some ways, he is a great example!

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