Sunday, January 31, 2010

The American Voter, Part II of III: The American Character

I’ve spent some time in both New York and Seattle. Given that there’s a culture common to big cities the world over, these two couldn’t be more different.

New Yorkers tend to be more formal: they dress up to go to dinner. In Seattle, the casual look is de rigueur—it’s pretty hard to be under-dressed in Seattle without being totally nude. People in New York seem to be more out-spoken and less politically correct than Seattleites. People in Seattle are less likely than New Yorkers to be “in your face” if they disagree with you, but if you stand around looking lost on a New York street, people will fall all over themselves trying to give you directions.

Contrast the citizens of either place with the “typical” Mid-Western farmer, Southern revivalist, or Arizona retiree, and you have an idea of the scope of differences among people across this great land.

So what-all makes an American an American? What are some of the characteristics typical of those born or raised in the good ol’ US of A?

For about fifteen years, I had a unique opportunity to explore that question in discussions with a group of people who had the perspective of having come to America from other places. We met weekly, usually at the home of a Belgian couple—native French speakers who were kind enough to mentor the rest of us in the nuances of that lovely language. Membership in the group changed over the years but included, at one time or another, folks from Great Britain, India, Brazil, France, and Hong Kong. As a born-in-America citizen and native English speaker, I was usually in the minority.

Topics of conversation ranged from history and culture to science and etymology, but we often discussed current events. On my part, these conversations were a chance to understand how smart, well-traveled people with a fondness for the USA tend to see us. Over time, it became clear to me that in nations, as in families, the influence of history goes back a long, long way.

The first white people in America fled religious persecution. They came to a land with many dangers, where only the toughest, hardest-working, and most adaptable could survive. As they came into contact with the native peoples, whose language and customs were incomprehensible to them, conflicts arose. Armed with a powerful cultural and religious sense of superiority and entitlement, the newcomers eventually vanquished the natives. Incentives arose to move westward across the vast continent, and the hardiest or most desperate set out again and again for the great unknown. We, their children and cultural heirs, retain some of the traits evident in those early settlers.

So here are some characteristics of Americans—at any rate, of the dominant culture of white, mainstream Americans—that seem to derive partly from the nation’s origins. Often in the extreme compared to other Westernized nations, Americans tend to be
  • Hard working

  • Stubborn

  • Uncompromising

  • Religious

  • Prudish

  • Stalwart and determined

  • Anti-intellectual

  • Anti-government

  • Eager to help their neighbors

  • Innovative

  • Gullible

  • Inclined to feel persecuted

Only America could have gone from utter ruin at Pearl Harbor in 1941 to world military dominance five years later. Only in America could a large number of educated people still believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago. Only America could proudly elect its leaders one day and then spend the next two to four years accusing them of dastardly secret conspiracies. Only Americans could throw up a barn for a neighbor in a long day’s work but vociferously defend horrific human rights abuses like slavery, gay-bashing, and capital punishment. (Only Americans, for example, could reconcile the notion of free speech with a call to execute protesters for burning a flag.) Only America could keep spawning organizations like the John Birch Society, neo-fascist militias, and the NRA. (People: Nobody—but nobody—is secretly plotting to take your guns away!)

In conversation, Americans tend to be dogmatic and emotional and to take simple disagreement as a personal affront. Americans change their minds less than other people of similar educational background (according to my friends from abroad, anyway), and when they have to acknowledge they may have been wrong, they tend to get angry about it. Having begun as a nation of fighters, Americans still find it hard to conceive of a win-win (as opposed to a win-lose) situation.

However, solving big problems requires the ability to think rationally, speak honestly, tolerate disagreement, and be willing to compromise—in other words, to seek a “win-win” situation. Only in America would large segments of the population condone the actions of leaders who say no, no, no to the party in power, blocking progress on virtually every issue just to try to make the opposition look bad.

I love my country. If I had to get stuck along the highway or be left without a home, I’d rather it be here than anywhere else. But when it comes to engaging in a rational discussion about religion, philosophy, politics, or a host of other topics, I’d rather be anywhere else.

The trouble is, we have to discuss these things. American families can’t wait and the world can’t wait for solutions to the many problems that beset us. As Americans, we need to tell the people who represent us to rise above the worst attributes in the American character and exercise the best to solve problems and get things done.


Six said...

Interesting post - For the post part, I think your bullet point descriptions of Americans is fairly accurate.

However I think it is a gross over generalization to say the people of the US are typically 'anti-intellectual' and 'inclined to feel persecuted'. You mention the EARLY settlers coming here with a 'cultural and religious sense of superiority and entitlement' eventually dominating and vanquished the natives. While there some truth to that, you miss an important point about settlers mindset...

Most of us (not including the descedants of slaves) are not descendants of 'early settlers'. The majority of 'white Americans' came here the way my great-grandparents did during the early 20th century because of extreme poverty, some because persecution, but mostly the hope to make a better life for our children, and childrens children - because in thier home country, the governments were corrupt, ruined and failing them. Most of the non-white Americans came here for the same reasons with the same vision(Chinese, Philipenes, Indian, Arab, Mexican, and on and on including the Nigerian family down the street from me who moved here only two decades ago who tell me they still pull the blinds closed when they see police driving by because they assume government employees are corrupted and do not want to interact).

Most immigrants came here with a rooted seed of distrusting government because thiers failed them. Our roots are strong of that immigrant spirit most of us have pumping through our veins.

Ultimately you believe that more government provides the solutions... however just as the millions of immigrants believed in thier quest to come here, the success of the USA is in the ambitious individual spirit to innovate, create and move forward. It is nearly always the government that is the obstacle - not the lack of government. I want my representative to say to say no more often...

Sue said...

I think you're right on in your analysis, Six. And I think that the popularity of the Tea Party movement and of libertarianism is that people are fed up with not being listened to. We want less government. Maybe different government programs would be more accurate, but we're tired of the bureaucracy and the DC attitude that they know what's best for the country. And once our elected representatives move to DC they quickly become part of that mindset, losing touch with their constituents.

Jane, you're right that we need to discuss these things. The problem is that we (the normal taxpayers/citizens) don't get a chance to express our sides of the "discussion." The ability to "think rationally, speak honestly, tolerate disagreement, and be willing to compromise" in the general populace isn't being acknowledged by those in "power." Hence, the popularity of the Tea Party approach. Really, it's not too different from the "taxation without representation" situation the founding fathers faced when you think of it.

Citizen Jane said...

Thanks for some interesting comments! Six, I agree that most of us didn't descend from the Pilgrims, but once established, culture tends to be very persistent. But I certainly see your point that people coming to America from oppressive, corrupt, and failed regimes didn't exactly bring with them a trust of government. (Ayn Rand is a fine example of that.)

And Sue, we the voters have fallen into the habit of electing "leaders" who tend to be paternalistic, abrasive, annointed-by-God, and interested in talking only with each other. We need to be more discriminating in who we vote for and reward those who DO listen with our trust and support.