Comments on Culture

why so angry? | October 5, 2009

My, the talking heads of the media are angry these days. The visceral reactions to the healthcare reform debate remind me again that we have a bit of an identity crisis in the U.S.

I’m reminded of a lecture on moral psychology that explains the dichotomy between the values of our two major political parties: Talk. Here, Dr. Jonathan Haidt postulates that conservatives and liberals have different sets of values which drive their decisions and reactions. Haidt says liberals value fairness and inclusiveness for all, even if it means disrupting social order, while conservatives value social order and tradition, even if it means sacrifices for some. These are fundamentally different approaches to community.

Considering this, it might be fair to say that the people of the U.S. have conflicting values: personal success and the success of the community. I find this conflict interestingly timed. In the last month, I’ve heard talking heads frothing angrily on U.S. news programs. They say it’s not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes and choices of others. They say large social programs are un-American. In the same month, I also heard voices external to the U.S. comment on how America is known for taking care of one another, and for having a government that cares about its people.

The external voices cover seemingly disparate cultures, but both involve people who feel their communities have been failed by their government. The first is an article called “Shattered Somalia,” and the second is a documentary about Mexican border communities emptied by migrant labor, “The Other Side of Immigration.” In an interview in “The Other Side of Immigration,” a man who had returned after working for over a decade in the states said that the problem is Mexico. It is crazy. The corruption and lack of resources and support for the people make Mexico crazy. It doesn’t take care of its people the way the U.S. does, so people have to leave. Considering the angry rhetoric mentioned above, I was almost surprised to hear the U.S. described this way.

In “Shattered Somalia,” Somalis and the writer described the people of Somalia as abandoned. The devastated country examples the product of a laissez-faire system. The interviewees felt that their government and their people’s fend-for-yourself mentality have failed them. Safety of person is not a basic human right there. The problem goes beyond politics: “In the Somali psyche, fierce nationalism coexists with equally fierce pastoral individualism.  It is not their way to look to government for solutions.” The same conflict between nationalism and individualism exists in U.S. culture, although in very different forms.

Could the current conditions in Mexico and Somalia point to a possible outcome of tipping that balance between nationalism and individualism? Can we see Somalia as an example of how a laissez-faire attitude of government may result?

I think the term “un-American” can be lodged against both sides of the current healthcare debate, and that perhaps is why the issue is stirring such a response. (Because, really, healthcare regulation is not a sexy topic.) It touches a still-raw division between our people: those who see “America” as a place of fairness for all, and who do not fear social change, and those who see it as a place of unbridled economic opportunity and who disapprove of the instability inherent to change. I would argue that both are central to our national identity.

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