Sonntag, 28. August 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXI - USA: A Country of Virtue

One of my reasons to travel through the (west) of the USA was to gain more understanding of a country that my home media chooses to represent in a few select and mostly unflattering ways. I talked to a lot of Americans, some in loft bars and some on the greyhound, about their country and what makes it unique to find my own perspective on this vast stretch of land. And while I learned there is no such thing as "the USA", everyone I talked to seemed to define America mainly by its overarching values. I've spent a lot of time thinking about the most commonly named ones, and this post is about my perception of the state of these values.
Just like in my last post, I would like to employ the help of someone else. This time it shall be someone held in generally high cultural esteem, an ancient greek by the name of Aristoteles. But don't worry, it's not going to be very intellectual.
Part of Aristoteles ethics theory centers around the idea that every virtue has a desirable measure, a painful excess and a lacking deficiency. Undesirable behaviour in society stems not from lack of virtue, but from straying from "the golden mean". I do indeed believe that USA is a country of many virtues, yet how often they hit that golden mean is an entirely different issue.


Ah, yes, freedom. If there was ever a plebiscite in the US on whether to rename it to 'Freedom Country', I'd wager it would pass, so prominent is this word over here. And truly the magnificent history of this country stands witness that it has indeed been a new home for those ostracized, surpressed and prosecuted, and ideal cast into copper and iron on a tiny island in the Bay of New York. Due to overexposure, many Europeans scoff at the sentiment that the USA is indeed a country of freedom, but I find that it is. The USA still takes in more immigrants than any other country on the planet, and they do not only come for the economic benefits. They also come because they are allowed to bring their culture, their religion and their language. In the southwest of the USA almost all information is also presented in Spanish. Try lobbying for Turkish signage in Germany, good luck.
A frequent cause for ridicule and disdain of American society in other countries, the (literal) excess of the freedom virtue is that freedom is treated as an unconditionally desirable value. So many Americans want freedom for the sake of it, constantly lamenting infringement on its unrestricted possession. What they seem to forget is that freedom has to come with a purpose and responsibility. If neither of the two are provided, freedom itself is meaningless. Since most freedoms (including the ones demanded by the founding fathers) is provided in Western societies, America has turned to 'injecting' issues with freedom that have little meaningful purpose at all, not to even speak of responsibility. So strong is the power of the word that whole political movements, such as the Tea Party,  can ride on its wave without having any politically meaningful content whatsoever.
Considering the deficiency of freedom, I think it's a bit of an ironic backdoor thing. The very system that publicly guarantees your freedom is the main inhibitor to actually make use of it. True indpendence is undermined by the social and economic legislation, that favours the powers in existence and gives people without prior assets very little chance to enjoy freedom of choice in work, travel, education and entertainment.


America, so I was told many times on this trip, was built on the idea that every man can make his fortune, provided he works hard for it. What that actually come to mean, however, is 'every man for himself'. To a certain degree, this is a healthy attitude I like about many Americans. Taking your fate into your own hands and going out to make a mark in the world seems to be an ubiquitous attitude. I don't necessarily mean that in an economic sense, rather in the way that the general opion is omnipresent that if you want things to happen, you gotta go out and do 'em, whether your love lies with Wall Street or Green Peace. That also means that Americans come with a healthy scepticism towards anyone telling them what to do, including the federal government. Quite contrary to a dearly held European belief that there is 'the United States', in fact Americans in all states fight tooth and nail against the overburdening 'common culture' that we have come to know as the American way of life. Although it is probably a losing battle in the long term, every state has a distinctive local culture that can be surprisingly different from what you normally imagine America to be, and is well worth sampling.
Excess of the self-reliance virtue is the reason why America is often portrayed as a cruel and heartless society. Many Americans I met believed that poor people are poor because they are lazy and refuse to work hard for their dreams like everybody else, and if they don't make it then it's their very own fault. That's why Americans love the figure of the re-emerging underdog. To keep believing in that ideal of success through hard work, they need the occasional, if rare, proof of concept that it is indeed possible. Many oppose any sort of social taxing on grounds of this belief, or any help to even out disadvantages that comes out of their own pockets. This sentiment has prevented the creation of meaningful social systems in the US and should misfortune befall you despite hard work and ample ability, in reality there is rarely a way back up. It has also made it surprisingly acceptable to make fun of the poor and homeless, to a degree that would be impossible anywhere in Europe.


Whether you want to see it as a by-product or a prerequisite to aforementioned self-reliance, many Americans seem to believe that they are more individualistic than other peoples, both as respective entities and as a culture as a whole.
I believe that this is true, from a purely jurisdictional sense. The American government is indeed more lenient with whatever expression your may find for yourself, and rarely seems to infrige on your right to be a freak.
Painful excess of inviduality shows itself in the assumption that everyone seems to get told that they are a unique little snowflake, and that whatever severe character flaw they might have is just part of that amazing unique self. Society has to cater to that, and all institutions tell you that you are wonderful and special 24/7, and many people genuinely believe that.
But then here comes one of the mean punchlines of US society: people actually hate you for expressing individuality. Nowhere else I have been is conforming to a group and their trappings more pressing than in the states. From high school on people are hammered into shape by relentless comments and ridicule on their individual quirks, and become either Preps or Goths or Nerds or whatever drawer you want to come up with. And if you aren't anything recognizable, then good luck, because for many people it's literally do or die. Teenage suicide rates are high in the states, and many teens are on antidepressants. Yes, I know that social pressure and rejection are not the only causes for that, but I claim they are major.
This seems to lead to Americans either sticking with their group choice for life or becoming as plain as possible in public. Apart from subcultures, Americans wear little that gives away their personality, and are some of the most homogenously dressed people on the planet. And they're stuck in the fashion world of the late eighties. But that's a different issue.

Enthusiasm and Optimism

One thing that separates Americans the most from Europeans is the unlimited enthusiasm and relentless optimism people emanate. The eternal can-do atttude still reigns supreme, and people with even the hardest fates seem to believe that greener pastures still exist within reach. Nothing can seems to be able to bring Americans down, they are the living embodiment of the old saying "dust yourself up and try again", a spirit that I personally found highly contagious. It doesn't surprise me that there are so many more startups and new ideas springing up in the US than in Europe; individuals here are just so much more hopeful and likely to bet on their dreams.
When this virtue passes the golden means, it becomes a value in itself, devoid of any reason. In America, being enthusiastic about something gives it enough validation in any case, even if no arguments exist to back your enthusiasm. That allows people to stand up in public and make a series of non-statements and still get applauded instead of embarassed. The fact that they are passionate about it gives their view sufficient weight despite a lack of content. Consequently being passionate about whatever you think or do has become a national requirement and is encouraged (or even demanded) from early age on. From there stems one of the most annoying habits of Americans: that they will always enthusiastically say yes and agree to all you say, even if they actually mean no.
This constant demand to be positive and upbeat has led to a backfire of enthusiasm in many Americans, especially when reality frequently collides with the perfect world that is claimed to exist. The American 'fakeness' that so many Europeans lament when they stay in the US for a while is merely a mode of survival in a society that has adopted an unhealthy level of optimism as a social virtue. A by-product of that is the widespread abuse of 'happy pills', often on prescription by America's ever-growing pharmashrink industry, that mask individual tragedy to smoothen public life.


People I met frequently spoke about equality being an American value, but unfortunately I could find no proof for this virtue being existing anywhere in a golden mean. There is some amount of excess, evident in an obsession with political correctness that, while protecting minorities and disadvantaged within the (very academic) realm of language, does little to actually improving the chances or acceptance of said minorities. Companies can rise and fall on an issue of equality, so all companies pay lip service to all sorts of equality schemes to conform to propriety rules. The acceptance of differences is not in the head of people yet, however. This can be seen in the fact that the average American man has an almost pathological fear of being perceived as gay, which means that even remotely form-fitting clothing is non-existent in all common store chains, even for suits. Failure to comply to the rule of baggy will gather you a comment or even open scorn.
It is the utter lack of equality though that is the most visible, and if I may say, below the standards of a nation so proud of its wealth and principles. In no nation I have traveled have I seen so many homeless, so many working poor and met so many people with no perspective in life. You might call it conincidence, but most of them happened to be black or native american. Quality education, the main means of improving your status and income, is prohibitively expensive in America. The USA has a very unflattering Gini Index for its prosperity, and the (white) lobbies that actively prevent equality are strong. So strong in fact that the economic structure actively discriminates against the middle class, which is shrinking by a larger amount every year.


Unline Europe, where faith is more of a character trait than a value, in the US it is an important virtue. Strangely enough, it doesn't even have to be faith in the religious sense. For Americans it doesn't seem to matter as much what you believe in, as long as you do believe in something. Being an atheist is a major social stigma in the United States, despite the nation being founded by atheists, and many Americans who are not religious still pretend they are. In absence of a religious mindset, many of them seem to chose to believe in a system instead, adopting a dogmatic, unquestioning attitude towards concepts usually seen as just merely an administrative choice elsewhere. An example is "capitalism" which I many Americans elevate to an absolute, word-of-god concept that does not allow for modification. Everything else is "socialism" (aka 'the devil'), and will not be debated. A subtle outgrowth of this mentality is the tips system. In other countries tips are given to reward and encourage exceptional service. In America a sizeable chunk of tips will be added to any price by standard, eliminating the actual reason why they are given. This enables owners to actually pay below the minimum wage, filling the missing dollars up with tip money instead of paying a reasonable salary instead. The most frequent answer to this pecularity I got was that "those are the rules of capitalism", displaying the same fatalist attitude as believers accepting the invetitable will of God. Insha'Capital and Amen.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen