Click to view image: '78b00f78c7d0-the_white_house.jpg'
The United States is a country filled with complaints. Every day, the rhetoric of crisis, anger and resentment stokes the blast furnaces of talk radio, political television and Internet blogs.
The economy stinks; China is overtaking the United States; the best jobs have gone overseas; living standards are declining; schools are substandard; America is in danger of losing its work ethic, productivity edge, spirit for innovation.
Overwhelming feelings of victimization and a growing sense of entitlement have crept into the American culture. So has the United States been reduced to a nation of whiners?
“The old attitude of self-reliant independence has died. It is not simply that the world has changed, but that Americans have,” said Harold Jones, a management professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, who wrote the book Personal Character and National Destiny.
One hundred and fifty years ago, English novelist Anthony Trollope travelled down the Mississippi and found people living in sod huts and labouring from dawn to dusk. They had no prospect of immediate improvement in their lives, but they were almost universally optimistic about the future.
America’s national character relishes its traditions of egalitarianism, individualism and self-reliance.
“But now, every group that can think of a label for itself presses its claim to special treatment,” Prof. Jones said. “We all think we have a right to get more for less effort; we all want to be freed from the burdens of competition; we all want to enlist the government in our cause.
“The most popular writings 150 years ago were filled with stories of self-reliance, faith, honesty, perseverance and victorious achievement. The modern media, by contrast, careen from one ‘crisis’ to the next. The emphasis is on helplessness and victimization. Politicians expand their following by offering to ‘help’ citizens with things they ought to be dealing with themselves.”
At the same time, modern American culture has been poisoned by an aggrieved sense of alienation and anger.
Compromise is almost impossible in a culture where public debate is driven by celebrities who rely on hysteria to sow division and to increase their own notoriety.
“America once had a culture that fostered respect,” said Jim Taylor, an Internet blogger and psychology professor at the University of San Francisco. “Today, the culture to which many Americans are exposed is a purveyor of disrespect. Our sports heroes disrespect their bodies, their sport, their fans. Hip-hop artists rap about violence and misogyny. Celebrities appear to be little more than entitled children.
“Wealth, fame, beauty and inanity are the altar at which too many Americans worship. Reality TV, for example exemplifies everything that is wrong with our society today, promoting greed, dishonesty, humiliation and preoccupation with celebrity, wealth and physical attractiveness.
“It ties in with immediate gratification and the belief that things should be easy for us. There is no expectation of sacrifice.”
In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville, a 26-year-old French aristocrat, spent nine months travelling in the United States and saw an entirely different country.
He sang the praises of an emerging national character that revelled in political freedom and individualism. He relished a frontier spirit that expressed itself in self-reliance, independence and the courage to take risks.
The United States, he said, was a nation that eagerly challenged the impossible.
Apparently, not any more. Self-indulgence seems to have replaced the more traditional American values.
Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described “a country in a state of incremental decline and losing its competitive edge, because our politics has become just anotherform of sports entertainment, our Congress a forum for legalized bribery and our main lawmaking institutions divided by toxic partisanship to the point of paralysis.”
Less than a year after the nation’s financial leaders were bailed out by government, U.S. executives have reeled in anger at suggestions they should temporarily limit their bonuses.
That resentment careened toward the ridiculous this summer, when Stephen Schwarzman, the billionaire head of the Blackstone Group, compared a proposal by U.S. President Barack Obama to tax the earnings of private equity and hedge fund managers at the same rate as other workers’ income to “when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
Last month, at a town hall meeting with Obama, one of his former Harvard Law School classmates, hedge fund billionaire Anthony Scaramucci, indignantly demanded to know, “When are we going to stop whacking at the Wall Street pinata?”
Democratic party activists are so badly infected with this malady they now appear to be entering next month’s Congressional elections in a state of indolent indifference, upset with Obama and the Democratic Congress for failing to give them enough over the last two years.
That elicited a stern upbraiding by Obama, in a recent Rolling Stone magazine interview, when he insisted it is “just irresponsible” and “inexcusable” for his supporters to sit on their hands in the coming elections.
“People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up,” he said.
U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, exasperated with Democrats who believe they are going to be pummelled at the polls in November, last week told a group of New Hampshire donors they “should remind our base constituency to stop whining and get out there and look at the alternatives.”
The United States has become a battleground for class warfare between the haves and have-nots, instead of a land of opportunity.
In the process, government has skidded into gridlock and polarization and wrangling dominate debate.
The Tea Party movement, a grass roots protest against government growth and the deficit, is a reaction to this.
Jill Lepore, a Harvard university historian and author of The Whites of Their Eyes, a new book on the Tea Party, said the movement represents a shift toward “historical fundamentalism.”
“The central assumption of this historical fundamentalism is that the founding documents are sacred and the founding fathers were divinely inspired,” she said.
That inserts an absolutism into political discussions that makes any debate difficult.
“There is a discomfort with the complexity of what the country is. There is this sort of atavistic feeling on the far right, where we look to the past for our values, because the present is somehow so abhorrent,” she said. “There is a nostalgia for a time when there was unity or singleness of purpose.”
“We have lost the road to the national vision,” Dr. Taylor said. “There is much more emotion in politics than there used to be and people are driven by fear and anger.”
U.S. society has become overwhelmingly adversarial, said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University.
“The war on drugs, the battle of the sexes, politicians’ turf battles — war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking,” she writes in her book The Argument Culture: America’s War of Words.
However, Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the Foundation for Defending Democracies and author of the book, Tocqueville: On American Character, dismissed talk of a transformation of U.S. national character.
“What we are going through now is simple American fractiousness and going at each other,” he said.
In 1831, De Tocqueville himself recognized that the U.S. national character was riddled with contradictions, Dr. Ledeen said.
“Those inner contradictions are constant. It’s where our energy comes from,” he argued. “We simultaneously believe that the most important thing in life is religion and the most important thing in life is money. We believe them both at the same time and we believe in rugged individualism and that we should always be helping other people in whatever way we can.
“Anyone who tries to slap a simple label on us has missed the whole point.”
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/become+nation+whiners/3652140/story.html#ixzz120O3tBE7
|Liveleak on Facebook|