Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Sickness of Character or What Is Wrong with America?

I fear that perhaps we're missing the most insidious piece of the GOP's push for power at all costs, and that's the character of the American public. Why don't we have a health care system that rivals Canada's or any number of European countries? Why are politicians allowed to cut funding for the programs that they scathingly call entitlements? Why is it that so many people only speak out in angry voices against equal rights for gay people, immigrants, and the poor?

I think that we suffer from a sickness of character (I'm using we broadly, clearly there are exceptions but I fear that the exceptions are the numerical minority), an ideological belief that is grounded in a mistrust of our fellow humans and no sense of responsibility for our neighbor. Not only do we feel no responsibility to be our brother's and sister's keeper,we don't even acknowledge that we're related.

Americans are a peculiar breed. We live in a country where the overall standard of living is much better than many parts of the world yet we have homelessness, child poverty, and hunger at rates that rival those of some of the countries that we identify as being third world. We come up with regulations that require restaurants to throw food away rather than allowing them to donate the food to local soup kitchens. We insist that we just can't house all of the homeless. Average, everyday folks should be outraged and demand more from our elected leaders but unless a policy affects us directly, most of us just don't give a damn.

There are far too many of us who are content with the actions of these leaders, who are quick to blame the poor for being too lazy to work, and see no problems with cutting funding to programs to aid those in need. I no longer believe that the majority of people want a better world for all of us. Anne Frank was wrong, a whole lot of people aren't really good at heart. Some are downright mean and selfish.

Elected officials are only as powerful as we let them be. They do what we allow them to do.

What would our elected officials do if every time they proposed some legislation that would cut funding for education or eliminate tax credits for the working class, 50,000 people showed up in protest at your state legislative building? What if the number was 100,000 or 1,000,000? They would listen, not because they love us but because they fear us. We're the ones who elect them. Without us, they don't get elected to office.

The sickness that permeates this country, that makes us adhere to petty beliefs that some people are more equal than others, will destroy us all if we don't cure ourselves.


Mark said...

This is on an on-target diagnosis, but I think it lacks the analysis that you are capable of.
I think most of the American political toxicity comes from the South and the West - two areas of the country built on conquest, one via genocide, the other via slavery. The legacy of guilt runs deeps in the oppressors, and they double down as a result.
Take the south. There isn't a southern senator who wouldn't join up on the Confederate side if this was 1861 all over again. And they tell you sans ironie that that slavery was evil.
They are like 12 years old who participate in the beating up and robbing of the weakest kid on the block, then spend the rest of their lives blaming each other and the kid, because it hurts too much to take responsibility for what their own bullying and greed created in them.
That's my theory at least. I think you could come up with something even more insightful

Lisa :-] said...

The last sentence of this post really says it all. It is the kind of almost hopeless laying-it-all-out-there in which many of us who used to believe better of humanity have been indulging for quite awhile. Sad, isn't it?

Nance said...

You have voiced my worried thoughts once again, and I thank you.

Mark has a good point, but the South and West theory doesn't account for the inroads the ultracons have made in the northern middle of the nation. In fact, where have they not made inroads?

And, in what part of the country are we historically less guilty of genocide? The Heartland, the Midwest, was once known as the West. Anything west of the original thirteen colonies was the West. And, then, everything west of the Mississippi was the West.

Here's a thing I worry about today: In the Middle East, we rightly support the efforts of those who have been cruelly oppressed and seek democracy, but we're on a collision course with the consequences. Widespread destabilization in the major oil-producing countries will make supply and price even more precarious than they are now.

The conservative agenda, such as it is, will not prepare us adequately or quickly enough for the alternative energy push we're going to need even sooner than we'd thought. The tea party drumbeat distracts this administration and the nation from that proper preparation. Just another example of how wrongly we're aimed.

There is rot at our core and, oh, that makes me so sad.

tnlib said...

I truly believe that before Ronald Reagan we were basically a very giving nation with an inherent desire to help thy neighbor. Things began to change with the ME generation and have gone down hill since. And this mind-set could be exasperated by the fact that most of these people are not just simply greedy, they are paranoid and scared out of their wits with change of any kind - and, baby, change has been coming fast and hard over the last few decades.

Mark, this Southern Belle who also lived in the West for years, takes exception to your comment. By no means are we all a bunch of Bible-thumping racist ignoramouses. ; )

Silverfiddle said...

Sheria: I think you paint with too broad a brush and are engaging in oversimplification.

Just think: If the governments at all levels who take our money and "spread it around" had cut the poverty rate and other societal ills even in half, do you think people would be griping about it?

The problem many of us have with these redistribution schemes is that they don't work as anything other than an immediate palliative for that small percentage who really do need assistance.

Instead, these programs have resulted in higher out of wedlock births, societal dysfunction, extinction of personal initiative, and whole communities imprisoned by crime, drug infestation and failed schools.

Americans have one of the highest per capita charitable contribution rates in the world, so I think calling us all stingy haters is unwarranted and irresponsible.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Well said. We need to stop being silent and speak up for what we believe.

Sheria said...

Silverfiddle, I didn't say a single word about any redistribution scheme. I think that you oversimplify by denying that there is any collective responsibility to make certain that there are sufficient resources available to provide the basic necessities for all members of that society. I find it disturbing that so many people when confronted with factual data about poverty, hunger, and homelessness want to discuss whether or not the persons suffering under these burdens deserve help. Do people have to merit assistance before it is given?

I stand by my evaluation of the American character. It leaves a lot to be desired.

Silverfiddle said...

Our past is what it is. Almost anywhere you stand on earth, another people once stood there, and human history is chock full of forced marches, slavery (it's still going on by the way!), genocides, wars and displacements.

Look in the mirror, and don't become what you criticize

Broad brush statements about collective character and smug generalizations about "those people" are a lazy and rapid descent into fallacious stereotypes and dehumanization. Being familiar as you are with the catalog of human misery, you know the tragedies such indulgences can lead to.

All major religions believe we have a duty to help the poor. The question is, how best to do it?

The question is not whether one merits it, for no one has an inherent right to take from others, no matter the circumstances.

The question is, again, what is the best way to help those who really need it. Many of us choose to do it through local soup kitchens, food pantries, programs where we fix up peoples' houses, etc.

We give at the local level because we see selfless people sacrificing time and treasure to help others, and we see the grateful faces, and we see progress.

Can you deny that government assistance has created a dependency cycle? We have people trapped in multi-generational poverty. How do we break that cycle?

This is not a question of stinginess; it's a question of what works.

Government poverty programs should not be measured by how many people are on the dole, but by how many people are now standing on their own two feet.

Octopus said...

To be fair to Sheria, I think her post and your points are mutually compatible. A snapshot of the callous disregard that characterizes our current political life is not necessarily demanding of depth and rigor that only a full-length book, or more, can provide. And perhaps a rigorous retrospective actually muddies the waters when a simple and direct statement will do.

Nevertheless, point taken with respect to the hurtful legacies of the South and the West; but I still think the flaw in the American character is more pervasive than regional … a flaw based on a concept of freedom that feeds on unlimited abundance and a sense of prosperity as a fundamental birthright. In this context, greed and economic exploitation have always been driving forces behind genocide and slavery. And what happens when the unthinkable becomes thinkable and doable again?

Extreme income inequality is very much on our minds these days as the vast majority of middle class Americans have not shared in the economic largess of the country. When the 400 highest income earners in the land control 50 to 60% of the nation’s wealth (let me rephrase this: 400 billionaires versus 150 to 180 million people), then something is seriously wrong. What galls me the most is to attribute exploitation and oppression of this magnitude (and the outright criminal theft of assets through chicanery and corruption) to “out of wedlock births, crime, drugs, and failed schools.” We should always be mindful that bigotry and hatred are always lurking in the background and invoked as excuses to justify the crimes. I will not be shy about what I really think: The troll is a bigot and a racist. Note: Silverfiddle is banned from the Zone for plagiarizing over 8,000 words and for violating the confidentiality of personal email. Nuff said.

Today is your day! Happy Birthday with love from your fellow creatures of the sea.

Silverfiddle said...

Sheria: Could you please check you spam filter? Looks like my second comment got lost.

Government intervention is our lives, our schools and institutions has left us poorer, dumber and completely unmoored from any moral philosophy whatsoever. The federal government spends more and more on education and our kids fall further behind.

They start a multi-trillion dollar war on poverty, and it only gets worse, with societal dysfunction and out of wedlock births soaring.

I fail to see how more of the same will make things better.

Sheria said...

Silverfiddle, I think that blaming the failures of our systems on government intervention is definitely oversimplifying a complex series of problems and failed solutions. We have had plenty of experience with less government. Prior to the development of government regulations of labor, unsafe working conditions, child labor, abusive employment policies, no worker rights were the norm. Yesterday was the commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that resulted in massive deaths because of lack of basic safety regulations. Regulations didn't spring out of thin air; they have arisen to address specific problems. Before there was a system of compulsory education, school was a luxury for the landed gentry and their progeny and the rest of the populace labored on in ignorance. Btw, the federal government is not in charge of education. It provides approximately 7% of the funding in each state for public education. Public education is under the control of each of the states. The result has been a serious variation in the quality of public education depending on the state in which you reside. State control is so diffuse within states that there is variation in quality within school districts in the same state. If you can afford to uproot and move to a better school system than you can ensure that your child obtains a better education.

That said, I don't believe that only government intervention is necessary to resolve our various problems stemming from poverty and the uneven distribution of wealth. Government is only a reflection of the people. We are the government although a lot of people fail to accept the responsibility and the power that comes with that responsibility. My simple point is that if we channeled our will into doing so, we could eradicate poverty and its attending ills from our society. Poverty isn't an inevitable necessity; it's a by product of a pervasive attitude that we are not our brother's/sister's keepers.

I have no problem with individual charitable efforts however, those individual efforts are simply insufficient to address the magnitude of the problem. A combination of enlightened government practices and policies combined with individual and private sector organization efforts are needed to address the quagmire of class stratification that we've managed to achieve. Other societies have successfully made such efforts. However, first we have to have the will to do so.

There is nothing smug in my disappointment in the American character. We have such lofty and noble ideas expressed clearly in the Declaration and the Preamble to the Constitution. I believe those words and I believe that we have a responsibility to live up to their promise. I also believe that we can do it but first we have to take a hard look at ourselves and determine how we got here. Government regulations are the new kid on the block, an attempt to respond to the problems rather than the cause of inequities that generated poverty long before the government, which the majority elected by the way, attempted to address those problems.

As for measuring our character in terms of the other evils in history, "Almost anywhere you stand on earth, another people once stood there, and human history is chock full of forced marches, slavery (it's still going on by the way!), genocides, wars and displacements.", that is about as valid as measuring my moral character by comparing myself to a serial killer. I'll come out on top but it isn't relevant or meaningful given the standard against which I was measured.

If I didn't believe that we are capable of being better then I wouldn't bother to address the matter of character.

Silverfiddle said...

We are capable of doing better, but we disagree on the means.

It's time for new thinking, and only a few rare politicians have so far shown to be capable of that.

Government cannot change people's hearts. I really do believe in that hippie sentiment "World Peace through Inner Peace." And this gets back to your claim of a sickness of character. I agree with you on that part. I wrote a blog post about it today.

Does our government foster independence, or does it foster dependence?

Sheria said...

Government cannot change people's hearts.

I agree. Government is a reflection of us; we change the government not the other way around. That's why I believe that the problem and the solution lie with our national character. I'll stop by to check out your post. Thank you for providing such interesting feedback to my post. Discussion and debate are a means to discovering common ground and that leads to solutions.

Octopus said...

There are an estimated 16 million unemployed persons in the USA right now, former hard-working wage earners who lost jobs due to no fault of their own. Many of these unemployed also lost homes. Inevitably, housing price deflation wrecked communities, shrank the real estate tax base, and decimated local and state budgets.

In times like these, it has become a standard talking point of the penurious right wing to blame the situation on government, or too much regulation - or the victims themselves. The right wing engages in VICTIM BLAME, which is the moral equivalent of calling a rape victim a slut to exonerate the rapist.

Rather than help distressed citizens recover their shattered lives, the right wing further degrades them by regarding them as defective, inferior human beings. Last year, for instance, Senator Orrin Hatch proposed legislation that would require mandatory drug testing as a condition for receiving an unemployment check. Here is an automatic presumption of guilt … notwithstanding a pee in a bottle that crosses the line of illegal search and seizure. Yet, the same knuckleheaded Republicans invoke the words ‘freedom’ and ‘US Constitution’ to defend the indefensible. What they call 'freedom' inevitably turns into persecution and oppression.

Whenever I read “out of wedlock births, crime, drugs, and failed schools” in any discussion thread, I hear the code words of bigotry and racism … and a standard political tactic used by Republicans that is intellectually and morally bankrupt in its Gestalt.

Without further ado, there was an article written five years ago in the Bush administration, Why Conservatives Can't Govern by Alan Wolfe, that is as eloquent today as it was then:

Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut--especially in ways benefiting the rich--the better.
But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions--indeed, whose very existence--they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

Anonymous said...

Happy belated birthday Sheria!

I think the whole issue of character needs to start from one simple question: "Why is their poverty and hunger in the richest country with the largest economy in the world?"

If we pride ourselves about the greatness of our country and take pride in our innovations then why is it that something as simple as feeding kids and creating jobs and providing basic healthcare so hard for us to deal with?

If spending time at a soup kitchen or repairing an old person's house such a positive experience then why isn't paying a couple of hundred of dollars extra in taxes to provide the same services not also a positive experience?

If we are such a charitable country then lets quit thinking of "entitlements" and call it charity instead.

Yes, the world is full of all sorts of atrocities but does that justify us to continue down that path or do we attempt to change that which we find appalling.

Sheria said...

If spending time at a soup kitchen or repairing an old person's house such a positive experience then why isn't paying a couple of hundred of dollars extra in taxes to provide the same services not also a positive experience?

Well said, TAO, well said indeed.

Anonymous said...

Sheria, we gotta change the narrative of politics and the only way I can figure to start is by questioning the original question.

Sheria said...

TAO, I continue to be impressed with your ability to cut to the heart of the matter. I think that you are correct. The questions asked dictates the answers that we seek and at which we arrive. If we are asking the wrong question, then we will arrive at a meaningless answer. To change the narrative we need to first determine if the original question is valid.

Silverfiddle said...

We agree that we have problems, we disagree on how to address them. I'm the first to admit I don't have all the answers.

May I humbly submit to you a link to Walter Russell Mead's blog post, The Next American Upgrade?


I don't know where the guy places himself, "classical liberal," I think. He voted for Obama but he is also in favor of an active US foreign policy, and as far as I know he as never appeared on Fox news!

Anyway, he has some really good ideas for reforming our current system (unlike libertarians like me who just want to wire brush it down to constitutional bare metal). For this reason I find him very interesting.

I would be interested in what you and your readers think of his ideas.

Beth said...

A wonderful post, Sheria. I share your disenchantment and disappointment with some of our fellow Americans. Not all, of course. However, I am seeing an increasing wave of "I've got mine so I don't care if you get yours." Far too many are becoming the equivalent of the big burly guy pushing the little kid out of the lifeboat.

Anonymous said...

Beth, as a big guy I am offended! :) Just joking! I really don't see the lifeboat thing...if that was reality then guilt and shame would work.

The reality is its prosperity theology or a belief of "embetterment" (GWB word! or nonword) that somehow they well off are such because of some blessing and that the less off are such because of some character flaw or as punishment. Its almost Hindu like in the sense that one pays for sins in one life in their next life. If it was the lifeboat example then there would be a sense of guilt once shamed...but as a society we have that no longer. We somehow believe that to "embetter" these people we have to allow them to suffer as that is the only way they can attain eventual prosperity.

Its like arguing against illegal immigrants and then hiring them to work in your home, your yard, your business...we actually want them to be illegal. Kind of like the untouchables in India.