Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Baby

If these walls came crumblin' down
Fell so hard, to make us lose our faith
From what's left you'd figure it out
Still make lemonade taste like a sunny day

Stay, beautiful baby
I hope you
Stay, American baby
American baby

Nobody's laughing now
God's grace lost and the Devil is proud
But I've been walking for a thousand miles
One last time, I could see you smile

— Dave Matthews Band, "American Baby"

Let me just say at the beginning of this that I am no mindless patriot.

As a native-born citizen of the United States, I am deeply suspicious of the doctrine of American exceptionalism,1 if only because I am deeply suspicious of exceptionalist theories—not to mention doctrines—of any kind. I am a fox, not a hedgehog, and 40+ years of observation of my species has disabused me of the notion that our behavior fits neatly into any coherent, circumscribed box. World- and system-builders need not apply within.

That being said, I concede that large aggregations of people, organized into semi-permanent sociopolitical entities persisting through time, do tend to develop distinctive and identifiable sets of behaviors and attitudes. Some people call this culture. And, notwithstanding the staggering breadth and variety of semi-permanent subcultures collected under the all-encompassing banner of the United States of America,2 I think one can indeed identify a distinctly American culture.

Like most cultures, I think the American culture can best be described by a set of stories, or myths, we tell each other and ourselves. One of the most important and enduring of these is that the United States is the Land of Opportunity. Cynics both inside and outside the US and outsiders from cultures older, wiser, and/or more tired than ours may scoff, but I believe that deep down almost every American truly believes anyone can become President (or a doctor, or CEO of Goldman Sachs).3 This is an incredibly powerful belief. There is nothing magical, or special, about the political economy of the United States: nothing is materially different in the socioeconomic constraints and arrangements that characterize our country from myriad others now and in the past. Inequality and class divisions are real, persistent, and serious barriers to true socioeconomic mobility. But the mere fact that so many of us believe social mobility is possible, and indeed valuable, means that as a people we devote more time and energy into bettering our condition in life.

As a point of contrast, I have worked off and on for many years with both clients and coworkers in the UK and Western Europe. Almost to a man (and woman), these are intelligent, hard-working, and sensible individuals. Successful, too. But, like many of my compatriots who have worked with these people, I have often had to stifle a smile when my European colleague prefaces an otherwise cogent analysis about how to address a problem or opportunity with the remark

"The problem is ..."

Do not laugh. Such verbal tics are extremely revealing of a speaker's world view: what they believe is possible, and the probability of success thereof. Americans do not say such things. We are a "can do" people, and we stick to that, whether whatever we are talking about can be done or not. We are natural optimists. Most Europeans I know, for example, are not. That is culture.

* * *

Americans are famous for admiring success. Americans do not begrudge successful people their success, no matter how they earned it: through hard work, natural intelligence, luck, or a combination thereof. We admire Horatio Alger stories of scrappy youngsters who clambered their way out of the urban backwater of Queens, New York (for example) up to the pinnacle of the most successful, admired, and feared investment bank on the planet. We admire, at least in an abstract way, the youthful community organizer from a broken home who clawed his way into the most powerful political office in the world, even if we can't stand his politics. We admire talent, and brains, and hard work rewarded, because we instinctively know they are not enough. Good luck matters, too.

And, as long as we can believe that we have a chance, too—that luck has a chance to find us and reward our own faith and effort—Americans will pull contentedly at the grindstone while simultaneously ooh-ing and ah-ing over the social and financial success of our betters. But central to this implicit social contract is the idea of fairness: that the deck is not stacked against the little guy, and that he or she has just as much chance of becoming the next Warren Buffett, or Lloyd Blankfein, or Barack Obama as the next guy. It is not a belief in fairness of outcome, but rather one of fairness of opportunity. There is nothing that raises the cultural hackles of most Americans more than learning that the game is rigged, and that the guys at the top are gaming the system in their own favor.

Now, cynics (and Europeans) might laugh at such naïvete. Of course, they say, the game is rigged; of course the guys at the top skim more than their share of the cream and leave the dregs for the hoi polloi. What's new about that? But Americans understand that too, at least instinctually. That's why we have such a long history of suspicion and hostility against Big Business, and Big Government, and Big Anything. That's why, among other things, the Tea Party movement has gained such broad-based traction in this country: it is the natural outpouring of frustration and suspicion grounded in the most basic American myths and beliefs about ourselves. We may acknowledge that is the way the human cookie crumbles in any society with unequal distribution of wealth and privilege, but we do not accept it, at a very fundamental level, as the way things should be.

* * *

That is one big reason why the ongoing scandals rocking the financial sector are creating such outrage and upset among the American polity. Citizens are discovering that a very large percentage of people whom they used to admire and envy for mouth-watering financial success earned a large portion of that success by cheating, by gaming the system, and by rigging the rules in their favor. What seems to outrage many Americans even more is that these very financiers do not seem to recognize that they have violated the implicit social norms almost everybody else seems to accept. They hide behind a defense of arrogance, superciliousness, and moral obliviousness which makes most Americans' teeth grind in frustration.

This is a dangerous situation for the plutocracy. For, when you get right down to it, most Americans are not really interested in supporting a system that is designed to preserve the wealth and privileges of those who have already made it to the top. Instead, they want one that will give as many people as possible a reasonably fair shot at reaching the top themselves. That is a distinction which seems to elude many of the wealthy and powerful. They misperceive the struggle as one of capitalism versus socialism, when what it really is is a struggle for the heart and soul of capitalism in this country. On one side is a new aristocracy of money, entrenched interests, and cronyism, and on the other is an ethos of equal opportunity for all.

It will be a long, difficult fight. Given the money and resources arrayed on the other side of the ledger, it is by no means certain the country will come out of this struggle with a cleaner, fairer system. The Augean Stables look like an afternoon's Spring cleaning by comparison.

But I am optimistic we will arrive at the right solution. Heck, you knew that already: I am an American.4

1 As always, apologies to the multitudes of people who live in the Americas, North and South, who do not reside anywhere inside the capacious boundaries of the United States. If you have not already noticed, we inhabitants of the USA have an ingrained difficulty distinguishing our country from the entire hemisphere in normal conversation, if not in our own minds as well. In our—admittedly weak—defense, it is awfully awkward to say "USA-ers" or "United States-ans" all the time. (I make no apologies for Dave Matthews, who is a musician and therefore perfectly capable of defending himself.)
2 It is my firm belief that someone from outside the USA who wishes to understand our culture could do no better than rent a car and spend a week or so driving across the country. The diversity of regions, people, and geography one would encounter on such a journey would truly stagger an observant pilgrim. Such an exercise, in my opinion, would also have a highly salutary effect on most Americans, who tend to be distressingly parochial and pathetically ignorant about their own country.
3 Or, perhaps what is more powerful, most of us believe anyone should be able to become President, even if we doubt it is possible. In the context of human history, this is a surprising and extraordinary belief.
4 History is littered with the smoldering wreckage of nations and peoples who mistook Americans' native optimism for childish naïvete, softness, or lack of resolve in the face of difficult struggles. It is unwise to underestimate us.

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