While living and traveling in Peru and meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, I was led to reflect on what might be described as the "character" of the American people. I wasn't forced by my friends and acquaintances to "defend" what it means to be an American; rather, conversations about European politics (Finnish parliamentary elections, the French presidential election, etc.) and Peruvian development inspired me to compare American attitudes toward government, education, and civil society to those of other nationalities. It was an open debate.
My Finnish friends in particular provided me with an interesting set of ideas about government, education, and civil society that stood in contrast to what I think is the predominant "American" view of such things. Finnish students and professionals alike remarked that while their country's very high taxes are at times a personal nuisance and too often mismanaged, the common, public good that those taxes ultimately serve is worth 1) the nuisance, and 2) the effort to reform government to become more fiscally efficient.
The socialist-style Finnish system applies a graduated income tax to its citizens so that the wealthy are responsible for paying more taxes (relative to their income) than the poor and working classes. And to be sure, there's the usual discontent among the middle and rich classes about social welfare -- the perception that many poor and working-class Finns don't do their part in finding gainful employment or in trying not to live off the state. Despite these very real social and economic problems, however, my Finnish friends told me that most well-off Finns continue to believe that it's ultimately a good thing to buttress the country's infrastructure and social networks with their taxes.
Hearing this made me ashamed to be an American. I knew instinctively that such a view of the common, public good was/is utterly foreign to the vast majority of Americans. Perhaps it wasn't always so. Or maybe this has always been the case in a country that prides itself on its individualist ethos and cult of self-determination. What I do know is that the American creed of every man (or: nuclear family unit) for himself was perfected during the Reagan Revolution, the late-'70s to mid-'90s social and political movement that, among other things, valorized private enterprise and unfettered capitalism at the expense of public institutions, social welfare, and, specifically, the very idea that the country's tax burden would be shared by all citizens.
One truly sad result of this long period of dismantling the bonds of our civil society is that many well-off Americans actually feel victimized by the government when it tries to raise their income tax (which of course is modest compared to those paid by citizens in other "First World" countries). Even worse is how well-off Americans tend to feel victimized by the poorest sectors of society -- those who don't earn a living wage, who need to work three jobs to make ends meet, and need I mention "illegal immigrants"? The poor: whom the well-off characterize as morally and culturally deficient leeches, in so many words. The poor: whose socioeconomic poverty is somehow their fault, and theirs only.
It's this cult of victimization that's uniquely American, it seems to me. The well-off Finns have their complaints, sure. But at least many of them are able to distinguish a problem of social inequality (the poor needing help and the state mismanaging the system that distributes "help" to the poor) from a basically personal feeling of resentment, which, as Nietzsche reminds us, is the other face of self-righteousness (the poor are themselves deficient and so offend "me" by taking "my" money).
But why take my word for it? Durham's weekly news magazine The Independent cites this quotation from a recent article in the daily newspaper The News & Observer:
"The last thing I want to do is put more money into education, because I don't want to pay for something I never use."
--Bob Williamson, 46, a childless real estate executive from Wake Forest, quoted in an N&O story about how a majority of Wake County residents who don't have children oppose new taxes to help the schools keep up with growth.
So goes the American creed.
[For: Katri, Maria, Tiia, Lissu, Laura]