You can take the citizen out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the citizen… or something like that. A thought-provoking and educational piece on what makes Americans so uniquely, well… American!
America is a very different kind of place that has produced a very different kind people. Unlike any other country, it has been characterized as an idea more than a country; a work in progress that is evolving – through trial and error – since the band of 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776.
Today, there are 50 United States of America including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and over a dozen Pacific Islands. It is the world’s third largest country with over 3.7 million square miles. It has the world’s largest economy and is a constitutional government. It is also the oldest non-interrupted governmental system in the world.
Over the past 237 years, an enormously diverse America has been both admired and despised. Americans have a long and active history of fighting for freedom with the sense of Manifest Destiny on their side from the establishment of the colonies by religious refuges, to the Civil War of the 1860’s, two World Wars of the last century, and the recent war on Terrorism. Above all else, it maintains the position as standard bearer of democracy by people of all backgrounds, especially immigrants who felt welcome in a land that defended their individual liberties in the “land of opportunity”.
Thus the fiercely independent nature of the American character was formed. This is the essential cultural value that sometimes runs counter to intuitive understanding because people are born naturally dependent and therefore, connected to others. This independence may be hard for most people to understand and achieve, but for Americans, it is very desirable. It can be perceived as being “selfish” but this is rooted in in self-reliance. It was a 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville who acutely observed that the United States was “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840. He concluded that despite the individualistic nature of Americans, it was precisely the singular nature of the American character that fostered unity among all American citizens.
Americans take care of themselves and expect others to do the same. Films and TV show heroes, usually ordinary individuals, who save the day or the world by acting on their own, sometimes bypassing rules and authorities and ignoring group opinion.
Americans value privacy and personal space. Even when doors are open people ask before coming in. While friendly and helpful, they expect themselves and others to make their own decisions and do their own jobs. They don’t answer other people’s phones at work. Self-help books, groups, and do-it-yourself projects abound.
Each person frequently insists that he or she is unique. While protective of their children, most U.S. parents treat them like small adults. They ask children to make their own decisions from the earliest age. Children move away from home, usually after high school. Many children have their own phone, computer, TV set, and car at the earliest possible age. Being expected to care for themselves Americans have a low and declining level of social welfare, healthcare, and public services. Volunteerism for a good cause is common, but declining.
It has been said that America is great because America is good. If America ever stops being good, it will stop being great. No one knows for sure who said that but there are some who might say that “good” American values have changed, and not exactly for the better. However, because of “American exceptionalism” — that the United States is different from other countries because it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy throughout the world – the burden seems greater to maintain standards of integrity. However, although current economic and political events have ethically stained some aspects of American institutions, we are not alone. Other countries and cultures have also experienced similar shifts in values.
Nonetheless, it was the revered civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. who said that the greatness of a nation is judged by how we care for the less fortunate. Many questioned the unrestrained actions of a few to achieve “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” at the expense of the nation, and subsequently the entire world economic system. Therefore, because America is often held to a higher standard, these events seemed particularly egregious.
To the extent that heterogeneity influences the changing values of this mono-culturalist country may also be a factor in our changing values as well as an aging population. Whatever the case, we’re a “work-in-progress.” We discover ourselves through trial and error. What’s more, we are comfortable with taking risks and welcome reinvention. As a guilt-based culture, failure is part of us – but in a good way. There’s no shame in trying and we usually come back stronger. So even in this era of discord and uncertainty, we may be down but not out. In all likelihood, we’ll reboot thanks to our inborn “effort-optimism”. It’s our “hope and change” setting that motivates us to shine our light — our destiny – for humanity; a belief that hard work pays off well.
And as a work-in-progress, the USA is re-booting. The teenage innocence of mid-century America has been replaced with a maturing nation, one that reflects the events of 9/11 terrorist attacks, a world-wide financial crises, climate changing calamities, and crippling gun tragedies. We have been hit hard by a job drought, debt hangover, banking crisis, real estate depression, health-care implosion and a runaway federal deficit. We face increasing disparities of income, gender, and race that belie a vulnerable society. American ethics that were once the benchmark standards of the world are now blurry and what’s most troublesome is that the American Dream — once available to everyone – now seems on hold for many. But that’s not the finale of our story. If you know anything about us from TV and movies, we like happy endings.
Above all, Americans certainly don’t sense they’re at the story finale. After all, we’re a culture of future optimists and no other nation is better suited to handle these arguably daunting challenges than we are. So we say, for anyone who is thinking about working with us, we’re open for business. We welcome you and your ideas, your industriousness, and spirit. That’s how we have always bounced back. Not in spite of ourselves, but because of ourselves. Revolutions, Civil War, two World Wars, an economic Depression and The Great Recession are just points in time. Anthropologist Margaret Mead observed that righting the wrongs of the world was not a job for Americans alone, yet they must see it as America’s responsibility, and they continue to do so in spite of their own recent shortcomings.
American is experiencing great challenges, but we view them as opportunities for improvement and spin them into gold. “Our greatness lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in the ability to repair our faults.” Yet, it is a country and a culture that epitomizes the full spectrum of humanity, complete with all of the exhilaration of achievement and the inevitable sorrow of failure. Americans take comfort in the idea that they can be counted on to tackle a goal worth fighting for. They believe that things are bound to improve or that they can improve, despite the odds.
As for the future, the youth of our nation has enough bandwidth to see things as they are. In their eyes, the lines of adversity and diversity are not just blurred, they are clear and acceptable. There always room for improvement and more time than Americans think to accomplish it. After all, it was Scarlett O’Hara from the famous American novel about the fall of the Old South in Gone with the Wind who said, “tomorrow is another day”.