May 19, 2006
So what is so broken about America?
"Consider the possibility that your biggest faults are your grandest assets, just with the volume turned up just a tiny bit too high."
- Neale Donald Walsch
The first American pathology is the excessive hold of ideology over America's politics and culture. This can be thought of as idealism with the volume turned up too high. It is evident whenever a simple position is taken on a complex issue and justified by a set of fundamental or general "principles" that are held axiomatically to be of greater inherent value than any others.
The second American pathology is the fear of collective or socialized solutions to problems which can be thought of as the pre-eminence of the individual with the volume turned up too high. It is evident, most obviously, in America's failure to change a "health care system" that makes more profit for private shareholders than perhaps any other in the world, while failing to deliver universal healthcare.
Let's start with the first.
The First American Pathology: Ideology
As soon as you look at the world through an ideology, you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that.
- Anthony de Mello
America's greatest pathology and one of the first things that struck me when I settled in the U.S. is the power of ideology. I don't mean any particular ideology but ideology in its most general and fundamental sense. Many Americans seem to take great comfort in their chosen ideology, and often use it as a shortcut to opinion or a substitute for thought.
Talk to a Brit or a Frenchman about abortion, healthcare, taxation or the war in Iraq, for example, and things will tend to get complicated pretty fast. The argument will cover many related issues, set conflicting points against each other, and make explicit the uncertainties and tensions among the important principles that apply.
Typically, once you've had a few drinks and "done" abortion, you won't be able to guess with any accuracy the political party for which your talking partner last voted, and you certainly will be none-the-wiser as to his views on any of the other issues on the list.
Things are very different in the United States. If I know your views on abortion and taxation, I am going to be able to predict with some certainty your views on gun control and the war in Iraq, for example, and then have a good shot at your religious leanings. This is possible only when opinions are simplistic expressions of general ideologies. In the U.S, the most powerful ideologies are ubiquitous abstractions, complete with their own language and defending institutions. The obvious ones are Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Liberal, Christian, Left and Right, and even American, itself. It might seem self-evident to the average American that identifying with such an ideology is "natural" or even "necessary"... but of course it isn't at least not in the developed world of the 21st century.
This is a large and important claim, and my upcoming posts will present some of what I think are its most interesting manifestations ...