Wednesday, September 13, 2006

If you wanted one sentence to understand Americans it would be:

Americans are scared of dying.

Well, no. It's a bit more subtle than that. More like: Americans want to have control over life and death, to tame it. We can't stand the idea that maybe we could have done something we did not do or that something we did ended up badly, like in death, when we could have not done that thing.

Americans want to be safe. And what makes them feel safest is doing things, things that give the appearance of controlling their safety. The appearance is often (maybe always) enough.

So maybe what Americans are truly scared of is regret. I don't know.

This little fact about us explains many things. It explains our crazy health care system, where more is spent per capita than in any other health care system in the world and yet the country as a whole is not particularly health. The reason so much is spent? We have to make sure to stamp out virtually every way we might die and the upper half of the country is so afraid they might not be able to do that that they are sort of OK with the lower half not having much health care at all. We want the crazy bone marrow transplant that gives us a 3% chance of survival after 5 years. Any system that doesn't leave open that random shot at eternal life is a system we can't stomach.

So maybe Americans like to gamble on long odds as long when there is the illusion that they might win. That would surely explain the way wealth is distributed in the U.S. Since even those who lose out are willing to put up with a system where they lose out just in case in the .00003% chance they win big, they won't have to part with any of their money.

The need to be in charge, just by your own self, to control circumstances--even when it means that collectively, circumstances spin even further outside your control--explains our inability to have rational gun control laws. Because the irrational gun policy makes it possible for me to carry a gun around to shoot you with in case you try to shoot me. Of course, it also makes it possible for you to carry a gun around which is why it is possible for you to shoot me in the first place. And it ensures there will be many, many more guns around for people to get shot with. Which is what actually happens. But that's OK--it's OK if my child might accidentally shoot himself or his friend/there is a huge proliferation of guns for me to get shot with/I am much more likely to shoot someone in rage when I am annoyed just so that it is possible for me, when confronted in a dark alley by you, to pull out my gun and shoot you.

And even though that is so unlikely, so incredibly unlikely, I just can't stand the idea that I might not have that option. Since it puts me, by myself in illusory control.

Then, of course, there is our remarkable tort system which has resulted in a wide variety of warnings on every possible scrap of plastic and object used by us. Even the cardboard thingies that you put in your car window to keep it cool say things like: DO NOT DRIVE WITH CARDBOARD THINGIE IN WINDOW.

If you doubt whether this drive for control is a central feature of the American ethos just try telling an American about someone acquiring some tragic disease (cancer especially). They will, at some point, wonder whether that event was the person's fault. Whether there was something that could have been done. Maybe they ate too much fat?

On the one hand the idea that everything can be controlled, nay CONQUERED, is an advantage in certain ways. It's undoubtedly the thing that makes the U.S. so crazily innovative, that Yankee ingenuity thing. There's a solution to every problem. When you think that way, you find the solution to many problems.

Of course, at the current time, it seems clear to me that this trait is going to get us all killed. Or at least it could get quite a large number of us killed (Americans but probably more non-Americans.)

It's quite obvious that this psychological quirk is behind the insane idea that dropping large bombs on some virtually random country could make you safer (I'm trying to think of another stereotype of people in another country and can only think of the one told to me by a friend about how people from the north of Korea--not necessarily North Korea, it's a regional rather than national thing--hold grudges. And that this explains their behavior in families. That's surely a stereotype but I need a better one for comparison. I guess my stereotype of Americans here is akin to the "Southern Europeans ARe Lazy" stereotype--explaining how everything turns out in some gigantic region by one little quirk of character.)

The whole thing runs so deep, much deeper than an interest in living with a sense of harmony or with a calm resignation about the vicissitudes of human existence, or an acceptance of the fact that you die, and there is, in fact, not that much which is actually controllable. All these things would make one's lack of safety more bearable but it smacks of resignation and resignation does not sell. And it seems to inhibit the realization that doing something, doing ANYTHING but doing it (with the added flash of technology) will not make you safe. Because the world? If there's one thing you can sum up the world with it is the phrase: NOT SAFE.


Blogger kevin beck said...

I think your first sentence is one of the most insightful observations ever made of American culture. Our obsession w/ safety and security betrays or fears.

8:51 PM  
Blogger h de m said...

Aw, thanks! But I realize I shouldn't generalize so horribly about Americans. I'm giving ammunition to our enemies: The French Intellectuals.

I must say in my defense that I'm exactly like everyone else in this. I have longed for a gun many times if only to realize that the temptation to shoot annoying people would outweigh the sense of safety it would bring. Is it OK to stereotype if you are the one being stereotyped? (Probably not!)

9:36 PM  

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