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We are a nation of things
By ROBYN BLUMNER
Published July 15, 2007
Who are we? asks filmmaker Michael Moore in the movie Sicko. It is a question I have been asking myself lately.
Moore asks the existential question relative to the kind of society Americans have. Why don't we have a national health care system on a par with other Western democracies? Why do we allow private health insurers to insert a profit motive into denying necessary care to sick people? What is it about American culture that has tolerated and even defended this abolition of responsibility to one another?
This brought me to a larger puzzle: What is American culture? When I randomly ask people I know this question, "hot dogs" comes up with rather distressing frequency.
I think it is undisputable that this nation's greatness emanated from its cultural roots in the Enlightenment. We as a people have few outward characteristics in common, but we share a set of understandings that have largely liberated human beings to live up to their potential. This includes a fealty to reason, the rule of law, individual rights, popular sovereignty, the common good and equal opportunity. With these cornerstones, American society was built. Even as we amalgamated our cultural soup with every new wave of immigrants, we held on to those core understandings.
But these ideas almost sound quaint today. The Bush administration has done more damage to our national identity than any one before it. You can't be a nation of equal justice when the president has eyes only for the fairness of process for loyalists like Scooter Libby. You can't have the rule of law when the vice president claims laws don't apply to him. You can't have a nation of reason when the government elevates faith and politics over fact and science. And you can't have equal opportunity or a common good when the rules are rigged to solidify ever larger gains for those at the top. President Bush has substituted our Enlightenment values for his own: Crass materialism (go shopping to show your love of country), class privilege, anti-intellectualism, cronyism, religious zealotry and American exceptionalism.
Without leadership to express a conceptual vision of the best of who we are, we have moved from a nation of ideas to one of things. Creature comforts and entertainment products define American culture as much as our Constitution once did. McDonald's and Xboxes are our ambassadors. We have been drifting in this direction long before Bush came to office, but his personal and political instincts accelerated it.
This change in our national character can be laid at the feet of government. When large numbers of people suddenly feel left behind by an increasingly stratified economy, they start struggling to appear not to be among the losers. Accumulating things is one way to convince ourselves that we are still ensconced in the middle class. A prize-winning book by Michael Adams on the growing differences in the values of Americans and Canadians says that Americans are becoming more self-involved, focusing on personal needs and one's own survival in society rather than broader social values.
That shift is inevitable when your government no longer appears to be on your side.
Moore clues us in to how Americans have been scared off of single-payer health care, one of the government benefits that gives Canadians and Europeans great peace of mind. The medical establishment called it "socialized medicine" raising the specter of Communism.
Even cowboy actor Ronald Reagan was enlisted to paint it as anti-American. Its cousin, a plan for universal coverage offered during the Clinton years, was killed dead by Republicans in the service of entrenched interests.
Then Moore points to other "socialized" services that Americans have come to expect as a benefit of citizenship. Things like police and fire protection, public schools and libraries, the postal service. When we are victims of crime we expect the government to help. Why not when we are victims of a heart attack?
Even in our romanticized past when our heroes were quintessential individualists, such as Daniel Boone, America's go-it-alone spirit and limitless opportunity was built on the free land granted homesteaders by the government.
The original G.I. Bill helped put millions of returning veterans through college, even granting them a monthly stipend above tuition costs.
When we think nostalgically of the mid-20th century we're remembering a time when government was a partner of the middle class, protecting workers, providing an economic launching pad for success and demanding through progressive taxation a shared prosperity.
Who are we now is not who we were. American culture is barely definable anymore. The go-go 1980s somehow convinced us that greed is good and that a caring society is weak.
Building on this, Bush's "ownership society" is really a "you're on your own society." It's disturbing, harmful and more than a little bit sicko.