Monday, January 19, 2015

Refocusing our Perspective of the United States--Barbaric?

Susan Neiman answering the questions,  "What should Americans know about how Europeans think?"

I wish they knew that they viewed it as absolutely barbaric not to have maternity and paternity leave. I wish they knew that they viewed it as barbaric not to have health insurance, not just as strange but as barbaric. I wish they knew that they consider all of these things to be rights and not privileges or benefits as they get called in salary packages. I wish they knew that it is infinitely more pleasurable to live in a place with great public transportation where you don’t have to jump in to a car every second to buy a bottle of milk. It’s not simply that it’s better for the environment, that the entire quality of life improves. I wish they knew that Europeans are mystified by the number of handgun deaths and by the fact that I can let my teenage girls go out--I go to sleep before they do in the middle of Berlin. They go out; they go to clubs; they go to art exhibits and enjoy themselves; they come home on safe public transportation. I neither have to worry about their being hit by a drunk driver nor being mugged by a poor person because you can have a functioning society if you view all of those things as rights that are well worth paying higher taxes for because they give you an overall quality of life even if again the salary- you don’t have the salary differential that you do here. You don’t have people making--  You have some people making giant amounts of money but not nearly as many but that it is infinitely worth--  Even in the terms of sheer self-interest it’s worth living in a society where rights are- also economic and social rights are distributed in that way because everybody’s life is better.
- Susan Neiman, http://bigthink.com/videos/america-from-abroad

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Psychologically, the United States is a bizarre mixture of overconfidence and insecurity. Interestingly, this is the precise description of the adolescent mind, and that is exactly the American condition in the twenty-first century. The worlds leading power is having an extended identity crisis, complete with incredible new strength and irrational mood swings. Historically, the United States is an extraordinary young and therefore immature society. So at this time we should expect nothing less from America than bravado and despair. How else would a adolescent feel about itself and the place in the world?

But if we think of the United States as an adolescent, early in its overall history, then we also know that, regardless of self image, adulthood lies ahead. Adults tend to be more stable and more powerful than adolescents. Therefore it is logical to conclude that America is in the earliest of phases of its power. It is not fully civilized. America like Europe in the sixteenth century is still barbaric ( a description, not a moral judgment). Its culture is unformed. Its will is powerful. Its emotions drive it in different and contradictory directions.

Cultures lives in three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn’t live the way the live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption and destruction. The third state is decadence. Decadents cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those that believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for.

Civilization is the second and most rare state. Civilized people are able to balance two contradictory thoughts in their minds. They believe that there are truths and that their cultures approximate those truths. At the same time, they hold open their mind the possibility that they are in error. The combination of belief and skepticism is inherently unstable. Cultures pass through barbarism, to civilization to decadence, as skepticism undermines self-certainty. Civilized people fight selectively but effectively. Obviously all cultures contain people that are barbaric, civilized, or decadent, but each culture is dominated at different times by one principle.

Europe was barbaric in the sixteenth century, as self-certainty of Christianity fueled the first conquests. Europe passed into civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and then collapsed into decadence in the twentieth century. The United States is just beginning its cultural and historic journey. Until now it has not been sufficiently coherent to have a definite culture. As it becomes the center of gravity of the world, it is developing that culture, which is inevitably barbaric. America is a place where the right wing despises Muslims for their faith and the left wing despises them for their treatment of women. Such seemingly different perspectives are tied together in a certainty that their own values are self-evidently best. And as all barbaric cultures, Americans are ready to fight for their self-evident truths.

This is not meant as a criticism, any more than an adolescent can be criticized for being and adolescent. It is necessary and inevitable state of development. But the United States is a young culture and as such clumsy, direct, at times brutal, and frequently torn by deep internal dissension – its dissidents being united only in the certainty that their values are best. The United States is all these things, but as Europe in the sixteenth century, the United States will, for all its apparent bumbling, be remarkably effective.”


- George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. New York: Double Day, 2009. 28-29.