By Ben Cohen: The culture you grow up in usually has a significant effect on the values you hold. If you have moved to another country you become keenly aware of this fact as you are able to contrast the values of your own society against that of your host’s.
When people are brought up in a tolerant, cooperative society that values things like community, education and art, more often than not, they embody a least a good proportion of those values in their everyday lives. If they were brought up in a violent, intolerant society that valued war, misogyny and greed, there’s a good bet they’d instinctively behave in a way that reflected those values. This is of course an extreme comparison – culture is complicated and the more I have traveled, the more I understand that when it comes to assessing whether a culture is ‘good’, ‘bad’, or ‘better’, it’s usually a matter of taste and opinion.
There are certain aspects of America that I find enormously attractive as a Brit – the openness and friendliness of the people, their generosity, incredible optimism and dynamic entrepreneurialism, and the lack of a stifling European style class system. It’s a great country to live in and in general, I’m very happy here.
However, there is a side to America that I find extremely unsettling – the relentless fixation on money, the deeply corrupt political system, lack of public health care, and the massive extremes in wealth inequality to name a few. There seems to me to be a very dangerous combination of cultural, political and economic factors that make greed and corruption a staple of American life. And sadly, I think that America is a country so beholden to the interests of the wealthy that I don’t hold a huge amount of hope that anything significant can, or will happen to change the status quo.
The roots of the problem are, I believe, cultural. America was founded on the ethos of rugged individualism – the notion that you could move to the new world, work hard and become whoever you wanted to be. This in itself is no bad thing, but combined with a political system open to the influence of money, it has become positively toxic. The current monetary system, often referred to as ‘selfish capitalism’ is a ruthless economic paradigm designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few and keep the rest of the population in a constant state of insecurity so that they often have to work two to three jobs just to stay alive. This system has been sold to the public as the ultimate expression of rugged individualism – the very definition of the American way, and the only option other than communism. Of course it isn’t, but when the corporate media system owned by the same financial interests that control the political system reinforces that notion day in day out, it’s hard for the public to imagine an alternative.
There is an implied notion behind the theory of free market capitalism that human beings are inherently selfish. This has roots in Darwinian biology, and is therefore seen as a logical extension of human nature. Selfish capitalism is natural, and therefore right.
This every man for himself attitude seeps into everything we do – from who we vote for and how we treat our fellow citizens. In many countries around the world, homelessness and severe mental illness is seen as a reflection of their society and therefore unacceptable. In America, there is a disassociation and disregard for the unfortunate – just walk around any major city and you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands of mentally ill and homeless people begging for money on the streets. In the selfish capitalist paradigm, they are as responsible for their own misfortune as the self made millionaire is responsible for his success. Because America is a country of individuals, the poor and mentally ill are separate from us and can be ignored.
However, for every action there is a reaction, and despite America’s brutal treatment of its poor, there is an undercurrent of extreme generosity that I have personally not seen in any other country. Americans give an astonishing amount of their own money to charities, more so as a percentage of GDP than in any other country in the world. On a personal level, there is a culture of kindness and understanding that is not manifested on a societal level – a strange contradiction that could have some interesting outcomes.
Movements like ‘Occupy Wall St’, the explosion of non-profits, and the deep mistrust of the political classes reflect the growing disenchantment with the selfish capitalism model – a sign that culture in America could be changing. And if the roots of America’s problems are cultural, a significant shift in culture could go a long way in changing the political system.
It is in the interests of the wealthy to perpetuate the selfish capitalist model. It works for them, so maintaining the status quo is a primary objective. They will continue to buy politicians, rig legislation to give themselves tax breaks and access to public money. They will continue to ensure the media doesn’t report on anything of value by focusing on ratings and profit over reporting, and they will smear anyone who suggests otherwise. But the funny thing is, the harder they try, the harder the reaction will be.
And we’re seeing it now – a sign that America’s generosity could be more powerful than its greed.