Tarantino's Repellent, Shallow Cynicism
Two Coots Eating an Apple

Policies and National Character

It seems to me many commenters to the post about Gheogegan's book are conflating the issue of policy choices with national character. The argument in favor of social-democratic policies isn't that it makes people more cheerful and courteous. Those national traits, to the extent they can be measured at all, are determined by dozens of different factors. Perhaps government policy is one of them, perhaps not. Like many foreigners here, I think Germans complain vastly more than their material circumstances justify. However, it's precisely that demanding strain in their character that got them many of the benefits that, as Gheogegan's book shows, are the envy of many other nations.

Put another way, Germans might be even grumpier than they are right now if they didn't have the insulation from against war, medical-financial catastrophe, overwork, mass unemployment, and the harshest forms of global competition that they enjoy now. For that matter, Americans might be even more cheerful and trusting and patriotic if their government adopted policies that insulated the middle class better from these risks. Or perhaps they might become more petulant, or perhaps nothing at all would change. The cheerful, optimistic strain of American culture is currently being tested by long-term mass unemployment. Anyone who doesn't realize that ecomonic and social upheaval like that can unleash dark forces in America needs a history lesson.

But the rationale for introducing those policies isn't the effect it will have on the behavior of people, as measured by subjective individual observers. If the policies result in an overall increase in welfare, they should be adopted.

For that matter, I think cataloging the alleged defects of various societies in order to show that their policies shouldn't be adopted is a mug's game. There's not a society on earth that can't be filleted by a critical observer. Thus, the fact that a society has plenty of flaws to catalog doesn't really help us any further, unless it can be shown that those flaws are actually produced by ill-considered government policies.

However, that's not to say that cataloging a society's flaws isn't loads of fun, when it's done right, for instance by the immortal Phila:

It's strange how often we romanticize aspects of America that we blithely destroyed because there was money to be made. And it's even more strange that having destroyed such things, we replicate them shoddily, and market them as antidotes to the very psychic emptiness that made the real things seem worthless.

For instance, Bush and his creatures trumpet precisely those ideals of small-town life that his actual policies are destroying. The idea that we are a nation of caring families, or cooperative communities, doesn't withstand the slightest critical examination. But the concept of family and community - of belonging - remains eminently marketable. It's as though we've been locked in a bare cell, and are comforting ourselves by imagining the ineffable perfection of Platonic beds and chairs.

In America's smaller towns, neighborhoods have been destroyed and businesses torn down, only to be replaced by chain businesses that offer a cheap imitation of the community values they ruined. "Old-fashioned" qualities - such as conscientious workmanship - are promoted in cavernous, dismal buildings that were made cheaply, out of shoddy materials, by people whose emotional investment in their work was at a bare minimum. Lovely Victorian buildings are torn down, to make way for some gigantic drab enclosure where faux-Victorian gaslights are sold. Our neighbors are driven from their houses and scattered to the four winds, so that chain stores can arrive and proclaim themselves our "good neighbors."

Whatever you consider the human spirit to be, our official culture has stopped making an effort to appeal to its kinder or saner aspirations, or to please it with anything more profound than the numb familiarity one feels when entering a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart...which is really just an adjustment to diminished expectations.

Perhaps our diminished expectations explain some of our strange bitterness towards the rest of the world. We work harder and harder, and pay more and more, and get less and less, but it's almost as though we defend our lifestyle all the more fiercely because of its very shabbiness. For if this is success, who could survive failure? If this is profit, who could bear loss? The closer we come to outright failure, the less we want to admit it.