I was at a conference on resiliency earlier this week, and among the topics of discussion was the notion of American exceptionalism. Exceptionalism was presented as five things in our character that make us unique from most of the rest of the world. American Exceptionalism is compelling, but controversial. I won’t wade into whether it is actually a force with mass, as that would be a distraction here.
Like so many times before, I like to take the data at face value. I can’t find the canonical list of five things that the speaker presented, but a couple stood out for me: “Rights over Responsibilities” and “Egalitarianism”. The speaker, and the audience in general, was predictably pejorative about the first, and sarcastic about the second. I’ll talk in a subsequent post about the meaning of rights over responsibilities, but something occurred to me about egalitarianism.
Egalitarianism, the thought that we are equal in the eyes of God, the Law, and Nature, is not a universally held idea. Most animal species have pecking orders, and most other nations have explicitly royal pasts or even presents. The well off in an aristocracy feel they are inherently bette than the rest of us, worth their weight in cash, and solely fit to manage things for the rest of us. That seems discordant to type for my American sensibilities, a vestige of that “egalitarianism” I was raised with from birth. The American ideal is that anyone can achieve great things if they put their mind to it.
The thing a lot of Europeans (in particular) like to rub our noses in is that we are not an equal or even free society at all. The poor are made to feel like shit as a procedural matter in the US, We have similar income inequality to such modern nations as Namibia and Uruguay, and our income mobility is downright aristocratic. If your parents are rich, congratulations. If they are poor, good day to you, sir.
Why would the principle of egalitarianism result in a mire unequal society. Setting aside the technological, trade and legal reasons for this, here’s why.
In America, we are judged for how far we have made it because “anyone can make it”. If we didn’t make it, that must be our fault, and we are due the bare minimum of care to ensure we don’t infect any worthy soul in our inevitable shuffle to the drain. In much of the rest of the world, people have palace in a hierarchy, rich and poor alike. There is an honor in knowing your place and responsibilities, whether your are landed gentry or addict on the dole. Poverty is built right in to the class structure and assumed. The Abrahamaic religions all make specific and eternal mention of the poor and the obligation of support.
An aristocrat sees a poor person and sees their role as that of a benefactor. He has the wealth, it will bring a cheer to his heart to fulfill his role and give to they who have less. He is able to be more charitable because he doesn’t see himself as similar to others.
A wealthy person in America sees a poor person and sees one who has not worked as hard, taken the risks, and met their responsibilities in the same way. She sees the poor as an equal, with the same rights and responsibilities she has. Surely, their poverty is mostly their fault, and no responsibility of hers.
I don’t know if this is a recent trend, but I doubt it. This is not our first gilded age.
I called this “American Clay” because we have to work with what we have, not what we want. We will not find our solutions by suddenly becoming French. They have their own substantial problems. We will only find our solutions by understanding what we have and working with that. Only that.