Dispatches from the Creation Wars

What’s Wrong with America?

I’d like this to be an ongoing discussion between me and the readers of this page. It was motivated by a conversation with my brother, beginning with some shocking statistics. Did you know that the United States locks up 4 times as many of its citizens than any other western nation per capita? Did you know that despite this, the US is the most violent western nation by far? Murders per capita are 2.5 times higher than any other nation, rapes nearly 3 times higher.

What I’d like to figure out is, why? What is it about American culture that breeds this sort of thing in numbers so disproportionate to the rest of the civilized world? Some of the commonly heard and easy answers are obviously false. For example, it’s obvious that “getting tough on crime” isn’t the answer to a high crime rate – we lock up 4 times as many as any other nation and we STILL have far more crime. So too, the commonly heard answer from the religious right, that things went to hell when we “took God out of schools” or some such rot. The US has a far higher rate of religious belief and church attendance than any other western nation and that’s not close either, so obviously there is no correlation there. Nor do I think the answer is gun control. Many other nations have just as much gun ownership per capita as the US, like Canada and Switzerland, with nothing close to the rates of violent crime that we have here.

So I’m looking for answers and I’m asking my readers to join in this discussion and maybe we can all learn some things and generate some ideas. A couple of preliminary possibilities:

1. The US is the most income-stratified nation as well, with the largest gap between rich and poor of any nation. Could this be part of it?

2. The US does not have the kind of continuous, homogenous culture that so many other western nations have. We’re a melting pot of different cultural traditions, without the commonalities to bind us all together.

3. Most other cultures put far more emphasis on families, in my experience. I have friends from other cultures who are astonished by how uncohesive our families are. They wouldn’t dream of putting an elderly parent in a nursing home, and it’s normal in other cultures to have 3 generations under the same roof. We see it in the US, but primarily among immigrant families, at least in my experience.

Okay, everyone. Your turn. Any ideas out there for what creates this toxic culture in America that results in so much suffering when, the truth is, we have everything going for us and it shouldn’t be this way?

Comments

  1. #1 Aaron Pohle
    April 8, 2004

    Here are the reasons that I would name.

    1) As you mentioned, we are a greater mix of cultures than just about any other nation. More, importantly, I believe, we have a greater mix of ethnicities, which makes it easier for people to readily find people who are obviously different to blame for their misfortunes and problems.

    2) We have the most wealth of any nation and, as you mentioned, there is a great disparity in the distribution of that wealth. More importantly, however, is I think the seeming accessibility of that wealth. Americans constantly see tremendous wealth through television, magazines, films, and even in their close neighbors. A “better” life is always in display. Americans, for the most part, have a very good image of what their life would be like with greater wealth, and are confronted with examples of it every day.

    3) Americans are not lock onto a class system or mentality. While there are certainly socio-economic classes in America, they are not locked. Most Americans consider their lack of wealth to be a matter of circumstances. They don’t consider the rich to be any better than they are, or any more deserving. They don’t have a sense that they are in their “place” in society, instead they feel they have just as much right to be on top as anyone else. This is hardly true of most of the rest of the world.

    4) America has the third highest population in the world, and the second highest that doesn’t have a near police-state.

    5) America is on top of the world economically. Individuals in America do not have anyone else to blame for their lack of success. Since there is no foreign source to blame, Americans look within and find sources within America to blame for their lack of success.

    6) Americans have a stronger sense of individuality than most other nations. As you mentioned the family connection in America is far weaker than in most other nations. The sense of community and of nationality is also far weaker. While Americans are quick to unite in the face of a common enemy, without such an enemy they typically think of themselves far more as individuals first and less of family, community, or country.

    I don’t think that any one of the above reasons are to blame, rather it is a combination of all of them that increase the conditions for crime to occur. Our large population and weaker police force (than that of a state which does not respect individual rights) make it easier to get away with crime than in most nations. Our lack of a common source of blame for our problems leads people to be more inclined to blame those around them. The ethnic and cultural differences provide easily identifiable differences that can be easily used as the focus for such blame. Finally the fact that there are no societal barriers to increasing one’s socio-economic status, rules out another excuse (or source of blame) for lack of success.

    In other nations the people can blame their lack of success on society as a whole due to the class barriers, or they can blame a foreign group (America is a very popular target). Even so, the disparity in wealth with what is present around them is often not as great. The life of the wealthy is not perceived by most of the world as nearly as attainable as it is in America. They are more family and/or community based and therefore less likely to take advantage of or take aggression out on their neighbors.

    That’s what I think anyway. :)

  2. #2 Paige
    April 8, 2004

    My personal opinion is that the violence that is regularly shown on TV and in the movies is a major culprit. While some people feel that showing Janet Jackson’s nipple on TV is a huge problem, I do not. I think the nations airwaves and movie theatres should contain much less violence, and I’m fine if they replace it with sex.

    I cannot remember the details, but I remember reading of a study of an Eskimo village in the far north of Canada. There was no TV and violence in this village was almost non-existent. As soon as TV became available to this village, the level of violence increased dramatically, particularly among young males.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    April 8, 2004

    Thanks to Aaron for his reply. Let’s go into more detail on some of these and try to flesh them out a bit.

    1) As you mentioned, we are a greater mix of cultures than just about any other nation. More, importantly, I believe, we have a greater mix of ethnicities, which makes it easier for people to readily find people who are obviously different to blame for their misfortunes and problems.

    This is certainly true, and it’s what I meant when I said we don’t have a homogenous culture. Is this really the root of some of it? It almost has to be, doesn’t it? This just seems bizarre to me, because I regard that as our biggest strength, the diverse cultures that have mixed here. Our culture would be so much poorer if this were not the case, and I don’t just mean economically. I just think of all the ethnic influences on music, food, literature, comedy, and every other aspect of our culture. I can scarcely imagine living in a society without a variety of ethnic foods, or without music influenced by Latin, Caribbean, African and other influences. It’s just inconceivable to me.

    2) We have the most wealth of any nation and, as you mentioned, there is a great disparity in the distribution of that wealth. More importantly, however, is I think the seeming accessibility of that wealth. Americans constantly see tremendous wealth through television, magazines, films, and even in their close neighbors. A “better” life is always in display. Americans, for the most part, have a very good image of what their life would be like with greater wealth, and are confronted with examples of it every day.

    My brother raised this as a possibility, especially as it regards black Americans, and I think you’re both on to something here. For a young black person growing up in America, virtually the only images you see of blacks in the media are either inner city gangbangers or former inner city gangbangers who struck it rich in either sports or rap. That’s pretty much it. There isn’t even a Cosby show anymore to represent the black middle or upper middle class. And there’s no question that popular music, especially rap, romanticizes this notion of striking it rich, getting the bling bling the “easy” way, with virtually no emphasis in the media on education or business as a way out of poverty.

    3) Americans are not lock onto a class system or mentality. While there are certainly socio-economic classes in America, they are not locked. Most Americans consider their lack of wealth to be a matter of circumstances. They don’t consider the rich to be any better than they are, or any more deserving. They don’t have a sense that they are in their “place” in society, instead they feel they have just as much right to be on top as anyone else. This is hardly true of most of the rest of the world.

    Hmmm. But how true is this of the western, developed world? In Japan, perhaps there is a good bit of that. But in Europe, do they have the kinds of rigid social classes you speak of? I’m asking, not offering an answer, as I’ve not lived there.

    4) America has the third highest population in the world, and the second highest that doesn’t have a near police-state.

    I tend not to put much stock in this one. Population density, it seems to me, is more important than just plain population numbers. And if you look at Japan, they have half as many inhabitants packed into 1/10th the space. They are FAR more overcrowded than we are and don’t have anywhere near the rates of violence we do. This runs counter to conventional wisdom from group psychology.

    5) America is on top of the world economically. Individuals in America do not have anyone else to blame for their lack of success. Since there is no foreign source to blame, Americans look within and find sources within America to blame for their lack of success.

    I think this one may point to a slightly larger issue that may be very close to the heart of the problem. Not only are Americans on top of the world economically, but militarily as well. And honestly, most Americans have been brought up to think that we are simply entitled to material success, if not material excess. We use a staggering percentage of the world’s natural resources, far beyond our sheer numbers, and we just think we’re entitled to that. I think that sense of entitlement, and lack of self-criticism, probably conditions a lot of this stuff.

    6) Americans have a stronger sense of individuality than most other nations. As you mentioned the family connection in America is far weaker than in most other nations. The sense of community and of nationality is also far weaker. While Americans are quick to unite in the face of a common enemy, without such an enemy they typically think of themselves far more as individuals first and less of family, community, or country.

    Well I’m certainly guilty of that. I am a staunch individualist. In fact, I really don’t think of myself as an “American” at all, except in the legal sense. I’m me. I have no more in common with most Americans than I do with most of any other group, and I don’t think the fact that my parents had sex in this country and so did your parents means much of anything meaningful in terms of how I relate to you.

    What I find odd about this is while I think you’re right that we have more of an individualist credo than virtually any other country, we’re also hyper-nationalistic as a group. But that nationalism is extraordinarily shallow for most people, it’s a piece of cloth or it’s getting weepy eyed when the anthem comes on, and that’s about all it is. And I think that goes back to the idea that we just think we’re entitled to rule the world and do whatever the hell we want to do to anyone we wanna do it to.

    I don’t think that any one of the above reasons are to blame, rather it is a combination of all of them that increase the conditions for crime to occur. Our large population and weaker police force (than that of a state which does not respect individual rights) make it easier to get away with crime than in most nations. Our lack of a common source of blame for our problems leads people to be more inclined to blame those around them. The ethnic and cultural differences provide easily identifiable differences that can be easily used as the focus for such blame. Finally the fact that there are no societal barriers to increasing one’s socio-economic status, rules out another excuse (or source of blame) for lack of success.

    I think this is a good point as well, especially the focus on blame. We are undoubtedly a blame-obsessed culture, and again I think this goes back to our innate sense of entitlement – if our lives aren’t perfect, someone has to be blamed for it. We go to therapy and blame our parents. If we do something stupid, we want to sue someone for not telling us not to do something stupid. For a nation that prizes individualism so much, the concept of individual responsibility seems to have disappeared entirely. If you’re fat, it’s McDonalds’ fault. If you’re poor, The Man is keeping you down. If you get lung cancer, it’s the tobacco companies’ fault.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    April 8, 2004

    Paige writes:

    My personal opinion is that the violence that is regularly shown on TV and in the movies is a major culprit. While some people feel that showing Janet Jackson’s nipple on TV is a huge problem, I do not. I think the nations airwaves and movie theatres should contain much less violence, and I’m fine if they replace it with sex.

    My understanding is that many of the other cultures view much the same stuff. The popular movies here are the popular movies there and TV contains just as much violence, and in some cases more. So I doubt it could be this exclusively. But perhaps this in concert with some of the other elements? We certainly do tend to think violence is a solution to all problems in the US.

    I cannot remember the details, but I remember reading of a study of an Eskimo village in the far north of Canada. There was no TV and violence in this village was almost non-existent. As soon as TV became available to this village, the level of violence increased dramatically, particularly among young males.

    I’d be interested in seeing such studies. They may be on to something.

    Thanks for the input.

  5. #5 Vic Vanity
    April 8, 2004

    I think Micahel Moore actually hit it pretty much dead on in bowling for columbine .. Violence in our culture is more glorified than any other nation … Our news broadcast sensationalizes (sp?) it .. Ed .. Living in as close of a proximity to Canada as you or i do we can see the diffrences in their news cast … Canada has the same Movies ,video games ,diverse culture mix and a good deal of wealth …….

  6. #6 Aaron Pohle
    April 8, 2004

    To keep things from getting amazingly long, I will just respond to the points using the numbers that I assigned in the beginning.

    1) I agree that diversity is also a great source of strength for America, and one of the things that makes it great. As is so often the case, however, a great strength is also a great weakness, when approached from a different direction. Without the diversity our culture would be much poorer, but it would also be harder for people to find ways to divide large groups of our society against each other

    2) You bring up another great point. The concept of gaining wealth is increasingly detached from the idea of making it honestly in America. There is a growing perception that most of the people get ahead do so by cheating, stealing, or just being very lucky. This breeds resentment as well as contempt for the law, as it is felt that ignoring the law and not getting caught is often the way to get ahead.

    3) Modern Europe doesn’t have rigid class structures that I am aware of, but they do still have a lot of that thinking in their culture. In my experience with Europeans, they do not generally expect to greatly increase or decrease their socio-economic class from what they have or from what their parents had. It is a far different view and attitude than what Americans have, but it is also far looser than the rigid structures present in much of the non-Western world.

    4) Population density is a factor, certainly and when you look within a country it is always the case the crime is higher per capita in areas of higher population density. It is certainly not the only factor. Japan does certainly violate the trend of population density vs. vs. crime. I do not think that, however, disproves the effect of population density. Rather it shows that Japan has many other factors that prevent violence despite their population. Japan, for example, is one of the more culturally homogenous societies, they are still strictly class based, they still have strong behavioral codes of conduct, and they have a very efficient police force. I would argue that these factors are enough to overcome their population’s influence, not that the influence isn’t there.

    5) Excellent points, I agree completely.

    With regard to American nationalism, we also see the individuality inherent in it. It is not a conflict for Americans to feel great pride in their country, to be very patriotic, and yet to have a great deal of hatred for certain other Americans. In many other cultures such a view would present a conflict as they see the individual representing the whole.

  7. #7 Aaron Pohle
    April 8, 2004

    I disagree with you Vic. There are many cultures that glorify violence far more than America does. Most Arab, many Asian, and many African cultures glorify violence far more than we do. They, however, do not have all of the other factors, and most of them have an externam enemy to focus their agression on.

  8. #8 Steve Reuland
    April 8, 2004

    “And there’s no question that popular music, especially rap, romanticizes this notion of striking it rich, getting the bling bling the “easy” way, with virtually no emphasis in the media on education or business as a way out of poverty. “

    I have long thought that this sort of thing, in a more generalized sense, is responsible for much of what’s wrong with America, and not just crime.

    American culture by and large seems to be addicted to the quick fix. There is an easy answer to everything. Success in life means getting rich by expending the least possible amount of effort. That’s why movie stars and professional athletes are childrens’ heroes (not that these people don’t work hard, but their jobs appear both glamorous and easy.) As kids grow up many if not most believe that they too can acheive this kind of “success” some day, and so they eschew education, which is also looked at disfavorably (relative to other countries) in American culture. This is especially prevalent among black youth, who idolize NBA stars, but it’s true of everyone else as well.

    The addiction to the quick fix manifests itself in other ways too. Overly simplified political solutions that would be laughed at in other countries are peddled quite successfully in America. Much of the right-wing believes that cutting taxes by itself will somehow cause economic utopia, despite there being essentially no theoretical or empirical reasons to think so. But it’s an easy sell to the public because it’s so simple. Likewise, the death penalty is totally ineffective as a means of discouraging crime, but it remains wildly popular because it’s such an easy answer. And these things tend to compound themselves. One overly simplified solution makes things like education and crime even worse, which increases the likelihood that people will seek out the quick fix.

    Anyway, that’s kind of my take on the situation. It’s something that’s ingrained into American culture. And I have no ideas for how to fix it.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    April 8, 2004

    Aaron, I don’t think Vic was saying merely that we glorify violence. I know what he is referring to in Bowling for Columbine, and it wasn’t merely talking about glorifying violence, but about the media’s focus on the negative that breeds fear. One professor pointed out that violent crime had gone down something like 40% in the previous ten years, yet coverage of violent crime on TV had gone up like 300%. So the reality wasn’t being portrayed accurately in the media, and those images of violent crime breed fear of “them”. The fact is people base their fears not on statistics, but on how often they’re fed an image. I think there is definitely something to that explanation. Fear is a powerful advertising tool and a powerful political tool, and it’s used very well in American culture.

  10. #10 Tim B.
    April 9, 2004

    A spontaneous, therefore suspect, take on the issue:

    From what I’ve read, the United States is disproportionately religious, as compared to other highly developed nations. I wonder if there is something like a Mithraic-drenched death cultishness infecting our predominantly Christian populous? Some kind of unrecognized nihilism behind this centuries-old zeitgeist that percolates up through the collective American subpsyche? Piety, paradoxically, might be hiding a death urge, which manifests itself as expressions of violence and fascination with blood (for example, The Passion of the Christ). Consider the ubiquity of violent sports and other combative entertainment, as well as the dog-eat-dog capitalistic engine driving our society — greed, ambition, power as fumes from a rotten, albeit half-buried, religious ideation; high finance as a busy, teeming Temple of Living Death.

    Instead of something more socially life-affirming.

    Instead of a dynamic god of life, such as panentheism describes, the American Christ feeding into the historical national stream has become a god of death. A corpse on a tree who is reanimated after blood sacrifice and who would return in a glorified fury of vengeance. Matter is subconsciously considered evil and dead, therefore we live and move and have our being in a collective gothic sarcophagus.

    I realize that many violent people are irreligious, but I’m wondering how much the slow, centuries-evolution of Christianity might covertly influence a society.

    In this view of things, the ideas presented by other posters, though impacting, would be seen as symptoms arising from a more ancient dis-ease permeating the cultural air.

    As I said, this is off the top of my head, so I accept responsibility for any ignorance and illogic it contains.

  11. #11 Lynn S
    April 10, 2004

    Our culture glorifies rogues and rebels. IMO the main problem is not the violence in movies and TV it’s that the hero is always a rule-breaker. It’s considered okay to break rules if you’re the “good guy” or if the rules themselves are “bad,” which sometimes just means inconvenient.

    An excess of petty laws that are difficult or impossible to enforce adds justification for this attitude.

  12. #12 Some Guy
    April 12, 2004

    Saying that we lock up 4 times as many of our citizens as any other Western Nation is a bit of a misleading statistic, don’t you think? Locked up for *what* exactly? You can be put behind bars for rape, murder, robbery, of course. You can also be locked up for not paying traffic tickets, and not showing up in court. (both of which can be *forgotten*, not always on purpose) You can be locked up for being “suspected” of selling/using/producing drugs. You can be locked up for having a marijuana seed on the floorboard of your car. (they call that “cultivation”. Not even my floorboards are dirty enough for that.) I was once put in jail for 12 hours because of a computer/paperwork error.

    I’m saying perhaps we are not locking up so many violent criminals, as we are locking up people who are really not a menace to society, and the police are wasting time that could be used on those who *are* problems.

  13. #13 John Giotta
    April 12, 2004

    A sense of entitlement is a big one.
    I’ve been a part of many good and bad crowds and they all have that common sense of entitlement. Makes for ugly (read: acting rude) people. SUVs for example, if people were simply humble rather than desiring road dominance we would have safer roads.
    Also, our nations history shows allot of our attitudes.

  14. #14 WorldCitizen
    June 13, 2004

    I am not american and I do not want to look like the owner of the truth, but if you want, I can give you a foreigner perspective. I have some american friends and as any other country, my country is crowded with american media through music, movies, news, books, products, etc. Through all of this media I have some impressions about what happens in your country. The most impressive thing for me is that some subjects seems to be socially banned from discussion. People don’t accept some kind of question, and I think it is dangerous. I am a capitalist and I think it proved to be the best social organization system, at least until now. Nothing seems to work best. But people in my country and in many countries discusses it, try to find better alternatives or to develop the current system. Americans don’t even want to here about it. It seems to be a sin, something that cannot even be said. And it develops in what I think are a series of anomalies. Like the LOOSER complex. It’s sad to hear from a lot of americans I met through my life that it is really very difficult from someone who is ambitious and want to to attend the best Universities and be very successfull professionally to be close friend to someone who just want the basic to have a comfortable life, with time to meet friends to have leisure but with no extreme pression, even if this person is smart, funny and loyal. It seems to me that people have the legal freedom but not the social freedom. From the craddle until the grave, people seems to be exposed to a brutal pression not to be a looser (in what the society stamps as loosers). And a lot of bright and nice americans I’ve met agree with that. It seemed very weird to me. People are different and have different perpectives from life. Maybe someone thinks he can be more happy being a salesperson, having a lot of friends, living with dignity instead of being a busy executive…..But maybe this person is very interesting and can teach a lot with his own experiences. The American media always show it: we HAVE to be the best…. we HAVE to be popular…. we HAVE to be rich… we HAVE to earn status……. they are loosers….. they deserve what they have…… This ends with intolerance, a lot of people feeling that they do not fit and will never fit and be accepeted by the society and in my opinion in the violence you suffer from previous unexpected sources besides the common criminals.
    Sincerely I don’t want to be a looser nor popular nor the best, I want to have a happy life surrounded with different and interesting people, be rich and famous or simple and funny, who respect each other perspectives for life………….

  15. #15 Callie
    June 16, 2004

    What’s wrong with this country is that it’s run by the crazy conservatives who wraps the flag around themselves and say any they do is “American”, even if it wrong and doesn’t stand up to what our founding fathers put forth. It’s all being ruined by Bush and his gang of thugs.

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