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Cognitive Dissonance

Overheard about someone saying they are going to vote McCain.

"How many times do you have to make the same, retarded mistake?"

"As long as it keeps us the richest, freest, strongest nation on Earth."

How do most people in the US define these terms? How can someone believe that the US is any of these right now? It mystifies me.

I like this country, I moved here after all, and I think it can be a great place. But where does the stereotypical "GO TEAM USA #1!! WHOO!" arrogant attitude come from? That's a great attitude in sporting events, but the world stage isn't a baseball game.

Richest? Not hardly. Everyone knows the national debt is at a scary level. GDP? Dropping pretty hard. Any anyhow - GDP is a dumb measure. If someone said they were selling a lot of stuff but were $2 million in debt and unable to pay off even the interest would you think they had a strong business plan?

Freest? Again, not really. The US has an awesome amount of civil rights and freedoms written into law but given the Patriot Act, the way Homeland Security will basically just fuck over citizens lives and completely disregard non-citizens human rights... is that free? Is that what freedom is? Do you really have those rights? Or do you have them until the government decides you shouldn't?

Strongest? Maybe. Certainly one of the largest (tho China certainly beats the US in size), and the most well funded. Is that strength? Or is it really a form of weakness?

America is great because it instills a can-do confidence in its citizens - something that I think for many years Britain envied. We were kind of fucked from the 40's-later 70's. It led to some very dark, and very awesome, creativity and expression - but it also stamped a little bit of "well.. we should aim small" and a perhaps too strong level of cynicism on the nation consciousness.

Americans were seen as perhaps an antidote to that in people of a certain age - something I had to explain to Miriam the other night when we were watching Bridget Jones and Hugh Grant mentions something about his New York squeeze being american as affecting her "exotic" appeal.

So we're two sides of the same coin, as is so often the case, and whereas the resurgent pride in all things "Cool Britania" as subsided now in the UK, slightly to my chagrin, but with good reasons that are both social and political. The arrogant aspects of that pride are still solidly in US culture - the question is... why? It's not an "in the face of adversity" type pride but a "we must be awesome, because we're the US, and there is no other position."

It's... weird.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
20th Aug, 2008 23:03 (UTC)
I can only speak for myself, and being a native Californian my opinions are often out of touch with those of other Merkins, but I'll try to give you a glimpse of the propaganda I grew up with.

Richest: This means a couple of things. One is simply America's natural resources, which are varied and plentiful, although it probably meant more in the 19th century when the resources that made nations powerful were iron and coal. The US's GDP also dwarfs all other nations' even if we're only 4th or 6th or something in terms of per capital GDP, so again, that makes us the richest nation on earth. And, of course, we pride ourselves on non-material riches like ingenuity and (for those of us who aren't xenophobic) culture. And, yes, most Americans are deep in denial about the depth of our debt, personal and national.

Freest: The horrific transgressions of the present administration aside, I think this concept is very much culturally dependent. The freedoms that some or most Americans seem to think are important (like owning guns), can seem unimportant or even stupid to other cultures, and vice versa. Sadly, in my lifetime, and particularly in the past, oh, 20 years, I've watched the definition of freedom swing towards "the ability to be as rude and stupid as we want (without consequences), buy whatever we want, and (more recently) not have to worry about terrorist attacks." And, of course, on an international level, "not have to worry about what other countries think of us."

Strongest: Primarily, this is a sense that we could beat any enemy, or at least never suffer an attack on American soil. Secondarily, and particularly since the Reagan years and more egregiously during the Dubya ones, it means being able to bully other countries into doing what we want. American certainly has the best-funded and most technologically advanced military on earth, if not the largest in numbers of soldiers.

Obviously, if you've been paying attention the last, oh, 7 years 7 months and 10 days, none of these things is really true any more, or at least not what it once was, and in some instances the truth has been twisted into a dark parody of itself. I also think you put a little too much stock in Americans' can-doism. In recent years, I think that attitude has led us to expect miracles free from cost in blood, sweat, or treasure. Our sense of entitlement as a people has probably outgrown what we're prepared to earn or suffer for.

Unfortunately, these messages don't play well in the more conservative segments of American society, which is why you still see politicians pander to them. Most people my age and older remember the last time a US president tried to talk to us like adults. His name was Jimmy Carter, and he's only just recently managed to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of some Americans.
16th Sep, 2008 19:13 (UTC)
re: Richest and GDP - GDP is a horrible way to measure wealth

Wealth distribution, for example isn't calculated. So you could have a small number of people who are hugely wealthy propping up that number for a nation. That means the nation isn't wealthy - those people are.

Plus the shitty health system here accounts for a LARGE chunk of the GDP - the type of product and its effect on the citizenry isn't taken into account.

It is also a really bad placebo for worries - as it says nothing about the stability and sustainability of growth in the economy (witness recent events)

freest: "The horrific transgressions of the present administration aside" but that is my point - you can't put them aside. It's actually part of the point of the post - America is no longer free by its own definition of the word.

I think your last two paragraphs really kit the nail on the head tho - none of these things are really true now. But people still think they are here... is that willful ignorance or manipulated stupidity is the question, and how do we combat it?
19th Sep, 2008 22:15 (UTC)
Well, there's the reality of all of these things, and the perception of them. For example, I read not too long ago that a rather large percentage of Americans thing they're way higher up the wealth distribution pyramid than they actually are - whether that's because they have some credit-financed material lifestyle level or for some other reason.

The same is true for the health care system. Most people don't think much about it until they have an actual crisis. Of course, the media (fictional and non-) portrays this marvelous system that can practically raise people from the dead, so they think this is available to them - until they spend $100,000s keeping some family member hooked up to machines in an unrealistic hope that he or she will wake up from a mortal trauma.

As for freedom, again, people have come to believe they are "free" if they can buy whatever they want (even if it's on credit) and aren't blown up by terrorists. Because most Americans aren't themselves threatened with censorship, imprisonment, or torture, and are far removed from anyone who has been, they don't think of those things as "freedoms," they just take them for granted, and instead focus on the things that they're "free" to do within their own sphere of experience.

Unfortunately, peoples' beliefs are formed by their experiences, and most of us can rationalize away even large shifts in our environment and horrific events in the world if they don't impact us directly, and even up until they point where they have a catastrophic impact. How you can get people beyond that mode of thinking, I have no idea.
21st Aug, 2008 01:15 (UTC)
"That's a great attitude in sporting events, but the world stage isn't a baseball game."

Nono, it's a football game. And a proper football game, too, not a stupid soccer game that you silly feriners try to pass off as a good sport. You know, a manly game, full of manly butt-grabbing.

Er. Right.

American culture is based on certain assumptions, ideals, and a somewhat selective interpretation of history, politics, and world events. There is also tendency to simplify these to the point of gross generalization, which makes for a... highly imaginative worldview at best, but on the other hand requires no education to grasp.

The concept of "America" for Americans is tied into the founding mythology, with the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution and sharing wild turkey with the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving dinner, with the larger-than-life founding fathers, with the valiant militia standing up against one of the best armies in the world, and all that. "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal," is at the core. Democracy is trumped up to be the ultimate good. Anything that challenges the people's right to rule themselves is an evil. This makes us the freest.

One of the other major cultural touchstones is World War II. The common perspective runs that a great Evil crushed nearly the whole civilized world until America stepped in and saved everyone. This means that we're the strongest, because Germany kicked everyone's ass until we kicked theirs. Then in the aftermath, since most of the rest of the western world had been pouring resources into the war for much, much longer and were basically tapped out by the end, the US was basically the only country whose economy wasn't completely in the crapper, and therefore we're the richest.
(Deleted comment)
16th Sep, 2008 19:17 (UTC)
You should show him this:

Ask whose wealth he wants to protect...
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )