Weighing the National Character

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One hears much admiration from politicians of the American “national character,” by which seems to be meant the aggregate of prevailing values of the majority of the population. I gather that Americans tend to regard their national character as comprising such things as freedom, independence, individualism, and self-reliance. One thinks of Daniel Boone or Marlboro Man.

In fact we no longer have these qualities and probably never will again. Generally we now embody their opposites. Modern society has become a hive of largely conformist, closely regulated and generally helpless employees who depend on others for nearly everything. The cause is less anything in Americans in particular than the technology that governs our lives. The United States just moves faster in the direction in which the civilized world moves.

Character springs from conditions. Consider a farmer in, say, North Carolina in 1850. He was free because there was little government, self-reliant because what he couldn’t do for himself didn’t get done, independent because apart from a few tools he made or grew all he needed, and an individualist because, there being little outside authority, he could do as he pleased.

All of that is gone, and will not return. Freedom has given way to an infinite array of laws, rules, regulations, licenses, forms, requirements. Many make sense, may even be desirable in a complex world, don’t necessarily make for a bad life, but they cannot be called freedom. Various governments determine what our children learn, whether we can paint the shutters, who we must sell our houses to, who we can hire, what we can say if we want to keep our jobs, where we can park, and whether and how we can build an outbuilding.

People who live infinitely controlled lives become accustomed to such control. Obedience becomes natural. And so it has.

Although we speak of democracy, in fact we have little influence over the circumstances of our lives. All matters of importance — what values our children are taught, for example — are determined by remote bodies over which we have no power. When jurisdictions are large, the effort needed to change things that powerful lobbies do not want changed is prohibitive. And of course we vote for candidates, not for policies. They then do as they please.

Individualism has withered under the pressure of the mass media and a distaste for eccentricity. Self-reliance died long ago. We depend on others to repair our cars, grow our food, fix the refrigerator, and write our operating systems. The habit of reliance on others has reached the point that even the right of self-defense has come to be regarded as wrong-minded.

The gain is that these things are usually done better than we could do them ourselves. The loss is that we are utterly dependent on others. As things become more technologically complex, the reliance on specialists grows. Almost anyone could learn to repair a flathead Ford, but today’s Corolla is vulnerable only to a trained technician. Of course it’s a better car.

Most poignantly, we are become a nation of employees, fearful of losing our jobs. Prisoners of the retirement system, afraid of transgressing against the various governing bodies before whom we are helpless, unable to feed ourselves, we are at least comfortable. We are not masters of our lives.

Dense populations and the complexity of machines and institutions lead inevitably to regulation, which leads to acceptance of regulation and therefore of authority, which becomes part of the national character. This we see. In my lifetime the change has been great. In rural Virginia in the Sixties, you could walk down the road with your rifle to shoot beer cans, swim in the creeks without supervision and life guards and “flotation devices” approved by the Coast Guard, and generally be left alone. Now, no. Regimentation has grown like kudzu. We obey. The new generation knows nothing else.

At the moment we see a great increase in regulation in the guise of preventing terrorism. Other pretexts could have been found and, I suspect, would have been: fighting crime or the war on drugs or something. The result might have been a drift rather than a headlong rush toward control. But sooner or later, technology determines politics. The computer, not the Constitution, is primary.

I suspect that the concern about terrorism is just a particular manifestation of a growing obsession with safety. Not too long ago, Americans were a hardy breed — foolhardy at times, but the one comes with the other. Now we see attempts to eliminate all risk everywhere. Cities fill in the deep ends of swimming pools and remove diving boards. We require that bicyclists wear helmets, fear second-hand smoke and the violence that is dodge ball. Warnings abound against going outside without sun block. To anyone who grew up in the Sixties or before, the new fearfulness is incomprehensible.

The explanation I think is the feminization of society, which seems to be inseparable from modernity. The nature of masculinity is to prize freedom over security; of femininity, security over freedom. Add that the American character of today powerfully favors regulation by the group in preference to individual choice. Note that do not require that cars be equipped with seat belts and then let individuals decide whether to use them; we enforce their use. The result is compulsory Mommyism, very much a part of today’s America.

Does technological civilization inevitably lead to totalitarianism? Certainly the general fear, in combination with technology, makes a sort of soft Stalinism easy. Just now we move toward national ID cards, smuggled in by linking records of drivers’ licenses. Passports, scanned and linked to data bases, provide a record of our travels. Security cameras proliferate. Some of them read the license plates of all passing cars. Email can be monitored, phones easily and undetectably tapped. Now the government is experimenting with X-ray scanners for airports that provide near-pornographic images of passengers. Whether this will be used for dictatorial ends remains to be seen. Historians may one day note that surveillance, when possible, is inevitable.

What then is the national character today? I think we are first an obedient people. We submit. We are comfortable with authority, and seem to be most comfortable when we are told what to do. We prize security, safety, and predictability. Increasingly we accept being treated like convicts at airports and elsewhere. We want to be taken care of. We can do few things for ourselves. We expect government to decide the things once regarded as outside of government’s ambit. And we are to the marrow of our bones incapable of rising against the creeping tyranny. So much for Marlboro Man.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.

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