American Culture 102: “From our cold, dead hearts…”

31 May

This is a continuation of the train of thought begun in the previous post. The same caveats apply. I’m an American, writing about American culture, for Americans. The rest of you are welcome to read on if you feel like it. Just sayin’…

* * *

I’ve had a bit of a personal epiphany over the past few months. Not to harp ad nauseum on the whole 1millionshirts debacle and subsequent lunacy, but that whole CF helped it all gel for me. I’d never really considered it before, but at least for Americans (probably for others, too) I’ve come to understand that there definitely exists a notion that it is our right to help, it is our right to give.

… and you know how Americans are about their rights

* * *

While the whole 1millionshirts things was going on, and then again later when I ranted about Sean Penn’s self-assigned mission to save Haiti, there was a more or less constant stream of voice in support of Jason and Sean. And while much of it was along the lines of, “this guy means well, why don’t you give him a break?”, for the first time ever that I can remember in good-donorship or aid effectiveness conversation, the language started shifting towards the rhetoric of rights – specifically the rights of Jason and Sean. Kind of like a rights-based approach in reverse. Statements on twitter and on my blog were along the lines of, “What gives you [aid workers] the right to tell Jason what he can or can’t do to help?” Or, even more tellingly, “Doesn’t Sean Penn have just as much right to go help in Haiti as you [aid workers] do?”

And when you think about it, it does make sense from an American cultural perspective. Our culture is deeply rooted in the idea of individual rights. We value and attempt to guarantee individual rights to a degree that people from other places sometimes find absurd. The right to legal representation and the right to due process in criminal proceedings are good examples. While few American citizens would ever argue that those are bad things, when confessed axe murderers walk free on technicalities, people tend to question whose rights take precedence. As a society we’ve lost the ability to be consistently rational in our approach to the question of when or under what circumstances the rights of the individual supersede those of the broader community, and vice versa.

Further, we’ve invested so much culturally and emotionally in the concept of rights that I think we have begun to lose sight of what really are rights and what are privileges and what are just neither. We approach almost every situation with preservation of our individual rights as a default setting and without a nuanced understanding of the tenuous nature of even our legal “real” rights as American citizens. In the absence of pushback or reprisal we begin assume that we have more rights than we have in fact.

* * *

I’m not a self-hating American. There’s both good and bad here, and at any rate I can’t change where I’m from. To try to change or to front as something else would be plain disingenuous and most of you would probably see right through it. But in this case I am most definitely critical of American culture:

Somewhere, deep in our psyche we have crossed the blurry lines between what we feel compelled to do and what we feel obligated to do, and then between what we feel obligated to do and what it is simply our unquestionable right to do. We have come to believe that helping others, whether those others are the homeless living under an overpass just a few miles away, or the faceless “poor” on the other side of the planet, is our inalienable right. Good intentions are not only not enough, they are simply not the issue. What matter whether or not our “help” really helps or not? That is not the issue either. This is beyond a moral calling. Helping others in whatever way makes to us the most sense, we believe, is our supernaturally-ordained destiny as a people. Like the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Or, even more poignantly for Americans, like the right to bear arms, helping others is also our right.

When it comes to our guns, as Charlton Heston is famous for saying, we will give them up when you take them from our cold, dead hands.

It’s ironic, but like our guns and for better or worse, we will also give up our right of “helping” others only when you pry it from our cold, dead hearts.

14 Responses to “American Culture 102: “From our cold, dead hearts…””

  1. Bonnie Koenig 31 May, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    These two posts, American Culture 101 and 102 are very thought provoking. Your point about America’s focus on individual rights especially resonated for me. In my experience, It’s one of the most significant differences between the U.S. and other cultures, most of which have much more of an innate willingness to look at the collective good than Americans do. It plays out in many ways from aid and giving (as you’ve noted), to health care, and is well worth surfacing and understanding. Thanks, J.

  2. Gayle Gifford 31 May, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    I think you’ll appreciate the article “What we don’t talk about when we talk about service” by Adam Davis, a reading from The Meaning of Service, a national program that uses literature to help volunteers understand the nature of justice and service under the auspices of the Illinois Humanities Council

    My graduate students as Simmons College read the Davis article this year and it sparked one of the most animated discussions the class had around the central question “Is service good?”

    Most of my students had never considered the idea that service might not automatically be a good thing. It was on their minds throughout the semester as they worked on communications plans for their service learning partners.

    I was also intrigued by the interview with Doug McAdams in the latest issue of Nonprofit Quarterly reporting on his study for Teach for America and contrasting that experience with the experiences of volunteers in Freedom Summer.

    Two pieces you may find of interest.

  3. Rebecca Harshbarger 31 May, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    I am searching for the article but can”t find it. If you have a link to the text, I’d love to see it. This reminds me of a discussion during the recession where there was an uptick in volunteering, which had its positives and negatives.

  4. Peregrine 3 June, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    You love this VF piece on Sean Penn:

  5. terence 5 June, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Interesting post, thanks –

    Is it really the primacy of the ‘right to help’ that propels this though, or simply naivety?

    I’m inclined to think that the common thread connecting people like the shirts guy and Penn is that they view themselves as problem solvers. And that they assume that the problems of the developing world persist because there simply aren’t enough top notch problem solvers working on them.

    Which is at odds with the actual fact of the matter: that problems in developing countries persist not because no one’s trying to solve them but rather because they are actually really thorny problems.

  6. katherine 15 June, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    I don’t think you are a self-hating American, but an unreflective American, which makes you completely normal. There is a lot wrong with the way aid works currently and of course the 1 million shirts project, but most ‘aid experts’ opinion about these incidents is that Western donor populaces (especially America) should sit down, stay home, shut up and open their wallets to the enlightened aid workers. Unfortunately, if you want people’s hard earned money, you need to take their opinions, feelings and desires into account.

  7. Ian 16 June, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    I think it is a natural and noble impulse for people to want to help out others who are less fortunate, and a normal piece of human ego and lack of self awareness to think that we actually have the ability to solve complex problems far away just using our own limited perspective (if we were able to deal with these problems in America, Europe, wherever, then surely if they just do what we do everything would be OK).

    I don’t think this is particularly American, and I don’t think it is something easy to address, but better development and donor education would certainly help, as would more outreach from aid professionals to advise those who want to “do something” other than just give money into useful ways to channel their commitment. Also more transparency in aid by NGOs, governments and others helps people have a better sense of whether their money or ideas are actually providing benefit.

    Of course there will always be people who want to use their hard earned money to do something that they think is needed but which is actually harmful or unethical, despite getting professional advice – but this will be harder if there are more voices speaking out on behalf of beneficiaries, whether aid professionals or even better the beneficiaries themselves – and if the impacts of well intentioned bad programmes are made more visible through social and traditional media.

    Keep up the good work J, Saundra, Alanna and those others trying to speak up for aid being a force for good, not just “feel good”.


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