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’…
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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…
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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.
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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.