A couple weeks ago I posted here a guest column I wrote for the local newspaper in which I argued that there are two kinds of people in America–those who view Americans as a quasi-family (not literally family but like an extended family held loosely together by bonds of care and obligation) and those who view it as a group of individuals competing with each other for limited resources and wealth.
Some of the responses here and in letters to the editor were very negative. Some people objected to thinking of America as a family without admitting that they view it as a group of individuals competing with each other.
The purpose of my essay was to explain why we American have such profoundly different views of the problem of poverty and potential solutions to it. IF you view America as a family or quasi-family (as I think almost all really do as I’ll explain below) you SHOULD think poverty is your problem as well as that of the poor. And, I will argue below, you SHOULD think the solution to it is public and not just private (i.e., charity).
IF you view poverty as not at all your problem, that reveals that you do not think of America as in any way like a family–except when it comes to OTHER issues than poverty. So below I want to point out what I see as an inconsistency on the parts of many people who objected to my suggestion that we should and DO (often) think of America as a family.
I didn’t want to bring this up on “9-11” because that was a day or remembering the dead; I don’t think it’s appropriate to sully the solemnity of the day with debate. However, I noticed what I think is a profound inconsistency within many Americans.
Nearly EVERYONE expressed some degree of sadness that day for those who lost their lives in the attacks. To me that reveals they really DO think of America as a family or quasi-family. It reveals they DO think we are “in this together.” Many people said or thought that attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania were attacks on all of us Americans.
But why? If you don’t think of America as a family IN SOME SENSE, why feel anything (except perhaps fear) about the terrorist attacks of 9-11? If you were not affected by the events of that day through knowing someone who died (or was wounded, etc.), why feel sorrow or grief about them? Horror, perhaps. But why grief? Why empathy? To you the people who died were simply your competitors for America’s limited resources. They were strangers. Why is the fact they were (mostly) Americans meaningful to you in any way OTHER than a terrorist attack somewhere else in the world would be meaningful. Did you feel the same thing about a terrorist attack in London or Spain or Israel? I suspect most did not. They may have felt shock and even perhaps some degree of sadness, but I doubt many Americans would watch a day-long ceremony of remembrance for those terrorist attacks or put out their flag for them or do anything else similar to what most of us did on 9-11-11.
So here’s my question. Why do we tend to feel something family-like about Americans we don’t even know who suffer tragedy–especially in a terrorist attack–if we don’t feel anything for Americans suffering poverty. (Now, by “poverty” I am not talking about that which is chosen; I’m talking about poverty due to misfortune–loss of job, racial oppression, illness, etc.) Isn’t this a double standard? I think so. Where does it come from? Why do we have this double standard such that when we hear about or see on TV Americans killed in terrorist attacks we have this gut-level reaction of grief as if they were family whereas when we hear about or see on TV Americans dying because they don’t have health insurance or going hungry because they have no work or living in a shack because of personal calamity we don’t feel anything except perhaps some revulsion?
Another, related, reason is television. Where do we see poor people on television? I can’t think of a single network television show featuring a poor family since a couple of 1980s sitcoms that exploited the plights of poor African-Americans. In recent years, to the best of my knowledge, all the people in prime time entertainment programs are middle class or wealthy. (Have you noticed how many of those who are portrayed as middle class live in luxurious apartments or houses in cities where that kind of housing would cost a fortune?)
I suspect our society conditions us to assume all poverty is due to sloth. Then, somehow, many Americans have come to objectify the poor as “low class” (willfully ignorant or lazy) and deserving of their plights. They might feel some pity, but they feel no obligation to them.
So what about America’s responses to 9-11 versus many Americans’ responses to poverty? Many Americans think the only right solution to poverty (other than the poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps) is charity. But who would think America’s right solution to terrorism is voluntary patrolling of buildings terrorists might attack? No, we all agree the right response is government action to increase security at great cost and considerable inconvenience (e.g., at airports) to all of us–even if we feel that we are extremely unlikely ever to be the victims of terrorism.
I could go on by talking about calamities and disasters that befall cities. When Joplin, Missouri was hit by a devastating tornado almost everyone in America expressed sadness and empathy for the victims. Much help poured in, but not nearly enough to rebuild the houses and schools and hospitals. We ALL agree that in such cases of mass devastation the government needs to step in with aid. If left to charity alone, New Orleans and Joplin and cities like them would never rise from their devastation.
To me that reveals that Americans do TEND to think of our country as an extended family–except when it comes to poverty and the poor.