Returning briefly to the subject of America as a family

Returning briefly to the subject of America as a family September 16, 2011

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?

I suspect there are several reasons for this.  One is propaganda that many of us have believed that says all poor people are poor by choice (even if only due to bad choices).  As one leading neo-conservative thinker said in a talk on youtube: In America anyone can get out of poverty in five years or less.  Really?  I suspect he doesn’t know many poor people.  I know many poor people who are poor due to illness or disability or chronic unemployment or underemployment in spite of searching for jobs for months and years.

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.

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  • C. Ehrlich

    First, I think many conservatives can freely concede that they tend to think of their relationship to their fellow citizens in a way that only partially resembles a family relationship. Second, this way of thinking needn’t involve the thought that the poverty of a poor person is that person’s own fault. Some people seem to actually think that the best way to alleviate poverty is to “liberate” businesses from all of the taxes and regulations that might be used to try to help the poor.

    (I suspect, however, that such peculiar economic views tend to be attractive to people only after they have first come to believe that a poor person’s poverty is generally the poor person’s own fault. As a justification for the status quo, this latter view is profoundly ignorant.)

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Even the birds of the air have God as their creator as we do; so in a sense, they are family. But there are varying degrees of separation for the various elements, creatures, and people from me. As I use the term, my own nuclear family is my family. But I also have my community, my state, and my country. These are not my family, nor do I think of them that way.

    I am sad that innocent people lost their lives on 9-11. There are many innocent who suffer – and if I knew their stories, I too would be sad for them. I am called to be generous to the poor, maybe including the suffering innocent. I am not called to insist that others also be generous to the poor the way I want them to be. That bullying behavior is antithetical to Christian love. Using the government to force people into charitable giving is a bad way to get good ends. But if the ends justify the means for you, then no problems.

    No, we don’t ALL agree that the government needs to step in. For most of our nation’s history, we didn’t have FEMA or the like. Indeed, government aid often does more harm than good by reinforcing bad behavior and poor decisions – like building towns in flood plains. Again and again, Flood, Give Aid, Rebuild, Flood, Give Aid, Rebuild, Flood …. I’d rather take a pass, but I’d get thrown in jail by the politicians that my “family” elected. Thanks alot for that!

    So what if Joplin or New Orleans never rise from their devastation? There are other opportunities in life. People are not tied to the ground like serfs. People are actually free (kinda) in this country – they can relocate and keep living.

    • I cannot help but wonder if you would be singing this song if a tornado destroyed your home and your town. Not to worry! You can just pick up and move to another town and have nothing.

      Perhaps the worst thing is that you might lack the money to deal with that serious heart problem. From what you have said, my obligation would be to feel sad for you. Count on it!


      • Tim Reisdorf

        I think your sadness would be worse if I stole the money I needed from you. Why do I want an obligation from you? Do you not take Paul seriously when he says “Do not let any debt remain outstanding among you except the debt of love” Rom 13:8?

        And why are you so sarcastic with me? If Christ has set me free, why should I submit to slavery of any kind – including to government. Indeed, Christ has set me free so that I could live freely Gal 5: 1. If I am free (or wish to be) what harm does that to you? Please don’t be angry with me for desiring what God also wants for me. Maybe God also wants you to be free as well?

        Maybe you misunderstand me. I don’t desire to be free to be rid of all obligations. I desire to be free in order to fulfill them.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I think that the reason we don’t have TV shows (like sit-coms) that show poverty is because the audience would sense in themselves a desire to help. Week after week, they would feel sorry for the characters in the story but would not be able to help because it’s all pretend and not very serious in real life – the actors and actresses are all well paid. People would just get fried out on it and turn to something that helps them feel happy. We don’t feel the natural pull in ourselves to help the people who have enough to get by – so we don’t need to get emotionally involved and can be happy in the telling of their adventures.

  • Dan Cox

    if people wanna help the poor they should. and they should leave their hands off the money of the rest of us.

    • rogereolson

      What a simplistic response! Is that what you also say about government aid to whole cities devastated by natural disasters? What do you say to someone opposed to war who says “If people want to fight in foreign wars, let them go and do it. Keep their hands off our money to pay for it?”

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Dan,

      I agree with your take on this. I’m often distressed in discussions on this topic on how defenders of a strong central government fail to use the Bible to back up their claims. But when the issue came up in the nation of Israel, Samuel warned the people against having a king. Samuel warned them that the people would become slaves of the king and that the Lord would not listen to their cries for mercy from the oppression of the king. I Sam 8. Of course, it played itself out in this way, with the first king engaged in an internal war with David and the third king oppressing the people to the point that the majority of the tribes split away when that king (wise king Solomon) died.

      I will grant that Judges continually brings up the idea that Israel had no king. As a solution, God gave them judges, not a strong central government. When Israel had no king, each did what was right in his own eyes. In that statement, we have a strong thought of liberty – something they lost when a king was introduced.

      It is a simple response, granted. But in it is wisdom. Jesus was able to summarize the whole of law and prophets in two commandments: love God, love others. Surely, none would criticize His statement for being too simplistic.

  • In my opinion, you have put your finger on the number one disconnect between evangelical Christians and the teachings of Jesus. I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon on what Jesus said about the poor and how his words apply to us.

    People seem to bravely step out to take a short-term missions trip to China, Africa or Mexico, but the short trip across town to the poor section is less frequently selected.

    I am old enough to remember when many of our hospitals were built by Christian groups, but that seems to have passed from our cultural scene. Why is that?


    • rogereolson

      Almost every kind of institution in America has been corrupted by the corporate model. That applies to colleges and universities as well as hospitals. I cringe whenever I see huge billboards advertising a hospital attempting to pull people away from its competing hospital–often just a mile or two away. If they are truly charitable institutions, why not combine their resources and lower costs and cut out the costs of advertising?

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    “Americans are [all] of one family” (Benjamin Franklin)