Saturday, March 27, 2010

Freedom in the Conservative Mind.

From Europe, the American health-care debate looked pretty surreal.

Now the rage of the the far right-wingers has been even more puzzling, and the several acts of vandalism and threats to some Democratic lawmakers around the country this week are just bewildering.
The rage is not about, say, the banking system, or... unemployment, or the war, but no, it's all about the health-care bill.

Isn't it ironic, when you think of it, to see so much outrage about universal health-care when there was so little about a war fought under false pretense that caused many unnecessary deaths? Outside America, it very much looks like those conservative Americans have their priorities wrong.

But of course, the anger is not really about health-care, it is about government, and anyone familiar with American history knows that anti-government sentiment is an old American tradition that goes back to the founding of the colonies and the revolt of the colonies against king and parliament.

What I find particularly striking is the emotional response of those most conservative Americans when ever you have a conversation about politics, "government" or related issues (such as taxation). Immediately comes the word "freedom" with the assumption that government is there to take away their freedom (preferable through a conspiracy). The assumption is also that "true freedom" only exists in the US (contrary to "socialist Europe)" which makes those Americans closed to considering any other alternative (such as, in this case the European health-care system). In fact, there is no way to talk about anything else to those people.

Of course, freedom lies at the heart of the American identity as individuals and as a nation. The word itself is so emotionally charged in the U.S. that most Americans use it without thinking about what it really means If you ask them, they may mention "democracy" or most certainly "free market", and maybe the right to bear arms and more generally, they'll talk about less government and less taxation - which are both seen as necessary evils.
This very limited definition of freedom is deeply rooted in the national narrative - after all, wasn't the American Revolution fought because of taxation of a "tyrannical" British government? (when in reality, Americans had more freedom than their contemporaries). Isn't the American hero a self-relying rugged individual? These may be myths but many Americans believe in them and find it hard to question a system and an ideology that, in their eyes, has been proved successful. After, all, isn't that because of her "unique freedom" that the United-States has become the most powerful and the wealthiest in the world?
So goes the reasoning anyway.

But the reason why health-care became such a hot issue is political is that the Conservative wing of the Republican party (which is most of it) and its media tool, Fox News, have been using and twisting his national narrative for their own agenda (and that of the insurance lobbyists).

If you think of it, in reality more freedoms were taken away from the American people by the Patriot Act than any other measure since WWII, the government became more powerful under Bush or Reagan than Clinton, and the deficit grew during Republican administrations and decreased under the Democrats. Where was the outrage then? Where were the Tea Party nuts?

The very fact that so many Americans can go bezerk and extreme over the issue of "government" shows that it is deeply entrenched in a twisted national narrative - it goes beyond reason. Times have changed and this is not the 18th or 19th century any more. Of course, in reality freedom is not under threat and tyranny of government is not around the corner. If the American right-wing nuts were not so rigid in their view of freedom and less isolated intellectually from the rest of the civilized world, they would see that access to health-care is a more important freedom in this day and age than free access to weapons, which, ironically they would defend to the death.


massud said...

Reading your blogs made me realize that you dont understand that mindset of Americans and have not gotten to the philosophical bottom of things, ie understanding the jacksonian belief structure. I dont blame you as this mindset is obscure because it happens to be rooted in one of the portions of the public least represented in the media and the professoriat.

Take a crack at the below - it will also raise the quality of your blogs as it will help you understand the American mindset.

On a separate note, Alexis De Tocqueville, your fellow countryman, has also captured the essence of America very well.

Sun Tzu, in the art of war, stated the following: "know your enemy". If you wish to analyze America, its policies internally and externally, it is crucial that you understand its mindset...

themanbehindthecurtain said...

We have a right to guns, an education, free speech and even an attorney, but not health care. What's surprising is that the media can even influence protestant christians. I am pretty sure that jesus was against capitalism and was most likely a "socialist". If you mention god and are pro-life, you can be a dictator in America.

I am curious to see what European protestants views are on these subjects. I want to say that the American protestant views are unique.

Jerome, said...

Massud, you confuse the American mindset with the conservative mindset. Obama was elected by a majority of Americans, yet he does not represent the Jacksonian belief structure. (I guess he might be more Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian to a certain degree).
Jacksonian populism is certainly reflected in the current conservative movement, - particularly with angry blue-collar white Americans but it does not necessarily reflect the whole of the American mindset. In fact thei relevance will decrease. I agree with you it is a view that tends to be under-represented in the media, the business community, academia, or the foreign policy establishment precisely for the precise reason that when you are educated, you tend to have the tools to think and not buy the oversimplication of a complex reality. But we can thank FoxNews for making Jacksonian populism known and popular. I believe that Jacksonian populism will become more irrelevant as the WASP majority becomes less a minority. This will happen soon. The election of Obama is only the first sign.
As for Alexis de Tocqueville, rest assure I know him well since I read him in his native language even! A lot of the things he says are still relevant, yet times have changed as has the U.S. and its population.
As for Sun Tzu, I am also familiar with his writing (although I confess I have never read him in details). I simply don’t see how relevant he may be in this conversation. I certainly don’t consider the US “an enemy”. Quite the opposite. I don’t even consider conservatives as “the enemy” – not even you Massud.  I don’t see why you should put things in such terms. Can’t friends respect each other and hold different views? This is not a war Massud, at least not on my end. But maybe this is simply not Jacksonian enough.

Jerome, said...

themanbehindthecurtain :Interesting question§. I am a Protestant in France,a country with a catholic tradition. In France the protestants tend to lean to the left and be more liberal (in the American sense of the word). This would need deeper analysis, but I think that religious groups in the minorities tend to be more tolerant because they can't afford not to be.
As for other European countries, they used to be under Catholic or Feudal rule (Spain used to have part of Northern Europe) or they underwent religious wars, or the power of the local protestant church was dependent on a local Prince (Germany).... so there was always a sense of immediate threat which may explain the fact that European protestants tended to be less radical.
(besides, the most radical ones left to America)
I also believe that wars - particularly WWI and WWII - explain in part why Europe got healthcare more than 50 years ago. (indeed, most current health-care systems in western Europe date back to the post-war years).
As for the Germans who have the oldest health-care system in the world (thanks to Bismarck in the 1880s), it was a way to make the growing Socialist threat irrelevant. A very smart move!

themanbehindthecurtain said...

After researching a lot about other countries health care systems and how most are much better than ours, I found that a lot of European countries re-wrote their constitutions, etc in the mid twentieth century. Our (the US) constitution is a little old. As with anything that is a couple hundred years old and is based on the ever changing interpretations of it, can get muddy.
My wife had a conversation with some Australians and I with some Canadians, about health care and the Christian perspective and found that the US really is on its own with our different conservative/christian views.

Anyways, we need to continue a lot of these conversations when you come to California this year. Since I don't post under my real name, I will reveal my true identity (lol). I am friends with Dennis Eckel and the son in law of John Hawekotte. My wife and I (me Jordan, and Lauren) met with you in Paris and had dinner a couple times. We missed you the last time you visited because we had a baby the same time (kind of makes things difficult).