How else can you interpret an article with the title, The Origins of America’s Unique and Spectacular Cruelty. We are unique! We are spectacular! We are #1!
Unfortunately, we seem to be specializing in all the wrong things.
But by now, American cruelty is both legendary — and one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries. Just why would people in a rich country leave their neighbours to die for a lack of basic medicine, their young without good jobs or retirements, make their elderly work until their dying day, cripple students with lifelong debt, charge new mothers half of average income just to have a baby — not to mention shrug when their kids begin massacring each other at school? What motivates the kind of spectacular, unique, unimaginable, and gruesome cruelty that we see in America, which exists nowhere else in the world?
I can agree that the cruelty of our culture is obvious and manifested everywhere, but I hate to deflate our sense of exceptionalism, but we aren’t alone. Look at what Israel is doing to Palestinians, how the United Kingdom and other European states are responding to immigration, how every human society reacts to the Other, how even a civilized nation like Germany could be stirred up by a demagogue to willingly commit atrocities, how Belgium afflicted criminal abuse on the people of the Congo. Our difference seems to be our willingness to perpetrate these torments on ourselves.
The author’s speculation about what causes us to be so horrible tends to fall flat, unfortunately.
My answer goes something like this. Americans, you must remember, grew up in the shadow of endless war. With two “sides” who championed atomic individualism, lionized competition and brutality, and despised weakness and fragility. And thus, America forgot — or maybe never evolved — the notion of a public interest. Each man for himself, everyone against everyone himself. So all there is left in America is extreme capitalism now. Few championed a more balanced, saner, healthier way of life, about a common good, about virtue, about a higher purpose. And in that way, America has become something like, ironically enough, a mirror image of its great enemy, the Soviet Union. It is a totalist society, run by and for one end — only a slightly different one: money.
I disagree. I was born in the 1950s and grew up in this archetypical American society, and it’s not true that we “grew up in the shadow of endless war”, unless you take “shadow” literally. We didn’t experience war. Wars were something that happened elsewhere, to which we supplied cannon fodder. Wars were not something we suffered under, and while there was the ominous terror of nuclear war, we were also blithely confident that we’d win, no matter what. Wolverines! The American character was one of irrational optimism. The history we were taught was all about Manifest Destiny, the near-divinity of the Founding Fathers, our role as the Leaders of the Free World. We are always the winners, and the losers are always the worst people who fully deserved their fate.
The extreme capitalism part I agree with. To me, the best interpretation of the American spirit in literature is personified by Milo Minderbinder in Heller’s Catch 22: irrepressibly cheerful, blind to the harm he does to others, willing to bomb his friends if it increases the value of his shares, and relentlessly sailing through a war that is nothing but a business opportunity to him. We are a people untouched by fear and unable to imagine the consequences.
The rest of the world has good reason to be terrified. Their only consolation ought to be that we’re probably going to wreck ourselves before we can exercise our full capacity for destruction on others.