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August 27th, 2009

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02:18 am - A Lack of Compassion & A Lust For Vengeance
Here's a fascinating and disturbing article about the general meanness of US culture. The article mentions the (at least up to now) public acceptance of a healthcare system that condemns some people to death and many others to bankruptcy due to a lack of or inadequate health insurance, and also the widespread outrage over the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi (the Lockerbie bomber) because he was dying. In the UK, compassion to a dying man, even a murderer is seen by many as a good act, in the US it is widely considered abhorrent and weak. The author of the article describes how US attitudes differ from those in the EU.
The point is that, when on "normal", the needle of the US barometer is not only quite a way to the political right of where it would be in Europe, but showing a very different atmospheric level, too. For there is a mean and merciless streak in mainstream US attitudes, which tolerates much more in the way of inequality, deprivation and suffering than is acceptable here, while incorporating a large and often sanctimonious quotient of blame.

This transatlantic difference goes far beyond the healthcare debate. Consider the give-no-quarter statements out of the US on the release of the Lockerbie bomber – or the continued application of the death penalty, or the fact that excessive violence is far more common a cause for censorship of US films in Europe than sex. Or even, in documents emerging from the CIA, a different tolerance threshold where torture and terrorism are concerned.
I wish this wasn't true, but it so clearly is.

There is a widespread lack of compassion combined with a desire to see others suffer. I've read it in the lj posts of people I know when they write about what should happen to various sorts of criminals, and I see it reflected in US imprisonment rates. At the fascinating and disturbing Sentencing Project site, they have a dramatic graph of how the
…United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.3 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails -- a 500% increase over the past thirty years.
Yet another horrific legacy of the Reagan years and the sickness that came to the US in the late 1970s.

This lack of compassion seems to go along with a remarkably high amount of aggression, which can be seen in everything from the widespread, and distinctly American obsession with owning and carrying deadly firearms to the current hostility of the far right towards the government, which has gone as far as death threats and hanging politicians in effigy. As violent crime falls across the entire first world, we alone in the first world are a nation defined by prisons and deadly weapons.

Sadly, this sort of aggression and lack of compassion isn't limited to the mainstream population or the far right. I've encountered no shortage of the more radical sort of progressives who talk at great length about which far right politicians and public figures deserve to die and about "lining their enemies of freedom up against the wall". From my PoV, that makes the people who believe such things very little better than the monstrous individuals that they oppose.

If I could change anything about the US it would be to make it less mean-spirited and inclined to both vengeance and violence. As I have stated before , the US was very far from perfect prior to the late 70s, but with far-right shift in attitudes and discourse, attitudes went from problematic to in many ways fundamentally broken, and I have no idea how to make things better.

On a personal level, I try to be compassionate, and while I may widely declaim the evils of various politicians and corporate CEOs, I avoid wishing or stating that I would like to see them dead or suffering. These days, I also avoid Quentin Tarantino movies and much similar entertainment, simply because the quality or lack thereof is far less important to me than, as I state here, I'm too appalled by the violence and brutality found therein.

I suspect that this lack of compassion, love of vengeance, and overall aggression is connected to the popularity of the sort of bleakly nihilistic media that I discuss both here and in this post. Beyond doing my best to not be that way, I'm far from certain how to change these attitudes, but I very much hope they change.
Current Mood: sadsad

(13 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 09:57 am (UTC)
Well commented. Of course I'm biased, as I live in Finland. I hope you (as in the people in the US) can find out a solution to the lack of mercy, rather sooner than later.

I'm somewhat afraid that we are seeing more of this idiocy in Europe, too.

I have noted the movie brutality lately, too. I went to see the Watchman film and I was horrified by the graphic violence. The original work isn't non-violent, of course, but I don't think the changes were needed. The impact isn't the shock of violence but something completely different.

[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 10:28 am (UTC)
How long before we see "Reality TV" showing poor people starve, sell their children's bodies on the street to pay rent, and die of sicknesses which more well-to-do families can afford to treat.

In some very real fundamental ways, far too many people in the US disgust me.
[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)

I also find that certain quality of sanctimonious narcissism to be a fundamental element is the behavior you discuss here.

[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)
Have you read The Authoritarians?

To quote from the first chapter:
Why are high RWAs extra-punitive against law-breakers? For one thing, they think the crimes involved are more serious than most people do, and they believe more in the beneficial effects of punishment. But they also find “common criminals” highly repulsive and disgusting, and they admit it feels personally good, it makes them glad, to be able to punish a perpetrator. They get off smiting the sinner; they relish being
“the arm of the Lord.” Similarly, high RWA university students say that classmates in high school who misbehaved and got into trouble, experienced “bad trips” on drugs, became pregnant, and so on “got exactly what they deserved” and that they felt a secret pleasure when they found out about the others’ misfortune.
Which suggests authoritarian followers have a little volcano of hostility bubbling away inside them looking for a (safe, approved) way to erupt.

Interestingly enough, I think the nihlistic works you refer to actually put fuel on the fire. They frustrate such people and give them even more desire to "make things right" in the real world. Which yields a less forgiving, more punitive mindset in which the "just" are rewarded and the sinners are duly punished without remorse.
[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
I've read parts of it, and it is definitely excellent. What I wonder is why is that sort of thinking so common all across the political spectrum. That isn't true in most of the rest of the first world.
[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
If people truly had their own self-interest in mind, they would be for a national health service. The desire to see others pay for being fat, "immoral," or whatever by getting sick seems to override the fact that one day, everyone will get sick or old if they live long enough and will require health care that does not depend on their jobs.

I am for a national health service out of pure self-interest. One of my grandmothers lived to be 101. My mother is 65 and is healthier than many people half her age. In short, I have an excellent chance of living a very long time, so I need something to take care of me when I get too old to work. I also don't like having to shell out $700 to get a checkup.

[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC)
I hadn't posted anything in my LJ about it yet, but I am able to focus on one symptom, or one cause at a time (and do some good), even while I see a thousand problems waiting to be fixed.

Its partly why on September 22nd, there will be a benefit for Return to Honor at the Tigard and Tualitin Cold Stone Creameries, where a portion of profits earned from 5-9pm (at both stores) will be donated to Return to Honor.

I'm headed out the door, but I'd love to know where they got a '2.3 million behind bars', because its somewhat higher now than the 2006 figures cited at www.returntohonor.org
[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I try to be compassionate towards everyone...but, honestly, 99% of humanity does not deserve compassion. These days, I want to free all sentient beings from their samsara by beating them with a baseball bat until they damnwell realize how friggin' stupid they've been acting! Compassion only works when it's backed up by the threat of insane retributive violence. :)

Besides, humans are programmed for violence at a genetic level. We are, after all, nothing more than chimps with an extra level of intelligence stapled onto the surface of our animal natures. Fortunately, compassion is also written in our genes. This species will not change until wholesale editing of the genome is done.
[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
Besides, humans are programmed for violence at a genetic level.

Perhaps, but the evidence is against it. Even the US has less than 5% of the rate of violent crime than the nations we have records for had 500 years ago, and the percentage of the population dying in wars and genocides has been going down for much of the last century. What I wonder is why we are so much more violent than Western Europe.
[User Picture]
Date:August 27th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
Humans may be genetically programmed for violence--all mammals, all living things period are--but culture and self-aware willpower can overcome this propensity. Europe in general, having witnessed the unmitigated horror of modern warfare, knows this and acts accordingly; no one wants to risk another World War II...especially now in the age of nuclear weapons and robotic bombers. In the US, however, the last conflict we had to deal with in any real sense on our soil was the Civil War, nearly 150 years ago. To us, war is something always done "over there." We culturally have no experience of our homes being destroyed by bombs, of raping and pillaging mobs of foreign troops stomping through ruins, of a bloodthirsty regime literally forcing us to behave.

At least...not yet. :) That time is coming soon.
[User Picture]
Date:August 28th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)
Entirely agreed.
[User Picture]
Date:September 3rd, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of one of my perennial favorites: "Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to."

I think that while there are certainly some very ugly elements of American culture all along, there's a steady uptick in the post-Nixon era as changes in communication and the media environment were consciously used to promote an authoritarian vision, to the detriment of the common good.
[User Picture]
Date:September 3rd, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC)
That's an awesome article.

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