Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Effect of culture - The American Character

Prologue: The direction of American health reform will depend on the American character – on its penchant for individualism, innovation, and optimism and its tendency to minimize the plight of the less fortunate among us.

In the course of sorting through and selling some of my books, I came across this beautiful introduction to a book The American Character (George Braziller, Inc, publisher, 1983).The book consists of a series of Wall Street Journal stories describing energetic, sometime star-crossed, always individualistic Americans. To me it explains why the America health system is what it is and what it is likely to be.

Introduction – The American Character

For more than two centuries a progression of politicians, poets, historians, and critics have struggled to explain America. Success has eluded them, the American people having stubbornly refused to sit still long enough to have a full-color portrait done. They have been too busy.

We can only hope to discern the American character in snatches of action, for the relentless impulse towards action dominates American life. We are not a reflective, backward-looking people. Don’t just sit there, we say. Do something. And the incessant doing of it as made America one of history’s engines of change, indiscriminately pouring out upon the world polio vaccines and nuclear weaponry, computer technology, and disposable diapers, an extraordinary political idea, and the perfect hamburger. We are loved and hated, feared and trusted, but seldom ignored – and just as seldom understood, even by ourselves.

The manufacture of the future is the life and business of America. But it is increasingly a fragmented, specialized, and urbanized endeavor; we are becoming a nation of isolated individuals ever more dependent on each other, and at the same time ever more ignorant of how we are connected.

The characteristic of America that resists any attempt at a definition, lasting analysis of the nation is the constant upwelling of self-induced change in our society. We remake that society every few years, scrapping whatever isn’t working and trying something new.

But beneath the turmoil some things never change. We are now, as we always have been, the most individualistic of peoples. We insist on being treated as individuals and not as impersonal, faceless numbers, and we reward those who remember this. While our political consultants shape candidates into inoffensive clones, we retain a sneaking fondness for politicians and others who remain very much their own men.

Americans would rather build something new than run it, start something than finish it. Almost a half-million enterprises are launched here every year by people who gamble with the future and who wouldn’t enjoy the game without the risk. This freelance, entrepreneurial spirit pervades not only business but all of American life. But the deep strain of individualism from which it springs has darker aspects.

Individuals don’t function well in impersonal, antlike environments, and it is ironic America should have advanced and promoted mass production techniques and modern industrial organization to the rest of the world when its own people are so ill-suited to them. We see, in a steno pool and a computer assembly line, the crushing boredom and facelessness of such work. Our industrial genius too often has created jobs that stifle us and deny our nature as a people.

And we do know what to do about those who cannot adjust, who are left behind, by rapid change. If one aspect of civilization is the enduring, constant willingness of the fortunate many to provide for the unfortunate few, then we are not yet a completely civilized country; our natural compassion is always at war with our cherished belief that every man has the opportunity to make something of his own life if he really wants to. So we vacillate, offering help with one hand and snatching it back with the other.

Having conquered a vast and hostile frontier, we convinced ourselves that we could conquer anything. At bottom, we still think so -- and in this book the reader can see some of the new problems, the new challenges, the new frontiers, already under assault by the energy, optimism, and sheer stubbornness of his compatriots. There is something supremely egotistical about the effort, and something glorious too.

William E. Bundell
Staff Writer, Wall Street Journal, 1983


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