Leave Me Alone, I Can Do It Myself

In Hamlin Garland’s “Under the Lion’s Paw,” the narrator asserts something that most small businessmen, farmers, and self-employed artists know: “No slave in the Roman galleys could have toiled so frightfully and lived, for this man thought himself a freeman, and that he was working for his wife and babes.” Well, yes. And such workers fight collectivization because it takes from them purpose – a heavy work load is a lot easier to sustain than alienation.

How we make a living is not the only place where we are both more active and more sacrificial than we would be if we merely met other’s requirements. Several articles in the last few days have pointed to that; I suspect these arise from the fact America is an outlier — with our emphasis upon self-reliance, we see our selves defined by the internal & personal choice rather than the social & fulfillment of custom. This leads to misunderstandings – by us and of us. Europeans, for instance, are less likely to understand how we approach religion, culture, and society’s “safety net.” Of course, this post just notes new sources that substantiate old generalizations.

First, there is the religious. Europeans are often confused about American religious history & our myriad sects. In the relatively conservative and Catholic First Things, Thomas Albert Howard’s America in the European Mind notes that

Even so, anti-American voices are often impervious to the possibility that the American religious experiment might offer significant historical and political lessons. Indeed, the objections of Europe’s right and left have often regarded the American situation simply as the absence of certain specifically European conditions that are believed to be normative. Both views, one might argue, bear witness to an irrepressible European mission civilisatrice, with the United States serving Europe at once as poor learner, oafish foil, and didactic counterexample.

But we tend to treasure our own tradition and believe one of the important distinctions, our early disestablishment, paradoxically (but hardly surprising to those who believe we are more engaged when we choose than when our loyalties are chosen for us) led to a more fervent and religiously aware citizenry. Europeans are less likely to understand this and more likely to see church-going linked to state, even when they “know” differently.

Nor do we ourselves always see how these different assumptions affect our culture and charity. As A&L notes, Alan Riding’s review of Frederic Martel’s Culture in America describes what Europeans see as contradictory – when the government doesn’t support the arts, the populace does. And the results are not necessarily worse (though it may be different) art. Martel’s travels around America saw regional and ethnic culture springing not from tax-supported entities but local groups.

Then there is charity: those of us stung by the UN’s (in the person of Jan Egeland) description of us as “stingy” at the time of the tsunami are likely to be heartened by a study done at Syracuse by Arthur Brooks and described in Who Really Cares. (NR interview.) His more lengthy, earlier discussion in Policy Review, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving” makes his argument in terms of secular versus religious values (not unsurprisingly, the religious, whether liberal or conservative, tend to give more). Nonetheless, he emphasizes (or his interviewers do) more strongly the conservative/generous nexus in current interviews and columns, such as Doug Wilson’s “Giving in America, ’tis the Season,” which also observes that America can hold its own in comparison to Europe:

Let’s start with what we already know. For one thing, we know that America is still the most generous nation in the world. More Americans give money, and give in larger portions, than the citizens of any other country. In fact, Spain, the most generous nation in the European Union, gives less than half the amount of the average American and volunteers 80 percent less often.

Of course, our culture and charity, as with our religions, tend to splinter and fracture- charities & literary magazines rise and fall.  That bodes well for those of us who find such diversity fruitful, but as for so much that is American, our diversity may appear chaotic to outsiders and our open marketplace anarchic. I suspect, in some ways, it is. Some of our popular culture & our splintered denominations have their problems.  Our popular culture has not always made this world a better place. But, in the long run, these quite various pieces demonstrate that it is in our diversity and individualized responsibility that the best of our values (as well as our art and charity) lie.

1 thought on “Leave Me Alone, I Can Do It Myself”

  1. “Some of our culture has not always made this world a better place.”

    Sure, we’re tacky. I score about 40% on Jeff Foxworthy’s Redneck test and I’m proud of it. Yes, I’ve shot a varmint out of my bedroom window. And yes, there’s been crime scene tape on my bathroom door.

    But we have not given the world anything close to Marxism Leninism, Stalinism, or Nazism. Every time a Russian acquaintance starts going off about Russian Culture and European this or that, I remind them rather forcibly how little their “great” culture has done to curb their barbarism.

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