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Monday, January 24, 2011

Charity Is Harder Than You Think: Tucson from a Repatriate's Perspective

The time has arrived for me to look in the mirror and say:
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is most ignorant of all?
And for the mirror to respond:
You are the most ignorant of all! You think that just because you have traveled the world, you are a more tolerant, more open person than others who haven't. Well, think again ...
Why am I being so hard on myself, you may wonder? Recent events — I refer to the shooting near Tucson, Arizona — have prompted me to eat an extra-large slice of humble pie.

As soon as the news started to break on my Twitter feed, I had the shooter pegged as an Angry White Male (AWM) who was trying to do in his congresswoman because she'd voted for health care. He'd really wanted to assassinate President Obama but targeted his congressional representative as the next best thing. When I learned that Gabrielle Giffords was Jewish, it made even more sense. As a Democrat, a woman, and a Jew, she made a good substitute for America's first African American president ("the other").

My narrative was further enhanced when I learned that those who helped to save the Congresswoman's life included her gay Latino intern and a Korean-born trauma surgeon. It figured the Good Guys would be the kind of people the Bad Guy doesn't approve of (homosexuals, immigrants).

What a script I had going! But there was just one problem. As everyone now knows, the perpetrator, Jared Loughner, doesn't fit the profile of an AWM. He is a loner with no clear political affiliation or agenda.

In other words, I'd leapt to the wrong conclusion, and my conscience has been niggling me ever since. Why didn't it occur to me right away that Loughner could simply be a paranoid schizophrenic? There are, of course, no boundaries — political, cultural, or racial — on mental illness. Seng-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was a Korean-born permanent U.S. resident.

The nation is still mulling over the lessons of the Tucson tragedy. While I have plenty of opinions on what those should be, mostly having to do with my experience of living in countries with more restrictive gun ownership laws, I will focus instead on what Tucson has taught me about myself, and the biases I possess towards other Americans.

Grown-up male Komodo dragon
w/ forked tongue, courtesy
1) However much I've opened my heart to other cultures, I'm not above delivering unfair judgments on other people, including — and especially — my compatriots.

In a previous post, I called out my fellow Americans on their xenophobia, condemning those who are spreading dangerous lies about Muslims, Muslim Americans, and President Obama.

As it turns out, I, too, subscribe to negative stereotypes of other Americans. Mine are of those who identify themselves as politically conservative. Unless told otherwise, I tend to assume most of them are hard-core capitalists, flag-waving patriots, religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, birthers, libertarians, gay bashers, and NRA supporters, when perhaps that isn't the case.

What's more, I'm all too willing to believe that, if provoked, many right-wingers wouldn't hesitate to take out someone who struck them as being un-American in some way.

I'd love to be able to excuse myself by pleading that I've lived out of this country for so long that I can no longer negotiate its political landscape. (Notably, over on the Matador Network, a bunch of us have been debating whether expats can be cut some slack for becoming apathetic towards the politics of their homelands.)

But the fact is, I'm biased.

Of course, I encountered political conservatives during my days as a rex-pat: e.g., Britain's Little Englanders and Japan's right-wingers who drive around in sound trucks. But I tended to think of them as part of the experience of getting to know the elephant wrinkles and all.

But now that I'm back with my own people, I feel as though I've entered a a den of Komodo dragons: full of venom and capable of cold-blooded murder. And you know something else? They scare the living daylights out of me. It's not so much fear of "X" as terror of "X."

2) It's almost too shameful to admit, but I could use a refresher course in the Golden Rule.

Let's see, I think it works like this. If I don't want other Americans to stereotype me as one of those crazies who gets caught up in living abroad and renounces all ties to the United States, I should avoid unfairly stereotyping them.

Apparently, I'm not alone in having lost the hang of the "do onto others..." maxim. Former-Roman-Catholic nun-turned-religious-historian Karen Armstrong says that most of us "moderns" are lacking in compassion: i.e., the moral imagination to place ourselves in the shoes of others. She feels so strongly about this that she has written a book outlining the 12 steps to a compassionate life. (That was after she won a TED prize to create a Compassion Charter.)

Armstrong distilled her advice into "12 steps" for its resonance with AA. She thinks that people of today are addicted to bludgeoning their opponents into accepting their point of view. We define ourselves by our hates: this person is everything I hope I'm not (but fear I might be).

Armstrong's admonitions have gotten through to me. I'm reminded of my expat adjustment process, first in England and later in Japan. I can remember in both countries reaching a stage where I told everyone: "You know, the more I learn about this place, the more I realize how little I know." Admitting my ignorance was a kind of turning point. From then on, I began to revise my initial impressions, e.g.:
  • English people are reserved not because they are cold and unfeeling but because they live on a small, overcrowded island with a capricious climate.
  • Japanese people are suspicious of foreigners not because they are all xenophobic but because they are still recovering from centuries of self-imposed isolation.
What I didn't realize then, and am beginning to realize now, is that it works just the same in my own culture. In the case of conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists, I suppose I might say:
  • America's political conservatives are full of anger not because they want to lash out with violence against people who aren't like them but because they feel threatened by a country that's changing in ways they don't understand or approve of, and threatening to leave them behind.
The above may need further tweaking, but I hope it at least constitutes a baby step towards absorbing new knowledge and overcoming my destructive stereotypes.

Question to other expats| rex-pats| repats: Have you, too, found that national tragedies like Tucson reveal uncomfortable truths about your relationship to the people and politics of your native land?


Kate said...

Interesting one.

Something that strikes me from the comments section of Little England newspapers such as the Daily Mail is the frequency of the phrase 'Only In America!' whenever there's a slightly outlandish and/or violent news story from the US. It's a reaction of relief, I guess, that because it happened in West Virginia or wherever, that it won't happen in Shropshire. Be warned, DM commenters -- I remember hearing the news of the Hungerford shootings in 1987, and thinking, 'But this isn't supposed to happen in England. That's America's thing.'

School shootings? Again, it was only for Americans and in songs by the Boomtown Rats...but that was before Dunblane in 1996.

It's a tough lesson in karma and judging not lest ye be judged.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Kate
Thanks for those remarks. I was living in London when Dunblane occurred, and remember feeling depressed for weeks afterwards. I was also living in Tokyo when Aum Shinrikyo attacked the subway with sarin gas (I lived right near one of the stations where people died). Now that was scary!

So Jared Loughner must be added to a list that for me includes Thomas Hamilton and Shoko Asahara. All of these people are crazy, all took multiple lives. (That said, Asahara was the leader of a cult, whereas the other two were lone gunmen. But maybe that's the difference between East and West: Japanese crazies like to do things in groups, whereas Western people tend to be crazy individuals...)

Still, as you point out, America has a much greater incidence of shooting rampages--our infamy on this score is richly deserved. No doubt this is due to the greater availability of guns in our country. It's a lot more challenging to pull off a sarin gas attack than to go berserk with a Glock 9mm pistol.

We like to make everything easy in this country: even killing our fellow citizens...

Culturally Discombobulated said...

I ummed and ahhed about doing a piece on Tuscon. I even got so far as drafting something but I just ended up doing my usual glib little posts instead.I'm somewhat glad I didn't, however. Anything I would have written in the immediate aftermath would have been hopelessly inappropriate a few days later. I did think of just posting Orwell's Politics and the English lanuage in full and this clip from Charlie Brooker -

PS - I've posted a link to this post on my tumblr -

@Kate Those two examples you cited actually show how different the UK is to the US. It's not in the acts themselves that we learn much about each country (violent sociopaths can be found anywhere, there's been school shootings throughout the western world , but nothing like the number of shootings that have occured in the US), but in the response. Both Hungerford and Dunblane were followed up by the government passing tougher anti-gun legislation than previouly existed. Do we see that here? There's shooting after shooting and do people maybe think gun control or the lack of it is part of the problem? Do we think our media response could be more tempered a la the Brooker video above. No, the Federal government is incapable of having a grown-up conversation about gun-control - even though some members certainly want one. People here often get so emotive about their guns when they should be getting emotive about the body-bags in Tuscon or at Virginia Tech or Columbine or Red Lake or Northern Illinois or Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. What do we get? Well, responses that are just panacea, such as no guns within 1,000 feet of congress, or the idiotic, such as the idea favoured by some in the congress that congressmen and women should carry firearms themselves. Great, and do we apply that to schools too? Do we arm the teachers and students? Where's the equivalnet response that we had after Hungerford and Dunblane? Where's the ammendments to exsiting laws? Where's the American equivalent of the Cullen report? Where's forcing people to hand in their weapons.? It isn't going to happen. Part of the American psyche fetishizes the gun, to some the gun is what a cup of tea is to us. There I've being glib again - but there's some truth beneath the glibness of that comment.

Dustin said...

I tend to disagree. There's nothing in the definition of psychological disturbance that makes it incompatible with political motivation. And Loughner was was *definitely* politically motivated. The fact that his politics is neither clearly assignable to traditional Left or Right/Dem or Repub party politics nor particularly rational doesn't mean he doesn't *have* a politics. (It's arguable, as well, that nobody who takes on mass killing as political action is *ever* entirely rational in any case.)

But the question here is whether interpreting the world according to your own experience and intuition is ok, or if it's "biased". And the answer is yes, it is. Both. No amount of travel, training, experience, psychological analysis, or anything else is ever going to prevent you or anyone else from seeing the world through a filter of your own experience, that is, from being "biased". All views are partial views. A terrifying thing happened Jan 8, one with POWERFUL political overtones, and one that targeted someone with powerful political enemies, in an environment of discourse that makes violence a logical extension of politics; I don't think you need to beat yourself up for not seeing the whole story in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Kate said...

The knee-jerk responses to Hungerford and Dunblane, unfortunately, did absolutely nothing to help the people of Whitehaven in June last year.

You can pass laws to ban this, that, and the other as much as you like, but if some crazy is going to break out, he/she will find a way to do it, regardless of legislation.

Stacy said...

Speaking as an advocate for stricter gun control, I also want to offer a context for some people's fear of letting guns go. I’m certainly not defending the perspective, but I’d like to see it understood.

My father, for example, grew up in a small town in Texas during the Depression and WWII. The whole town worked for Texaco, and when the laborers went on strike, Texaco broke the union and put the town out of work. My Dad's family lived on "green beans and water biscuits" for a couple of years, and on whatever they could shoot: squirrels, possums, rabbits, mourning doves. My Dad knows full well that hunting rifles and shotguns are a far cry from semi-automatics; he doesn’t own guns because he thinks they’re dangerous; he sees the need for restrictive legislation, but he stays silent about it, because he is too grateful to guns for keeping him and his family from starving.

My mother's family moved to the Colorado territory just after the Civil War. Her grandfather was the youngest and had the task of guarding the farm from claim-jumpers. He was known as "Eagle-Eye Birdsill" because he would shoot at ear lobes to scare jumpers off without actually hurting them too badly. Their family's shelter, prosperity, and harvest depended on his skill with a rifle. My mom grew up hearing these stories from her grandfather. She knows that times have changed a lot since then, but she’s ambivalent, because within family memory guns were a necessity for survival.

In the West, at least, I think these attitudes still underlie the refusal to deal with gun control. A great many folks aren't rabid gun rights people or even gun rights people at all, but they won't step up to the plate on the issue. They are too ambivalent. Especially for my father, who is typical of an entire generation of rural Westerners, the memory of hunger and hard-scrabble poverty isn't an easy one to let go of; he still refuses to buy Texaco gas.

Sorry to go on and on, but I think it's too easy to see this issue as one about fetishes and the NRA and lobbies and Survivalists and the Tea Party and 2nd Amendment enthusiasts and über-macho posturing. Those types certainly have the loudest and apparently most newsworthy voices, but I think most people are really like my parents—silently refusing to vote for gun-control legislation because they still see it both ways.

Jeffrey said...

But now that I'm back with my own people, I feel as though I've entered a a den of Komodo dragons . . . They scare the living daylights out of me."

But ML, you're only "back with (your) own people" being in NYC. America has too diverse a population for there to otherwise be much commonality.

I've lived in Japan twice, returned home to culture shock both times and never really recovered. I can run down Japan for all its faults as well as the next former ex-pat. But I can make just as long a list, if not longer, for the U.S. because it still gives its citizens, though not for long I fear, an opportunity to seek "redress of grievances." On the other hand, it's hard to imagine the Japanese being able to affect the nation-wide change of anything. History seems to bear this out as the only time the Japanese really change course is when faced with forces beyond their control and from the outside (the "Black Ships" and WWII but not the post-bubble financial meltdown).

I don't get along with as wide a spectrum of Americans as I once did. I find greater commonality with Americans (or foreigners) who are well-read, liberal, college educated, who have traveled abroad and live in or around large cities - people with more-or-less the same background I have had. I don't think this is unique or a recent development in our relatively young nation. But I do think, the digital age notwithstanding, that it is more pronounced than it was in the first half of the previous century.

Nearly 20 years ago in The Work of Nations, Robert Reich discussed the greater (and growing) commonality that exists across the upper socio-economic stratum irrespective of nationality. "Elites" in country A are more likely to share social and political backgrounds and economic interests with "elites" in country B than they will with their own countrymen. Chrystia Freeland discusses this again in this month's Atlantic Monthly.

This is probably truer for the ultra-wealthy (and powerful) and less true for occupational "elites," and something that has long been the grist for conspiracy buffs wanting to know what really goes on at the Bohemian Grove and what they really discuss at meetings of the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group. Sometimes it is hard to otherwise explain, even in terms of realpolitik, how the U.S. maintains some of the relations it does.

I think there is some truth to what you say about the resurgence of conservatism in the U.S. A lot of Americans without the educational or occupational wherewithal to compete in today's economy do feel they are losing control of their lives (and country). But this doesn't excuse any of the birthers or followers of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. The nonsense that too many of the Fox faithful swallow puts them pretty much in the same category as Holocaust deniers. But, as you conclude, there doesn't seem to be any reason to consider the Tucson shooter a fellow traveler. He is obviously mentally ill.

My mother lives in Tucson and votes for Gifford. That's saying a lot as my mother is a life-long Republican. She really likes Gifford but thinks Rachel Maddow is the devil. Gifford is very much a centerist and only looks radical (to some) in the context of Arizona politics. While her last Republican opponent, a retired Marine, was one of many around the nation who held "shooting party" campaign functions. But unlike the Republican congressional candidate in Florida, his supporters did not have a chance to shoot at targets bearing his opponents face.

Long answer short: yes. I'm constantly embarrassed by my country and can't really say with any assurance that it still offers the best mix of culture, social mobility (pretty much a myth now), politics, and educational and economic opportunity.

Jeffrey said...

To address gun control (or better put, the true lack thereof in the U.S.) - I've pretty much come to accept that we will never ban or even really regulate handguns and semi-automatic rifles here. As it stands now in the U.S., it's easier to get a handgun or semi-automatic rifle than it is to get a drivers license. If this makes sense to you, I have a bridge for sale.

However, as a prohibitionist I can conceded ownership rights beyond hunting rifles and shotguns if we, first, banned gun show sales (save for historically significant/collector pieces - muzzle loader, "six-shooters" and the like) and sales across state lines (non-resident sales), limited ammunition sales and magazines, no concealed carry permits, a 25% federal excise tax on guns and ammunition and, finally, that ownership permits require a full background check, a two-week course on safety and use followed by a written test that included enough questions to gain a psych profile of the applicant.

I also live in a world of rainbows and unicorns and Allan Gotlieb is a neighbor. Sort of.

Peter said...

This is a brave and honest post. But I don't think your statement at the end "America's political conservatives are full of anger ...." works yet. I'm independent rather than liberal, and the thing that often strikes me about liberal descriptions about conservatives is it's always in terms of emotions - as here. It's about anger, feeling threatened, or fear, hate, envy etc.

You now go so far as to concede there may be causes behind the emotions, rather than just sheer irrationality. And feeling may often be part of it. But you still don't think - or at least so it seems - the "other" in this case is actually capable of rational consideration of their own interests.

It's still the 'What's the matter with Kansas" point of view, or perhaps even a false consciousness argument.

The cognitive psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that conservative non-elites and traditional societies in general actually respond to three other moral notions that liberals simply don't comprehend or see, including binding groups together.
By Jonathan Haidt"

You make a compelling statement on the basis of the golden rule - reciprocity -which is one of two drivers of liberal morality Haidt talks about. And the Karen Armstrong book you refer to encapsulates the other - compassion. But if Democrats want to win elections, as Haidt says, they have to at least recognize the other moral imperatives exist for many people, even if they don't agree with them.

None of that helps deal with horrible incidents like Loughner, but it might help Democrats in 2012. I think it also explains some of the disorientation people like us with expensive elite educations experience when confronted with more traditional societies, as expats or otherwise.

ML Awanohara said...

So much food for my own thoughts! After gorging on it for some hours, I have some further thoughts in response.

@Anthony (Culturally Discombobulated) & Kate
I am always astounded when American politicians fail to speak up about the need for stricter gun control (let alone propose new restrictions) in the wake of such unspeakable tragedy. Are they really so cowed by the NRA? Apparently so... It's one of my greatest sources of counter-culture shock.

For instance, I was blown away (forgive the pun on two levels) by Charles M. Blow's column in last Saturday's NYT. He wrote that pre-presidency, Obama had been a strong supporter of gun-control initiatives. Since then, however, he has remained curiously quiet on the issue in general and following the Tucson shooting in particular. He went on to ask: which Obama will show up at the State of the Union?

Well, as we all know (and could have predicted), it was the Obama who favors political expediency over what is morally right. Still, I was appalled, especially when I noticed the parents and little brother of the slain Christina Green seated right next to Michelle.

Too bad Obama didn't heed the advice in a letter to the editor on this topic that was published in yesterday's NYT. The writer said Obama should make the common-sense analogy between the control of cars and control of guns: "Cars and guns, carelessly or intentionally misused, are both lethal. We extensively regulate who uses cars and how they use them. Shouldn't we do the same with guns?"

No doubt you are right about the American gun fetish, though I'd hate to equate it with a cup of tea (one of the things I loved most about England and Japan, too, for that matter).

I took at a look at the Charlie Brooker clip and couldn't agree more that the intense media coverage of these events--in which the perpetrator's mug shot is displayed 24/7, turning him into a kind of "nihilistic pin-up boy"--helps to ensure that other crazies will try to copy these crimes.

And that would be my answer to Kate: besides stricter gun control, we also need stricter guidelines on media coverage. While I'm not fully up on the Cumbria shootings of last June, I would expect that Derrick Bird was inspired by some of the other shootings of this nature that have taken place, not only in Britain but elsewhere, over the past twenty years.

After a while, the issue becomes not only about gun availability but also about the phenomenon of copy cat crime. We ought to be debating this aspect, too.

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. to Anthony: I really appreciate the link on the Clueless Immigrant's new Tumblr account, pointing everyone towards the best expat writing on the Web. I signed up for Tumblr some time ago, will have to see if I can reactivate...

ML Awanohara said...

@Dustin: Thanks for giving me license not to beat myself up over this since we are all biased. But you know, as you get older (and especially if you've traveled extensively), you get a little like the global citizen version of Archie Bunker, thinking that because you've "been there and done that," you can recognize most of the personality profiles the human race has to offer. In other words, you're not simply biased but bigoted...

Still, you are right that one thing that threw me (and lots of others) off in the immediate aftermath of the shooting was the shooter's decision to target a congressperson at a political event. It seemed logical to hypothesize that the crime was politically motivated. And I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking the shooter must be an Angry White Male (an epithet that is linked to a conservative political profile).

All of that said, the fact remains that I would prefer to hold myself to a higher standard--maybe the effect of watching too much Sherlock Holmes? (I'm a great fan of BBC's 21st-c remake.) Methinks Sherlock wouldn't have been so blindsided, or else he would have waited for more evidence to emerge, before passing judgment...

I'm still pondering your statement about Loughner being political motivated. I suppose that you mean no man is an island, even a crazy one? Thus that Loughner, too, must have been influenced at some level by living within a society that encourages hatred against political opponents as well as gun violence, and sometimes both (eg, Sarah Palin's now-infamous target map with the crosshairs). But because he was so angry and so obsessed with guns, I'd be more inclined to think he is part of the copycat effect (see my comment above). Still, no one really knows how the brains of criminals work. We definitely need more study...

ML Awanohara said...

I appreciate what you say about gun-rights people including those who are attached to their guns for emotional reasons that have to do with family history: because shooting (or shooting at) animals helped to keep their families alive.

You are also right in assuming that I would tend to lump the hunters together with people like the retired Republican Congressman from Arkansas, Jay Dickey, who acted in cahoots with the NRA to ensure that funding was cut to the CDC for fire-arms related research. (The CDC was trying to study such topics as whether having a gun in the house, instead of conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.)

To this day, Dickey is clear about his reasoning: "We have the right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms we have."

But I guess that just as some people would love to see moderate Muslims speak up and say that the Islamic religion doesn't sanction violence, I'd love to hear your folks speak up and explain that the use of guns doesn't always have to be politically motivated.

I for one would far rather be arguing about the morality of hunting than about whether people should be allowed to buy assault weapons with high capacity or only normal capacity magazines, or feeding devices.

(As I write this, I'm getting a pang of nostalgia for my life in Britain, where most of the gun debate centered on hunters' vs. animal rights. So much more civilized.)

Nel said...

The blog is very good!

ML Awanohara said...

It's interesting what you say about your mum supporting Giffords but not Rachel Maddow. It makes no sense to me, but I've reached a point where I can't gauge, let alone anticipate, the subtle twists and turns of my compatriots' political preferences. The price one pays for such a long absence? I'm afraid so...

It's also interesting what you say about having more in common with people who share similar backgrounds, regardless of culture. I believe that's the kind of thinking that informed Anastasia Ashman's decision to create Expat+HAREM, a site for global nomads to congregate and imagine a new social order.

While I share many of Ashman's ideals, I'm conscious that not every traveler does. We don't all come to the same conclusions after seeing the "elephant." There are also plenty of smart, well-educated, well-traveled people who lean conservative.

Take, for instance, William Meers, author of Bye Bye Big Brother. (He is also a HuffPo blogger.)

Meers travels the world because he's "decided to claim his own sovereignty -- and cut all ties with all forms of government." He encourages others who fear the reaches of big government to follow in his footsteps and become "perpetual travelers," too.

Now, I happen to be one of those strange people who believes that ALL Americans should be required to spend time abroad because 1) our country is so isolated; and 2) we're overly fixated on the concept of American exceptionalism, to the point where it works to our detriment. But travel as a method of minimizing government control over one's personal life and protecting one's assets? I hadn't thought of that one before...

Speaking of American exceptionalism, did you notice the big role it played in last night's State of the Union address? Before becoming president, Obama opined that all countries, not just the U.S., think they're exceptional--something you'd expect a person with such an international background to say. But now that he's leader-in-chief, he has no choice but to drink the Kool-aid, it seems.

Notably, Congressman Paul Ryan echoed this theme when delivering the official Republican response, insisting "there has never been anything quite like America." So there you have it: something we can all agree on! Or most of us, at least. (Rex-pats don't count as they're no longer players.)

Anastasia said...

Thanks for mentioning expat+HAREM, ML. I am still working through your post and the comments so am not addressing them specifically...but can react to your note above about people who become conservative when their view widens.

I'd say 'seeing the elephant' has made me a more conservative person (and liken it in a comment on my own blog today that I got out of a utopian box when I left my American hometown).

Kate said...

Agreed, ML, re media a point, in theory. However, one person's media coverage guidelines is another person's censorship of the press.

China has strict gun control plus censorship of the press. Nevertheless, the spate of knife attacks at elementary schools last year left over 20 dead and more than 90 injured.

See previous comment, "You can pass laws to ban this, that, and the other as much as you like..." etc.

ML Awanohara said...

Thank you for recommending the Haidt article. I note that Haidt says "it helps to take off the halo, step back for a moment, and think about what morality really is." Armstrong would surely agree. She advocates starting again from a point of ignorance.

And you are right to point out that, although both Haidt and Armstrong favor finding ways to overcome our distaste and distrust of "the other"--people who aren't like us-- they put the emphasis on a different place: Haidt on reciprocity and Armstrong on compassion.

I'm also glad you called me out on my attempt at making a compassionate statement on America's political conservatives. Originally, I wrote "full of rage" but then I softened it to "angry": after all, isn't the Tea Party movement is fueled by anti-Obama anger? But I agree that "angry" implies irrationality, which can be construed as a put-down.

One of the passages that I liked most in the Haidt article is this: "Because Democrats are so indisputably right and Republicans so unquestionably wrong, conservatism must be a mental disease, a flaw in the brain, a personality disorder that leads to cognitive malfunctioning." Could that explain why I (along with many others) was so eager to categorize Loughner as a rabid right-winger?

BTW, I, too, would classify myself as more of an independent than anything else when it comes to political views (though I do have a party affiliation). Even before I moved abroad, I thought too far outside the box to fit perfectly under a liberal or conservative label; and after living abroad for so long, I've become my own country!

For example, after living in the UK, I can now see advantages of the parliamentary system over the "separation of powers" model, which so often leads to gridlock.

And, just as Haidt found himself changed by his experience of being a scholar in an ancient temple town near Calcutta, I found living in Japan, a much more group-oriented society than ours, transformative.

But unlike Haidt, I've found it harder to come back to the U.S. and apply these lessons. Based on his India experience, Haidt is able to assert: "To be sure, the appeal of right wing ideas [in America] is clearly due in part to a Durkheimian privileging of the group over the individual."

But the way I understand group-oriented ethics as filtered through my Japan experience, neither Republicans nor Democrats have really got a handle on this.

In his response to Haidt, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner points out that although the right wing says it cares about groups, rather than individualism, it favors the most rampant form of "dog-eat-dog" capitalism. Touché.

But I would go further and apply this critique to the Dems as well. Why hasn't President Obama come up a plan for American youth to do community service and for the rest of us to get more engaged in building a better society? It seems he'd rather isolate himself with his White House team than communicate with, and motivate, ordinary citizens.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Peter, cont'd.
Notably, Obama appears to have consulted with people who've absorbed the lessons of Haidt and his ilk, if his State of the Union address is anything to go by. He is no longer trying to persuade us through policy arguments (so uninspiring, and what's more, it makes him appear professorial and aloof) but through an appeal to our common pride in America as an exceptional nation that can be competitive again if only we can re-engineer our educational system to produce more scientists and engineers, allow innovative small businesses to flourish, etc.

To use Haidt's political scientist speak, it's all about "binding and preserving what has become the primary reference group for political identity in the modern world, the nation."

Indeed. And until the nation state declines, the knowledge some of us rex-pats have acquired (see my comment to Jeffrey, above)--eg, that every nation thinks of itself as exceptional, that other countries have better ways of doing things (eg, gun control laws)--is best kept to ourselves, or, if we want to run for public office, masked as patriotism.

Expat mum said...

Great post and comments. So nice to see a civilised debate where everyone seems to be listening instead of calling each other names. Really refreshing.
Having been brought up in England, without guns, I am rabidly against guns here. People keep mentioning Dunblane etc. which only proves the point that a big shooting is so rare in England that almost everyone can remember names and where they were at that time. Yes, people who are intent on killing will probably do it anyway, but in the USA we have people "going postal" when they don't get a promotion, which happened about two weeks before the Tuscon incident. I believe that the easy access to guns makes it too easy for impulsive people to well, act on their impulses. Even the bill which asked for a "cooling off period" might have helped in that case.
And now we have Utah considering having a pistol (Browning) as its state symbol. I mean really?

ML Awanohara said...


Funny you say that. I think living abroad (especially in Japan) made me more conservative in certain respects--but the views I now possess don't map very well onto the American political landscape.

I also think that living abroad made me more bigoted (better word that "biased," thanks Dustin)--but again, it doesn't quite fit the definition of "bigot" that's prevalent in the West.

I guess it's the effect of (more or less) going native in other people's cultures that has turned me into such an odd duck...

You say that the wider world lured you out of the "utopian box" that was your hometown. What a tantalizing statement! I look forward to hearing more...

Jeffrey said...

Peter, I think your reference material actually reinforces the point of what's the matter with Kansas (and Oklahoma, and North Dakota, and Alabama, etc., etc.) rather than helping to explain it. To understand is not always to accept.

But now that we can map the brains, genes, and unconscious attitudes of conservatives, we have refined our diagnosis: conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.

As many of us concluded long ago, being a conservative is a mental disorder! Hardly.

There’s often a vestigal tug of war between nature and nurture in some choices we make. But I believe that as adults the vast majority of choices we make ultimately comes down to how were are raised. People may be “chemically” pre-disposed to conservatism. But that’s way too close to insisting that biology is destiny. For example, no one is born a racist. That is most assuredly a learned trait. Similarly, distrust of the sophisticated, "liberated," or simply different is almost always the result of social/cultural "isolation" and conditioning. And if this isolation lasts much past people's 30th birthday, it’s likely to become ingrained. And as counter-intuitive as this seems, this cultural isolation is even present to a degree in large cities. In other words, “civilization” is no guarantee that one is cosmopolitan.

And this passage could have come straight from any right wing talking head or radio "personality."

I would say that the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way.

There is a not so subtle difference, for example, in the "my country right or wrong" attitude ("supporting essential institutions") and wanting our country to be strong. And how have many times over the last few years have we witnessed conservative politicians, commentator and religious figures caught living in anything other than a "sanctified and noble way"?

How exactly are liberals/progressive not supportive of these unnamed "institutions"? Liberals are less likely to be religious, but divorce rates are actually much higher in the more conservative states where there are higher levels of church attendance. Conservatives on the whole despise the ACLU, but I can't think of another ostensibly liberal organization working harder to ensure that the letter of the law, particularly constitutional, is followed, regardless of circumstances.

The article is really more of a story of personal transformation - how the author came to terms with conservatism in the U.S. – than a serious study purporting to get to the nut of how liberals can better understand and, perhaps, find common ground with conservatives. I understand, as do all of us here who have seen the elephant, how coming to accept cultural differences is positive. But learning to accept the cultural norms of a country in which you are a guest is not the same thing as "live and let live" at home. The cultural norms of a rural Indian village, many of which I might find “backwards,” have no affect on my life. However, the social conservatism of a sizable minority of Americans does.

Ex-pats everywhere invariably have the same conversation about just how far one needs to go in “understanding” local cultural norms. And familiarity still often breeds more contempt than acceptance. Just because Jonathan Haidt thinks he understands and can explain what motivates conservatives in the U.S. (nothing I hadn’t read or heard elsewhere in any case) doesn’t mean that I’m any more accepting of their views knowing this. While there may be two sides to every story, they aren’t necessarily of equal value.

ML Awanohara said...

@Expat Mum
Thanks for your "thumbs up" on this post. It was one of the most difficult for me to write, but it's paid off as the comments have been so excellent. I expect I'll be wrestling with some of the ideas raised here--and the implications they have for my political beliefs and attitudes--for some time to come.

(Is this what Socrates meant by an "examined life"? I've decided that as one of the world's great thinkers, he had more energy than I do. But I'll keep trying...)

ML Awanohara said...

@Expat Mum @Kate @Anthony
I really relate to what Expat Mum says about how being brought up in England has made her rabidly anti-gun. I only spent my early adult years in the UK; nevertheless, it had the same impact. (Another impact of living in England, btw, was to detach me from formalized religion. Now if political conservatives in this country could forgo guns and religion, we might have something in common!)

In defense of what Kate says, there's some speculation that the Cumbrian shooter may have had a grudge against people associated with the Sellafield nuclear power plant that he worked for as a joiner, resigning in 1990 due to an allegation of theft of wood from the plant. (Three of the dead were former employees of the plant.) While that's not quite the same as going postal, it's moving in that direction.

So I think it's questionable how much longer the UK can operate on the moral high ground for this sort of crime, despite its more restrictive gun laws.

Peter said...

I found both Mary-Lea and Jeffrey's responses to my post very interesting, and many thanks. I would just add one thing, though. Jeffrey says "Ex-pats everywhere invariably have the same conversation about just how far one needs to go in “understanding” local cultural norms. And familiarity still often breeds more contempt than acceptance".

The main problem is there are twice as many conservatives in the US as liberals, 40% of the electorate to 20%. The ideological difference is much wider than the party affiliation difference. If it's a contest of who does not accept whom, chances are the conservatives are more likely to win.


Personally, I think that the Upper West Side can't impose its own values on the whole country, or the heartland may impose its values on the Upper West Side. And it has happened in some cases. I was just reading William Grimes' history of restaurants in NYC and how prohibition destroyed much of the public culture of the city in the 1920s.

And coincidentally before that, I was reading James Patterson's 'Grand Expectations', the Oxford History of the US in the 1940s-1960s. Patterson argues, as many do, that the Warren Court and Johnson Administration in the 1960s essentially created the religious right as we know it today as blowback. So "Live and let live" at least has the virtue that you don't energize your opponents who are twice as numerous. And it's not as if that's purely theoretical, given the mid-term election outcome.

The fact is that traditionalists and traditional societies are vastly more numerous than cosmopolitan islets, and likely will be for decades or centuries to come. That's the elephant (um) in the room.

ML Awanohara said...

FYI to anyone interested in the "gun control" thread in these comments:
1) Gail Collins hit the bull's eye (so to speak) in her column yesterday, entitled "Utah's Gun Appreciation Day." She pointed out that just as Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced three very modest gun regulation bills, including one making it more difficult to sell guns to people on the terror watch list, Salt Lake City's State Legislature met to consider a bill to honor the Browning M1911 pistol by making it the official state firearm [note: as mentioned by Toni, aka Expat Mum, above]. And then, in her inimitable style, Collins passed judgment: "Guess which idea has the better chance of passage? Can I see a show of hands? Oh, you cynics, you!"

2) Rumor has it (via David Alexrod, confirmed by Robert Gibbs) that there is "no doubt" President Obama will address the gun control issue "at a later date." According to Axelrod, the reason the president omitted gun control from his State of the Union address was that he wanted it to be "focused as much as possible on the economy."

Kym Hamer said...

ML In reading these comments on the back of your post, I'm prompted to add the bombing at Moscow Airport to the list of 'events'. I'm not in Moscow (nor ever have been...yet!) but learned today that this happened landside in the busy arrivals terminal, not airside after you've passed through security, stripped of liquids, gels, sharp objects and shoes. I know no detail about the bomber, just the outcome and to be honest, the 'reason' just doesn't seem to matter. It's just shocking that it are all the events of the past few years, whether they be nature (floods, tsunamis, earthquakes) or people at their most destructive.

May be the most humbling part is that I presume to speculate as to the reason and have the greatest trouble accepting that perhaps there isn't one...because how on earth will I, in my own arrogance, 'presume to ever make a difference'?

Kym Hamer said...

ML ps...sorry for the delay, tried to post this Monday night (thus today reference to events in Moscow) but my laptop/hotel wifi were having none of it...

ML Awanohara said...

I can appreciate what you say. I think expats feel particularly vulnerable any time there is a terrorist incident in an airport or on a plane, seeing as we spend so much of our lives in the air or waiting to go in the air.

The above post, of course, was focused on acts of violence by lone individuals or by cult figures (an example of the latter is Shoko Asahara, whom I mentioned in my response to Kate toward the top of this debate). But at the end of the day, it may not be worth drawing a line between acts by crazy individuals and acts that are politically motivated, as in the suicide bombing in Moscow's Domodedovo airport. Innocent people die under both circumstances.

(And btw, I wouldn't want either a terrorist or a paranoid schizophrenic with violent tendencies to have easy access to guns.)

Still, my main point was that in the case of Tucson, I surprised myself at being so eager to cast the shooter along (domestic) political lines--you might call it reverse racial profiling. And I didn't let go of that profile until faced with insurmountable evidence to the contrary.

Does this discovery about myself support those who say that clashing philosophical beliefs can lead to conflict between groups, regardless of a common cultural identity?

And are such clashes leading to the rise of a new global elite, as Jeffrey mentions in his very first comment? He cites an article by Chrystia Freeland in the current Atlantic, which appears to be well worth a read...

Freeland postulates that the super-rich are becoming a "transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home." Most expats and rex-pats don't count among the super-rich, but perhaps we form a second tier within that community?

ML Awanohara said...

I had one more thought on what I just wrote. Even if being super-rich or a long-term expat provides an opportunity to form a "transglobal community," it doesn't guarantee you a free pass from nation-state politics. Terrorists sometimes target expats explicitly as a way of making a political statement.

Just today a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up in a busy Kabul supermarket that is popular with foreigners. Three foreign women and one child were among the dead. (The Taliban later issued a statement saying that the target was the head of the Blackwater company in Afghanistan.)

And, Kym, I'm sure you remember the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002, which killed 202 people including 88 Australians. The terrorists targeted two nightclubs with Western clientele to send a message about Australia's role in the liberation of East Timor.

Thus, as much as many of us might like to carve out a world where nationality matters less than common cultural values, it's impossible to shed one's national identity completely. That's because we still live in a world where nations matter. We all know the expression: "No man is an island." Well, a group of transglobal thinkers can't be an island either.

But if we can't be an island, what happens when we find out we don't fit in back home? That is in essence what this blog is about...

And the longer I'm back, the more I think it's incumbent upon me to show some humility rather than assuming that because I've "been there and done that," I'm somehow above it all. In this conclusion, I may differ from Jeffrey and others, who've given up on the hope of ever fitting back in.

I'm not sure who has it right to be honest!

Anonymous said...

Anyone can be educated, a lucky few are patently smart, and everyone is slave to a paradigm. People are creatures of habit even in behavior as well as cognition; hence the phrase “thought pattern”. It is impossible to process every new situation without allowing our minds to follow our own personal well trodden path to conclusions.

Everyone benefits from those teachable moments where they can reflect on the inherent worth and dignity of others as well as their opinions. America is a large and boisterous place where universal health care generates debate about death panels, and people decry government regulation on publicly sponsored radio. It’s a place where unemployment benefits are leverage to reduce the taxes of the wealthiest. It’s a place where reduction in the federal government translates directly to increases for the states.

In a place so diverse (and wild), no one could have seen Jarred Loughner coming. The mentally ill are rarely expected. Who could have anticipated the attack on Regan? However, I do think your trodden path to conclusion was right to assume that the vitriol stemming from the right might provoke violence. Watching Jarred’s videos on youtube, one can see that he was disturbed. However, some of his video’s references alluded to right-wing subtle paranoia.

ML Awanohara said...
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