Sunday, January 2, 2011

My Country 'Tis of Me

If we’re going to Save the World (and why not?), we need to pay attention to superiority bias. This bias, also known as “the Lake Wobegon effect,” was illustrated by Dave Barry who wrote that, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers.”

People affected by the superiority bias (which I think includes everyone except me) believe themselves to be above average in almost everything, whether they live in Lake Wobegon or not. According to one psychological survey, for example, when asked to rate their personal ethical standards on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 being perfect), half of all respondents rated themselves at 90 or better.

It may be true that to see oneself as average or (horrors!) below average, would be so depressing that we simply have to lean on the crutch of superiority bias just in order to get through the day.

But what’s true for individuals is even truer for tribes and nations, and this is where Saving the World comes into play. George Bernard Shaw once said that “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” In other words, love for your country is fundamentally self love. The patriot’s creed might be: “My country is exceptional, but it would just be ordinary if I were from somewhere else.”

Loving your country is greatly helped if you can pull a mental switcheroo about some of the not-exactly-admirable things your country has done in the past. When I visited Potsdam where the 1945 peace agreement with Germany was signed, I noticed that our very gracious tour guide always referred to the ugliness of the 1930s and 1940s as the work of “the Nazis” – not “the Germans” or “our nation’s leaders.”  The Nazis were, of course, monstrous authoritarians, but they couldn’t have done all the unforgettable things they did then without the cooperation of a goodly number of the Germans. On the other hand, we have to give the post-World-War-Two Germans credit for owning up to the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on the world. Most countries haven't owned up so well for the ugliness in their histories.

We Americans, for example, have ways of excusing such things as the decimation of Native Americans, the institution of slavery, and the nuclear annihilation of thousands of civilian families in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We can say things like, "Well, I never owned slaves," or "They had it coming," but the sins are still there for all to see and most of us Americans alive today have benefited in some way from these sins.

Speaking of slavery, what are we going to do about the South? I think of myself as a Southerner since I’ve lived here most of my life. Of course I was born in Indiana, but this is OK because Indiana, given its voting patterns and its rich Ku Klux Klan heritage, is kind of like a Southern state that somehow managed to slip north of the Mason Dixon line when nobody was paying attention. So please indulge me as I identify myself as a Southerner.

Southerners, as a whole, are national champions in the superiority bias arena. For example, I’ve seen quite a few bumper stickers down here that say things like, “American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God!” but when I lived in New Jersey I can’t remember a single sticker saying “New Jerseyite by the Grace of God!” And I’ll thank you to wipe that smirk off your face, because New Jersey, in fact, is a lovely state except for some of the areas around Bayonne and a few places like that. It’s also famous for being a state where George Washington did a lot of his sleeping around.

But the South -- Lord have mercy. Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent, hit the nail on the head when he skewered Southern romanticizers who talk as though Dixie in the 1800s was all about elegant plantation living. “Ah, South, South, South,” he said. “Look, you’re a lovely place, you have a rich heritage. No one wants to take away your pecan pie, or your William Faulkner, or your sweet tea, OK? Just admit you fought a war over your right to keep slaves.” Then he added, “You may not have invented slavery, but you held onto it like an Expletive Deleted” [editor’s wording here].

Mr. Wilmore is right. But according to the standard Southerner’s Handbook of Alternate History, the Civil War was merely a legitimate defense of “freedom” against northern aggression. This Handbook (which does not actually exist in reality, but might as well), also casts Abraham Lincoln with his “government regulations” as the villain who ruined everything with his high-handed meddling.

While we’re pointing fingers, let’s also note that among Southerners, it is the Texans who take superiority bias to the most astonishing level. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have had some good times in Texas (most of which I cannot as yet describe here, statutes of limitations being what they are). I have also known a passel of lovely Texans in my life. But talk about self delusion. How many Texans, when they speechify about that mission in San Antonio where Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie died (and whose name escapes me now), how many of them are anxious to point out that one of the reasons Crockett and Bowie fought the Mexicans was in order to allow Texans to keep their slaves? Mexico, by that time, had made slavery illegal, and the Texans were determined to defend their “freedom to own slaves” from that uppity Mexican government.

"Remember the Whatchamacallit!"

All of this ties in to my New Year’s resolution, which is to bring about World Peace. The fact is, an awful lot of wars break out because each side sees itself as morally superior to its enemies. So, what I would like to propose is that the Nobel Prize Committee, or Dave Barry, or some other respected institution, establish a “Warts and All Prize.” This Prize would go to the opinion leader who does the most to get his or her fellow citizens to see their country for the self-deluding, volatile and over-armed powder keg that it is. As an anthropologist who studies these things, I can say with confidence that this describes my own USA and is also an accurate portrayal of many of the dozens of countries I’ve lived in or visited over the past 50 years.

So why not start trying to see ourselves for what we really are? After all, reality isn’t always beautiful, but it does offer us the only basis for sustainable human life. Isn’t it time we reacquainted ourselves with it?

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