April 25, 2006

Ik Is Us: The Every-Person-for-Themselves Society

Although I was born in America, I am only first generation, my family having emigrated from eastern Europe in 1920. As a child, I was raised in what might be called a European socialist ethos: you help other people. As a result, I have been living in a state of culture shock on a daily basis for nearly six decades. As lawyer “Jackie Chiles” (a Johnnie Cochran look-alike) says in the final episode of Seinfeld, “You don’t have to help anybody! That’s what this country’s all about!”

Not helping other people is systemic in the United States. It’s not a question of immorality as much as amorality: we aren’t raised with an ideology, or even a consciousness, in which the other person counts. I remember, when I was fifteen years old, some boy in my school whom I knew only vaguely–Tom, I think his name was–was walking around on crutches after knee surgery. Much to my surprise, he asked me if I would carry his books for him from his home room to his first class, as he couldn’t manage to do this while on crutches. I did it for two weeks, and didn’t think twice about it. About a week into this routine, Tom’s mother called mine. “You know,” she said, “Tom asked about a dozen students, including good friends of his, and they all said that they couldn’t do it because they didn’t want to be late for their first class. Your son is a saint.” “My son is not a saint,” my mother fairly snorted, stating the obvious; “he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”

Fast-forward forty-five years, and I am returning home, on crutches, from knee surgery. As I approach the side door of my building, someone who also lives in the building is coming down the walk, busily talking on a cell phone. He looks at me briefly, then takes out his plastic pass key, swipes it in the little magnetic coding box, opens the door and goes in. The door shuts behind him; I’m standing outside of it, now fumbling in my wallet to find my own plastic entry card. Suddenly, the man–apparently seized by a rare moment of human fellow-feeling–pushes the door open from the inside. He doesn’t come out and hold it open for me, mind you; he just pushes it open, so I can sort of squeeze myself through the doorway on my crutches. He then hurries down the hall to the elevator, leaving me in the dust, as it were. Not a word is exchanged.

A few months later–the end of August 2005, to be more precise–I have an appointment at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, and need to check out the men’s room before I take the elevator upstairs. I walk in on a scene in which a man has collapsed on the floor, and someone else is trying to get him up on his feet. “Hold on,” I say; “I’ll go get help.” The first person I see outside the men’s room, about six feet away, is a police officer sitting on a bench. “Can you help?” I ask him; “some guy just collapsed on the floor of the bathroom.” “I don’t work here,” he replies; “go to the Inpatient Desk.” Given the possible emergency nature of the situation, I don’t bother to argue with him about the irrelevance of his nonemployment for helping another human being, but take off for the Inpatient Desk. “Can you help?” I ask the woman at the desk; “a man has collapsed on the floor of the bathroom down the hall.” “You’ll have to talk to Security, over there,” she gestures. I run over to the Security officer, repeat the story for the third time. “I’ll call the Fire Department,” he says. What relevance the Fire Department has to somebody passing out in the bathroom I have no idea, but I just say, “It’s this way.” He is already walking ahead of me, and when he reaches the men’s room, keeps on going. “Here!” I shout; “it’s right here.” He just keeps on walking down the hall.

A few days after this incident, hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. As we all know, the response of the federal government was very slow: for several days, people were left to fend for themselves, and vast numbers were without food or water. During this time, a friend of mine, a lawyer, sent me an online video that was made by MSNBC the day after Katrina hit the city, showing people looting a Wal-Mart store. This in itself was not that shocking; basically, it’s what I and probably a lot of other Americans would expect. The kicker was that the police were there, wheeling shopping carts, and looting right along with the looters. When Martin Savidge of NBC News asked one policewoman what she was doing, she replied, “Jus’ doin’ mah job.”

Is the reader beginning to notice a pattern here? In one form or another, this is America in microcosm, and it is disturbingly reminiscent of the worldview of the Ik of Uganda as described by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in The Mountain People. The Ik had been reduced to a condition of savage self-interest due to economic hardship. Turnbull describes how, when someone in the tribe died, neighbors (as well as children and siblings) would fight over the person's few belongings, and abandon the corpse. Turnbull comments that in this system of mutual exploitation, affection and trust were actually dysfunctional. "Does that sound so very different from our own society?" he asks at the end of the book. These words were written in 1972; one can only wonder what Turnbull would have thought of American life thirty-three years later, were he still alive. What, after all, can be the fate or the future of a country in which the police join the looters in their looting while all around them people are dying by the thousands?

Any ideas?


Blogger grazia said...

First of all I hope you won't mind me addressing you more or less unformally in this comment. I'll blame it on the nature of the blogger, where we're all humans at the same level. Some just wiser than others.
I admit that I haven't read any of your books YET, but maybe I will soon. I found this blog by chance and started reading the article on Colombian gold - I have a couple of good colleagues/friends from there. It was very nice. Then I moved on to this one, which is also stimulating.
At this point I'll jump in and write my ideas since I have the feeling that they'll be more or less welcome no matter how naive they might sound.

The mycrocosmos you describe sounds familiar. I don't know from where. Maybe because I've seen a lot of Holliwood movies, maybe because my society has similar aspects although it's on the other side of the ocean, or maybe because some behaviors are just part of human nature.
I still haven't had the chance to visit the United States but I've heard a few friends complain about the poor values of the North American society, the individualism, the money centeredness...
So far I've always been skeptical about this kind of generalizations, and reading your article has not made me change my mind. On the contrary, it has confirmed my impression that we in Europe have a natural talent to blame and criticize the USA for everything that's wrong in the world, often forgetting that you also have an intellectual group of people who still haven't lost it completely. I think the most effective criticism always comes from inside.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous MFB said...

I strongly believe that there are perhaps a majority of Americans who are faily well educated, decent people and who go by similar priorities to what it was like 40 or 50 years ago that just do not know how to change the way our nation thinks based on what we hear from the media. The only way I know as to change the moral tide of America is to organize with a huge mass of people who are willing to protest in front of Washington DC with a loud voice to our leaders. A big problem that I observe is that too much unnecessary bickering and just stupid and petty arguments go on even between these decent people who actually maybe in our nation's majority but unfortunetly, these people are not heard. We hear time and time again that usually either the UCLU or other left wing bomb throwing organizations are extreamly organized and are heard all over. Do you have any suggestions on this point of how good decent Americans can rise to this dark occasion and be heard effectively?

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to find this place for the particular angst I have, just what this post indicates.
As a professor, professing your understandings of our cultural decline, what texts might you use to show how the generation (here I know I'm using a generality and other illogicisms, but bear with me) that pushed America to stop the war; that claimed to have concern for the environment and the welfare of others; that wanted a meaningful life--these people in great numbers, majorities, reneged on those values and fell into the venality, the mendacity and the disconnection that clearly appeared with Reagan and has only gotten more maggoty since then.

12:38 AM  
Blogger Rus said...

Would you leave some chosen bibliography about the decline of sentience in this culture?

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Robert Camilleri said...

Professor Berman,
I saw you on C-Span speaking about your book "Dark Ages". C-Span mentioned your Web Site and I have been reviewing it tonight. I am a graduate of Catholic University. When I learned that you are currently a visiting professor of my alma mater, I was intrigued.

I am currently working on my Doctorate in Education. My Dissertation deals with retention of members in fraternal organizations. One of the books I have read is Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone". He speaks about the loss of social connectiveness.

On a personal level, I emphathize with your experience after knee surgery and your experience of finding a man who had collapsed. I have seen the utter lack of concern and caring exhibited by people towards those in need. Just recently, a friend of mine underwent knee surgery. Only one person went over to the man's house to see if he needed anything!

When I was growing up, when anyone in the neighborhood was sick or in distress, families routinely went over to see how the person was doing and asked if anything could be done to help. It seems to me that sort of caring has for the most part, sadly disappeared.

I agree that today its "every person for themselves". Sadly some fraternal organizations have died out, as chronicled by Putnam (2000). Along with this fact, the caring and sharing among the members of these extinct fraternal organizations is lost.

I hope that your Blog will reawaken in all people the need for social connectiveness, helpfulness, and responsibility. If people continue to act in the way you have described, American society, as we know it, will continue a downward spiral.

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to try and understand why we are all so fricking surprised by the decline? Its been happening for hundreds of years as MB has elegantly chronicled. The way I see things now it is a kind of inevitability, lets instead focus on preserving the little bits of culture that remain. I'm building a personal library that will be a microcosm of my passions and knowledege. Can't wait to see MB's new book!

6:17 PM  

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