May 16, 2008

Ik Is Us: The Every-Man-for-Himself 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 ethic: you help other people. As a result, I lived, in the United States, in a state of perpetual culture shock for nearly six decades. As lawyer "Jackie Chiles" says in the final episode of the famous sit-com, 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 as though it were woven into the very DNA of American citizens. 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–his name was Tom –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, until he was able to do it himself, 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 close 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. In my opinion, 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 now I have had knee surgery and am returning home from the hospital on crutches. As I approach the side door of my building, someone who also lives in the building is coming down the walk, busily talking on his 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 into 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 In-patient Desk." Given the 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 In-patient 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, he keeps on going. "Here!" I shout; "it’s right here." He just keeps walking down the hall. I figure the guy is probably dead by now anyway.

A few days later, 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. What was impressive was the fact that the police were also there, wheeling shopping carts around 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." Apparently, stealing DVD players while the townspeople were drowning was not a problem for New Orleans’ Finest.

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. This tribe had been reduced to a condition of savage self-interest due to economic hardship. Turnbull describes how, when a member of the tribe died, neighbors (as well as children and siblings) would fight over the person's few belongings, and then 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 future of a country in which people on crutches constitute an annoying distraction; in which the hospital staff response to a man collapsing on the floor is, "It’s not my problem"; and in which the police join looters in their looting while all around them people are dying by the thousands?

Any ideas?

©Morris Berman, 2007

11 Comments:

Blogger jerome langguth said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

Thanks much for this post (and the others as well). I remember reading The Mountain People as an anthropology student, and the analogy with the Ik seems quite apt. The situation in the US strikes me as even worse in a way, though, in that most Americans seem to believe, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that their society is characterized by kindness, charity, and goodwill towards all (perhaps the Ik did as well). There is a kind of pervasive sickly sentimentalism here that manifests itself in popular entertainment like “Extreme Home Makeover” or “Oprah’s Big Give.” And, on a more hopeful note, many young people do seem to be willing to volunteer for a wide array of charitable organizations, etc. But this side of Americans seems to exist mostly when it is being orchestrated and channeled by a church, school, or big organization of one sort or another. It for some reason doesn’t translate to treating each other well at street level, doing what we are supposed to do, as you say. And we also get a big kick out of public humiliation combined with a hilariously ironic moralism, as in the TV program “Moment of Truth” where the main source of entertainment is people who are willing to skewer their friends and families in front of millions of viewers. Brilliant! At least the Ik didn’t broadcast their shallowness and inhumanity for all to see (but not notice).

Thanks,

Jay

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Debbie said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

I have been reading your site for a while now and have been enjoying the emails as well as your articles. I read your book "The Twilight of American Culture" and for the most part agree with everything you wrote. I am now in my 50's and years ago, at the ripe old age of 19, left this country to travel to Australia, which ultimately led to a round the world backpacking trip. It changed my life and perspective forever. In 1981 I again immigrated to Australia, planning to live there permanently, as I was distressed by what I believed at the time was a complete takeover of this country by Corporate America. Everytime a new development went up in the rural outskirts of town, or the fast food strips lengthened, something screamed out within me. I hoped I might leave that behind if I returned to the other side of the world. I did leave alot of it behind, as evidence of chain motels/restaurants/stores were way less prevalent down under. However, paradise it was not. Many of the things you criticize America for I found even more pronounced in Australia in the 80's and 90's. I have never lived in American neighborhoods that were as unneighborly as the typical Sydney neighborhoods I lived in. I have compared notes with others, and it was not atypical for neighbors to live side by side for years and never learn each other's names. Australia is very much an "everyman for himself society", perhaps as a result of their penal settlement origins, I'm not sure. They do have a healthy skeptism towards those in power, which I think has helped them to avoid the gullibility trap that so many Americans seem to fall into. However, that attitude also tanslates into a lack of ethics, in that there is little hesitation to take advantage of those that are perceived as better off. I have an artist brother-in-law who has worked both in America and Australia, and was MUCH more often taken advantage of financially (not paid after completing work, etc.) in Oz than here. Also, as I read your examples of Americans turning a blind eye towards those in need, I kept thinking I would rather take my chances here than there. When I returned to the U.S. in the 90's, I found the people much warmer and open here. However, I am living in a rural area outside Charlottesville, Virginia which is probably not very representative of the larger urban areas. And I am not saying it is perfect here, as I am increasingly alarmed by the lack of concern by many around me towards our government and its horrific policies. I am alarmed by the avoidance and denial I see in the people I know. I often feel like an alien here, unlike many European countries and Australia where it is much easier to engage another person in an honest discussion about such things. I guess the point I wanted to make is that perhaps the every man for himself attitude comes from materialism rather than being an American phenomenon. Australia is just as materialistic, even if they do have less "stuff" to choose from. It is also a very hedonistic society with a prevalence of shallowness. I actually returned to the U.S. hoping to find more substance here. Australia's government and social safety net are far superior to this country, though, and as things continue to decline here I have little doubt I will be forced to return. As an ex-expatriate, America will never feel like home again, but probably neither will any other country. I also have children to consider, and while Europe is superior in so many ways, I have always been drawn to less urban areas. I live where I do because my children are surrounded by nature and are part of an eclectic homeschooling community. Their education has included alot of nature and survival studies which I hope will help carry them into the future. I feel it is the best I can offer them at such an insecure time, but I am acutely aware we are living on a sinking ship. I am watching carefully so as to know when to abandon it. Your site has offered me support at a time when so many are afraid to talk.

Debbie

2:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Debbie,

I've been to Australia twice now, and have to say I agree with you, although the real shift I noticed occurred between 1996 and 2003--a shift confirmed by Aussie friends. "We lost our soul," one crafts merchant outside of Melbourne told me in 2003. The effect of the Howard years was quite evident. At the same time, I discovered that New Zealand was very different, and had rejected the values and direction of the United States.

You point to materialism as the probable cause of this--really, the far-end of capitalism, when it permeates all aspects of life--and I'm sure that's a major factor. In the "Communist Manifesto," Marx wrote how, under capitalism, all human relations were dissolved in "the icy waters of egotistical calculation." Jesus, it could have been written yesterday, no? But I also wonder to what extent the general attitude toward life--of extreme individualism, lack of friendship and community, emphasis on personal "success" to the detriment of everything else--is woven into the fiber of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant soul. Canada, for example, has these characteristics as well (I lived there 7.5 years), but I found that this was not true of quebeckers (among whom I lived 1980-82), and probably not of the various native peoples up north.

In DAA I talk about how the 1790s were a crucial decade in the US, during which the definition of "virtue" changed from "contribution to one's community" to "personal success in a competitive environment." And yet, the culmination of this antisocial attitude in the US did not occur until the Reagan presidency, during which, as you note, the control of America passed unequivocally into corporate hands. We live with the results of that now, of course; the "old gipper" gypped us out of the only life we ever had. Barack Obama actually praised Reagan a couple of months ago, on the campaign trail; for the vast majority of Americans, he probably remains some type of hero. Which is to say, no one particular person got us to where we are today; if the nation is in a state of slow-motion suicide, we did this to ourselves.

Thank you for writing.

-mb

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Alarmed Canadian said...

Canada, for example, has these characteristics as well (I lived there 7.5 years), but I found that this was not true of quebeckers (among whom I lived 1980-82), and probably not of the various native peoples up north.

Indeed it has, and for those of us who were around during the transition from Trudeau to Mulroney, we remember the exact point when it went from bad to worse.

What has become most frustrating in this country is the transition of a ruling elite that was mostly silent for a long time to a vocal one that is parroting the rhetoric we're all familiar with: the inescapable logic of individualism, the indisputable sophistication of "choice," the banal explanations that people's consumption habits reflect their very real "needs," etc. etc. It's very difficult to challenge because it is supported by a wealth of very sophisticated propaganda that has been churned out all over North America by think tanks and academics for decades now, and it seems impossible to insist that particular premises be better examined; is individualism really fundamental to a social animal like human beings? Is "choice" from among a million different things that don't differ substantially from each other any choice at all? Are people consuming to respond to actual needs, or simply out of a psychological reaction to adverstising that has manufactured those needs or from needs created by the unintended consequences of previous consumption choices?

Whenever those questions are brought up, each of those premises seems to be used to explain the other. Consumption habits are rationalised by the explanation that people are free to choose in the exercise of their personal freedom that actualises their individualism. It's a circular argument that resists the introduction of new information and that only ends when you opt out, which, increasingly, is an option available only to the wealthy.

My parents remember quite vividly the difficulties of the Depression, which hit harder and lasted longer in Canada than in the US. At this point, the only thing they believe will snap us out of this ridiculous fantasy is the very real fact that most of Canada is barely habitable without the wealth it has to generate to provide the basics of human life. In this way, they believe that an economic downturn, preferably a disastrous one, will be salutary. Being poor in Canada becomes a death sentence (or at least a road to misery) much more quickly than in other places and if anything hasn't changed too much is that Canadians are still not that keen on the idea of people being miserable. In any case, in a country with so few concentrations of population, it's difficult to avoid confronting the misery full on. There just aren't any gated communities or that many oases of wealth and comfort to escape to, unless one spends a good portion of the year living somewhere else.

Although the petroleum wealth of Western Canada and the promise of Global Warming that some Canadians secretly believe will make more of the country more easily habitable (which completely ignores what would likely be the catastrophic breakdown of existing ecosystems that will make a lot of areas even less habitable than they are now) can permit a lot of Canadians to think we'll somehow succeed in avoiding the perils we've all noticed occuring everywhere in much of the "Anglosphere," I doubt very much this country will be permitted to continue to somnambulate toward the inevitable all that much longer.

At least, I hope so. For my part, I'm concentrating on supporting the few public institutions and traditions we have that, although battered and under assault, have served us well in countering the mindless mythology that supports much of laissez faire capitalism: the public media, the health care system, the overwhelmingly public education system and the inter-cultural and inter-regional compromises at the heart of the Canadian state that force us, whether we like it or not, to dialogue with people who have very different ideas about what this country is supposed to be.

Wish us luck, because we need it.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Alarmed Canadian,

Thanks for the report from Up North. Yes, I'm familiar with the individualistic propaganda that began to become popular in the post-Trudeau era. Maybe you should buy a few thousand copies of Zygmunt Bauman's "Consuming Life" and distribute it to your friends (and enemies), I dunno. It's amazing how hard it is to get any alternative views injected into the public discussion, tho "Adbusters" magazine in Vancouver has been doing its best for years.

Thanx again,
mb

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That piece about Australia really shocked me. I am a dreamer, and I really wanted to believe that Australia was a friendlier, more equal, better society. I wanted to believe in the Utopian society, and Australia was next on my list to visit and (cross off). I have met many Aussies in Europe, and always found them very friendly, warm, and down to earth. What a shame! Ireland is still special to me, but getting richer by the moment. I loved traveling around Ireland and talking to the older people in the pubs. The young people are changing, and many older Irish tell me that the youngsters don't sit around and tell stories, etc. One old lady in Donegal town talked to me for awhile, and she said that they didn't get electricity in that part of Ireland until the 1970s. No wonder they can communicate so well. Technology is the enemy. It is ironic that the poorer the country, the warmer the people, but it seems to hold up. Maybe that is why each generation is worse than the one that preceedes it. The more technology the less human interaction.

John from Chicago

10:09 PM  
Blogger Derrick said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

I remember the first time I came back to America after a year long stint of freedom and civility living and working in southern Germany. It took me many months to accept the reality that living in America, my newly gained European notions of human decency, manners, and altruism were not known to the wider public, and that I was again living with barbarians. My first reaction was one of horror when, only moments off the plane, I see police assaulting an old Japanese couple for getting in the wrong line at customs. It made me sice to my stomach to see how poorly we treat others. That incident made me want to go back to the plane and demand a ride back to "my home" in Germany. I hope that someday America will see the error of its ways and become a human oriented society but I doubt that will happen; especially in light of the information presented in your books. Thanks for writing and speaking the truth.

Derrick

8:51 PM  
Blogger Auvery Eva said...

It would seem that so called christian nations forget basic christian principles such as "love thy neighbour" and that rather well know parable attached to this principle: the story of the good Samaritan.
I have been shocked by friends who have almost reprimanded me for stopping and helping others - I'm good at lost dogs.... So I was so heartened when a newish friend leapt to the assistance of someone else that involved quite a bit of time and bother without a pause or a thought.
I can see this theme running through much of your writing here. My favourite illustration of such things is on returning to London for a visit some years after having lived there I discovered that people didn't queue for buses or the tube/metro and in fact actively pushed their way onto the vehicle. An old lady and I had to laugh at a lad who ran to the bus leapt in front of us and boarded - we were the only two people at the bus stop. But actually, eventually it is not funny, it is sad and worrying. If the individual can't open out to the other how can we hope that the nation/organisation/company can?

10:19 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Auvery,

Did you mean "newish" or "jewish"? That gave me quite a laugh. On this theme, check out a great film from 1989, "Jesus of Montreal". And on the theme of "Ik Is Us," check out this new item of a few days ago:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080701.whospital-ward0701/BNStory/International/?page=rss&id=RTGAM.20080701.whospital-ward0701

(Or even better, just google woman brooklyn hospital.)

The video is even more terrifying. But what I found interesting was that hospital personnel wound up getting fired. They didn't in my own vignette because no one was there with a video camera; although I wonder if they would have gotten fired even if we had a video record of it. The video of the Bklyn hospital shows the woman collapsing on the floor, and 2 or 3 people just sitting there and watching her. What was going on in their minds, I wonder? Did anything register at all? It's important to grasp that this is American individualist ideology in its purest form.

Thanks for writing,
mb

10:59 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

Um, I don't want to sound as if though I defending any of the people you had written about in your post. But I would like to share experience I had a fews years ago with a supervisor of my.
When I graduated collage I found myself working in the womans section of a department store. One day an old lady came in, she had to be at least eighty, had a cane, and thick glasses. She asked my where she might be able to find the restrooms. Of course I did what I thought anyone would have done, I stepped away from my register, but didn't go to far for fear of getting into trouble. I stepped out into the aisle a little bit, walked with her to the end of my department, and pointed it out to her, made sure she knew where I was pointing, and told her the easiest way for her to get there. I didn't return to my post until I saw that she was definitely headed in the right direction. Of course I figured that since there was no one in my line it would be perfectly okay. Well apparently not, my supervisor had seen me, asked what I was doing. I explained the situation. I was told that my job was to stay by my register, even though there was no one in my line and the register was bolted down and required a code to open. I was told never to leave it for any reason, unless told to.
This particular supervisor had been working for the store since it opened, was great friends with all the bosses ( they were at her wedding ). I didn't complained, because I didn't think it would get me anywhere and at the time I really needed the job and thought I would get fired. I going to suppose that that is what was going on with the people you had mentioned in the hospital as well, at least I hope they wouldn't be that cold.

Thanks,

Heather

12:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In today's NYT there's an article about the recent tragedy on K2 and how the climbers were "looking out for number one" in contrast to an heroic rescue on the same mountain in the 1950's. Hard to believe so much could change so quickly but I guess when selfishness is rewarded over and over again no other outcome could be expected. And Heather made a good point in her post, too, how consideration and courteous behavior is discouraged. And the irony of it is if the elderly woman had complained that the salesgirl wouldn't help her, she would probably been threatened with being fired for ignorning a customer! The world is crazy.

12:28 PM  

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