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Why Are Americans So Entitled?
Reflections on culture, the state, and how Americans insist on pulling out their laptops when they should be enjoying life.
I’d like to experiment with Substack to road test impressionistic road-test them, invite feedback (and criticism), and then hopefully I can then further refine the idea or argument for something more substantive and permanent.
As I alluded to cryptically in my previous post, I have been in France the past week, and I have been reminded of, shall we say, certain cultural differences. Now, I suppose what I’m about to say runs counter to the fact that a lot of Europeans vote for the far-right (much more than I imagine Americans would vote for an analogous party). They seem so relaxed, enjoying their unstructured dinners with wine and tobacco and, presumably, friendship. There is a kind of unfettered joy. To experience beautiful moments, even if they are just that, is not something to apologize for or rationalize. So what would compel them to vote for radicals?
Perhaps their anger and frustrations are not so obviously expressed in the public domain. That would require entitlement. My natural instinct, when frustrated, is to express that frustration. This seems like the American way, and I imagine it’s a product of living autonomously and outside of the reach of history. We do not ration, as one might after a war. We do not rely on others for our gas or our food, and, moreover, we would never think to entrust such important things to other countries.
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This is an “autonomous” way of living and being. And, with that, comes messiness, chaos, decentralization, and hyper-individualism. These are the building blocks of the American experience, warts and all. Each of us somehow decides that we’re mini anti-authoritarians, fighters, believers, and strivers, railing against the slights that we routinely encounter as somehow inherently unjust, when they would probably be better understood as the normal imperfections that give life it’s texture. On flights to or within Europe that aren’t tainted by a disproportionate American presence, there are precious few people typing away on their laptops. It often leads me to wonder: do these people have jobs? But of course they do. They are not weird. The weirdness is within.
The other day, it struck me how odd I must have looked in Nice. I was sitting at a restaurant/ coffee shop, right by the water, and I had my laptop out. In my several days in and around Nice I hadn’t seen, I don’t think, anyone pull out their laptop. I felt guilty, as I looked around myself. Was such a thing—on a Sunday no less—somehow inappropriate, perhaps even tacky?
I rarely see the French or Germans sniping at each other, on planes or pretty much anywhere.1 There is a clearer meaning to being French; you are part of a nation with a shared history and cultural lineage (presuming you’re not too obviously Muslim, Arab, or otherwise outwardly religious). When a flight in the United States is delayed, however, all bets are off. It seems uncouth, these bursts of base sentiment. My sense is that Americans return to a version of the state of nature, unencumbered by decorum or fellow feeling. It no longer particularly matters that we are all (potentially) American. In fact, if anything, we might be moved to suspicion by this. If someone too-loudly complains or acts impatiently with a fellow passenger or a flight attendant, we might suspect that they are “privileged” and un-self aware, which would suggest that they might be harboring reactionary tendencies. Even worse, they could be Trump voters. In fact, there’s probably around a 40% chance that they did, in fact, vote for Trump in at least one election.
Which brings me to the State. A friend once described Macron’s imperial projections—detached, paternalistic, and patronizing all at once—as a particularly French sort of thing. Citizens did not merely rely on each other, or their own consciences. They weren’t autonomous. Instead, the French state was like the spoke of the wheel. It was the focal point upon which everything depended, the animating source, the anchor, the provider, the protector. What was it protecting? This wasn’t entirely clear, in part because the State was both the means and the end. Everyone had a relationship to the State, and the state would be present and watchful at your most important moments. There has always been a subsection of Americans that summons through imagination this yet-unrealized future, savoring it mostly in its absence.
In American political combat, the state as the partner and watchful protector is not exactly a popular image. It’s too easily misunderstood, however well-meaning it may be. Remember that (in)famous ad—“The Life of Julia”—during the quaint, innocent Obama years. I know you don’t believe me, but this was a major controversy! Because, apparently, people had nothing else—surely nothing as dramatic as the end of democracy—to get exercised about. This is how The New Yorker described it:
Julia is a cartoon. Under President Obama, Julia enrolls in a Head Start program at age three, wearing a pinafore, ribbons, and Mary Janes. At eighteen, in a varsity shirt, blue jeans, and high-tops, she gets a Pell grant. At twenty-five, her hair has changed color—from blue to orange—and, while working as a Web designer, she’s paying back her student loans, and her health insurance covers preventive care and the cost of birth control. She has her first baby at thirty-one, and, at forty-two, by which point she has let her hair go back to its natural blue, she qualifies for a loan from the Small Business Administration. She begins receiving Medicare at sixty-five, and, two years later, Social Security is why she isn’t worried about how to pay for her retirement: “This allows her to volunteer at a community garden.”
Sounds innocent enough, right?
This was the spoke of the wheel, American-style. The state would connect directly to its citizens. Citizens were still individuals of course, but they would have, and perhaps even enjoy, a more intimate relationship to the state. It may not have deserved outrage, but it probably deserved mockery. For the full effect, check out some of these highlights. Like so many such incidents of the Obama era, I had apparently memory-holed Julia and her travails. When I was on his podcast the other week, Jonah Goldberg reminded me of Julia-gate, and it almost made long for the past.
In retrospect, the subtext of the ad (putting aside its heavy-handedness) invited concern if not necessarily outrage. Julia had no community, no church, and apparently no husband or father, prompting the Wall Street Journal to lament that “in Obama's ideal world, men are replaced by bureaucrats” (the liberal dream in miniature!).
The state—as represented by an administration as prudent and responsible as Obama’s—was prominent. It was meant to feature in your life, because it would make your life better, and it could make your life better in a way that other mediating institutions couldn’t. This is all to say that “The Life of Julia” wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial in Western European countries. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been controversial at all.
When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, we weren’t particularly well-off. We ran into some financial trouble, where I developed a habit of not ordering any drinks at dinner. I wanted to do whatever I could to ease the crunch on my parents. We coupon-pinched. Despite that, I don’t recall ever having been aware of the “the state” as a distinctive entity to which you called on, willingly, for support or guidance. To this day, terms like “the state” or “the American state” sound awkward in casual conservation. Maybe it’s because my parents had come from Egypt, where the state was to be avoided at all costs, where bureaucrats could ruin your life with the stroke of a pen, where government ministries seemed to have been designed with dark intent. The state was a fact, even if we didn’t quite know what to call it. But it was not an aspiration.
You will have to pardon the over-generalizations, I told you this would be “impressionistic,” didn’t I?