The Price of American Exceptionalism

Last night the New York Times had a live interactive thing on Facebook entitled “Me Time”.  It featured yoga, meditation, and Tibetan ringing bowls.  Don’t get me wrong- as a bipolar person I know how important it is to take good care of yourself, and I also believe that yoga and meditation and Tibetan bowls can also help some people.  Still, calling it “Me Time” seemed perilously close to the Trump administration’s anthem of late.

Maybe we need less “me” and more “other people”.

I highly recommend the new documentary “I am not your negro” about James Baldwin.  It calls in to question so much about American life and American ideals, and left me feeling like I was suspended in mid-air.  Like there was nothing to hold on to.  But really, there isn’t any ground, there isn’t any thing to hold on to.  And that’s as it should be.

Americans cling to the notion of American Exceptionalism–that we are somehow more special,  more deserving than any other nation.  That is simply a bunch of hooey.  I agree with a friend, too, that American Exceptionalism is dangerous because it promotes the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything.  Somehow we are unto ourselves, sufficient as we are, and not connected to people around the world.

In 2005, I left America for China because I was disappointed in my own country.  I thought I could have a better life elsewhere.  I thought people would be better somewhere else.  I know, I know, it was a foolish notion of mine.  After three years in China, I went to Saudi Arabia, and suffice it to say a lot of bad shit happened there (stay tuned for the book I’m writing), and suddenly I realized I was disappointed with the world in general.  I was manic and oh-so- angry.  I, again, foolishly believed it was about the place.  The place was bad.  So then I went back to China, and there, too, I was disappointed.  Again I thought it was the place.  I blamed Saudi Arabia; I blamed China.  But I was wrong.  I was wrong even to blame humanity, which you would think is so much more individual and therefore more blameable.  I was wrong.

After nearly seven years in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, I came home in 2012.  It’s taken me years of quality medication and therapy to come to my own perhaps more sensible  conclusions:  the world, humanity, the universe, whatever–they don’t owe me a thing.  It is I who owe the world.  I know these are not new ideas.  Plenty of people have said the same thing, including a farmer-philosopher in the literary magazine The Sun some years ago whose name I wish I could remember now.

Perhaps the only reason I would recommend travel is not to add to your Instagram account, but to see how other people live.  To see that other people work, and strive, and suffer just as we do.  To see how the rest of the world is indeed connected to us.

In the movie, James Baldwin says that America is very immature in its outlook on race, racism, and a host of other things.  This makes sense to me.  Friends from other countries have always mentioned the “innocence” of Americans, but I think what they mean is indeed immaturity.  More and more, I think that Americans may have problems with abstract thought, and in particular, the abstract thought, as a friend talked about recently, of empathy.  Why do so many white people have a problem accepting that racism exists?  Why can’t they accept that one person’s reality is not like another person’s?  I think in part it is this inability to make the leap into abstract thought, and therefore the leap into empathy.

We do not live in a society that promotes empathy.  We do not live in a society that punishes selfishness-in fact, it seems to reward it.  It’s all about the “me”, and increasingly so, with Muslim travel bans, a halt to diplomatic discourse, the dismaying cuts to the EPA and lifting of car emission rules that date back to the 1970s.  I don’t care, I’m not listening, it’s all about me, damn it.  And the world watches on in horror.

I remember a very good friend of mine, who is Chinese, screaming at me “You are so selfish, Americans are so selfish!” in Xinjiang Province when I left the confines of a travel group to find coffee.  Now, I admit to being selfish about coffee.  Mostly I think you don’t want to be around me if I haven’t had it.  But in this case Xinjiang Province was having some political turmoil between the dominant Han ethnic group and the minority Uighurs, and travel was a bit dicey in some parts.  I don’t think I was ever in danger, but my hosts felt very strongly that I should be protected as a foreigner.  This was the same place where I accidentally shut down an entire hotel because it wasn’t deemed “safe” enough. My travel company, at the behest of the local police, moved me to a “safe” (more expensive) hotel which was pretty much the same as the previous one, down to the curtains and carpet.

But I think about my Chinese friend screaming at me, and I think, yes, we are pretty much a selfish lot.  There are good points about individualistic societies, of course, but this is the downside.  We don’t think very much about the choices we make–from the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear.  We think we have the right to the life we live, when in fact it is due mostly to dumb luck and an indifferent universe.

We are not better than anyone else.

We are allowed to make mistakes, and to be disappointed.  We are human, after all.  I think many people struggle with these issues, and that’s important.  Thinking about it, struggling with it, these are beginnings.  We are certainly right to start with ourselves in making the world a better place, and if that means yoga and meditation and Tibetan ringing bowls, so be it.

Can People Change?

The Victorian author Anthony Trollope had some funny titles for his books – He Knew He Was Right and Can You Forgive Her? and Is He Popenjoy?  So in the spirit of Trollope I add my own title, not as funny, perhaps, but something I wrestle with:  Can people change?

The obvious answer is yes, people do change.  But then there is the age old adage:  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Or even, “People never change.”

My argument is that people DO change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst.

Let’s start with the bad stuff first, so I can end on a positive note.

It’s been frustrating for me to hear the news pundits say things like “Trump has really tapped into something with voters.”  People, there are some things you shouldn’t tap into.  The yawing chasm of hate that he has opened up is something, as a friend on Facebook pointed out, we might never recover from.  And the change is palpable.  Yes, those people who go to Trump rallies might have had that hate buried deep within them all along, but I also think they have changed for the worst.  Suddenly this bigoted, no-nothing shell of a man has given permission for the worst to come out of people and now we have images of a young black woman being shoved and pushed and yelled at at a Trump rally, and a young black man being punched in the face seared into our collective memory.  Trump supporters have changed because they no longer think it’s necessary to keep their behavior in check.  And that’s a scary, scary thing.  It’s all I can do not to think that this is the end of civilized society.  And yes, I know, perhaps we’ve never been “civilized”, especially to minority groups, but the public discourse has definitely been ratcheted down to a new low.

Still, I believe people can change for the better, too.

Back in the Jurassic age when I went to college, I remember arguing with my father about gay rights.  He said, “Gays are just a special interest group and special interest groups shouldn’t get privileges.”  Or something to that effect.  He made me cry.  Decades later, he has a gay son, my brother Tom, and a bisexual daughter, me.  You would never believe he ever said such a thing.  He knows the importance of gay rights now, and even more importantly, has been openly supportive and loving to Tom and his partner Jean, and of course to me.  My father, and my mother, have changed.  For the better.  I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for them, but they rose to the challenge beautifully.

Sometimes I think it’s a matter of theory and practice.  In theory, many people support gay rights and same-sex marriage, but in practice are pretty awful about gay people.  They’re clearly uncomfortable around gay people, say stupid or offensive things to and about gay people, and generally let the world know that they have some serious issues to still work out.  My parents, on the other hand, in theory are still uncomfortable with gay issues and talking about their gay children.  But in practice, my parents are love personified.  I wish more people were like them.  It is in our practice, in what we say or do, that really matters.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the “fixed” mindset vs. the “growth” mindset.  She is particularly talking about intelligence, but intelligence may rule so much of our behavior and character that I think it is relevant to change as well.  People with a “fixed” mindset don’t believe they can change.  They are stuck with what nature gave them.  The “growth” mindset believes it can change and become better, the effort itself being an important element.

Dweck writes:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .” (Dweck, taken from the “BrainPickings” blog)

I think it’s possible to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents. It has probably happened to me, when I accepted my own sexuality.   I don’t know if I can go as far to say that the Trump supporters at his violent rallies all have a fixed mindset.  But I wonder.  I wonder if they are just very fearful people, fearful of change, of difference, of “the other”.  I wonder if their posturing is just another form of what Dweck would say is “proving themselves over and over.”  That Trump himself, for all his braggadocio, must be a very insecure man down deep goes without saying.  That’s classic narcissism for you.

Perhaps I must leave the question:  Can people change? and go to a statement:  People must change.  We must grow and become better people.  And yes, we must convince others to do the same, whether that is in a family and done with love, or whether that means protesting the hate of others.  Both are important.