Thursday, March 8, 2007

Have a Nice Day!

The other day a friend of mine posed an interesting question. Why are Americans, by and large, so much more respectful toward each other and toward public property than citizens of other countries? My friend is from South America. Her father is here visiting, and he was marveling that no one seems to litter and everyone is so nice to each other. He wanted to know, how did this come about and why isn’t it that way in his country?

I confessed I didn’t know, but I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I’m ready to hazard a guess.
  • Americans are, by and large, tremendously proud of their country. It is so large and beautiful. We are proud of its history, proud of its freedoms, proud of its strength and proud of its wealth.
  • We truly have a sense of ownership in this country. We really believe all that stuff in the Constitution about “We the people…” If we harm this nation we are hurting ourselves and our neighbors, not just getting back at “the man”.
  • The idea of government based on the rule of law rather than the rule of men is deeply ingrained in us from childhood – we feel viscerally that “no one is above the law.”
All of these factors give us a sense of belonging. Our identity is more wrapped up in our community (city, state or nation) than our many and varied ethnic or racial backgrounds. So we are more disposed to regard our communities and our neighbors as worthy of respect.

Some people might challenge these assertions. It is certainly true that these feelings are not universal. Many do feel disenfranchised, especially among those who live in poverty and have suffered racial discrimination, but most do not. What worries me more is that our society seems to be polarizing and fragmenting over the last few decades. I hope that we don’t forget what made this a great country. Sometimes we just need a reminder. And nothing helps me put our problems in perspective like talking to a first generation American who loves this country and doesn’t take it for granted.

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