While on a train from Prague to Vienna, I happened to share a compartment with an Austrian professor of biology. He was kind enough to share a beer with me, and we struck up a conversation. He asked me why Americans did not have universal healthcare. He wondered why we wouldn’t give up a little in exchange for this service.
First of all, I couldn’t exactly share that famous quote of Benjamin Franklin’s that those who give up a little liberty in exchange for security deserve neither. I doubt that’s as hammered into the psyche of Austrians as it is Americans. But that really was the crux of the matter. I struggled to explain, and ended up telling him that Americans would intentionally hurt themselves in order to feel like we have more freedom. He didn’t think that made sense at all.
For those of you who saw the first Avengers movie, there’s a scene where the powerful Loki stands before a crowd in Germany and demands that they kneel. I’d imagine this scene would play out very different in Washington D.C. It would also contain a lot more dead people. Proud people, sure, but by the time Captain America showed up to shield those who stood up to Loki, he’d have killed quite a few of them.
Of course, the Austrian professor could not relate to this at all. He thought Americans were silly. And we are silly. We are a very silly people. But this is not a condemnation. This is a way of understanding America. As a collective, we are extremely doubtful of the collective. We are extremely distrusting of authority, even authority that benefits us or even one that comes from us. We will cut our nose to spite our face and then make monuments to our scarred noses.
Do I like this aspect of my culture? To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I love the feeling of pride that I too would never bow to Loki, but I think I’d like a more efficiently run and less corrupt healthcare system and maybe fewer bridges with giant cracks in them. But in order to get those things, we have to understand this aspect of our culture. I come from a people who will gladly accept suffering to avoid collective benefit, if that benefit requires a loss of prideful self-determination. Can we come together to do great things? Absolutely. The Moon Landing, all our wars, our country’s existence itself are collective efforts. But every collective effort done in America relies upon balancing the uber-proud seeing their individual benefit, otherwise they will shoot themselves in the foot and call it honor. You proud, wonderful people with hole-ridden shoes, I know that no Austrian professor will understand you, but I’m going to do my best to do so. Because I want a bridge built, and that’s a lot easier to do without bloody feet.