This past Independence (i.e. 4th of July) weekend earlier this month, I thought about the value and meaning of being in a free society. But my reflecting didn't go too far beyond reports and commentaries that we, as the people, and as the reputed greatest democracy on planet Earth, are trending AWAY from personal liberties, and towards a far more dense culture of conformity.
Let me be clear from the jump: I'm not saying modern America is comparable to life even in today's Russia under the regime of Alexander Putin, or China's continued controlling regime, and certainly not like Arab and Muslim societies under Sharia Law. But based on the premises of our own founding, the grounds have clearly shifted, according to this research:
The idea that personal liberty defines America is deeply rooted, and shared across the political spectrum. The lifestyle radicals of the ’60s saw themselves as heirs to this American tradition of self-expression; today, it energizes the Tea Party movement, marching to defend individual liberty from the smothering grasp of European-style collectivism.
But are Americans really so uniquely individualistic? Are we, for example, more committed individualists than people in those socialist-looking nations of Europe? The answer appears to be no.
For many years now, researchers worldwide have been conducting surveys to compare the values of people in different countries. And when it comes to questions about how much the respondents value the individual against the collective — that is, how much they give priority to individual interest over the demand of groups, or personal conscience over the orders of authority — Americans consistently answer in a way that favors the group over the individual. In fact, we are more likely to favor the group than Europeans are.
Surprising as it may sound, Americans are much more likely than Europeans to say that employees should follow a boss’s orders even if the boss is wrong; to say that children “must” love their parents; and to believe that parents have a duty to sacrifice themselves for their children. We are more likely to defer to church leaders and to insist on abiding by the law. Though Americans do score high on a couple of aspects of individualism, especially where it concerns government intervening in the market, in general we are likelier than Europeans to believe that individuals should go along and get along. (emphasis mine)
...The International Social Survey Programme, or ISSP, and the World Value Surveys, or WVS, are probably the longest-running, most reliable such projects. Starting with just a handful of countries, both now pose the same questions to respondents from dozens of nations.
Their findings suggest that in several major areas, Americans are clearly less individualistic than western Europeans. One topic pits individual conscience against the demands of the state. In 2006, the ISSP asked the question “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences — far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent). Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.” (emphasis mine)
But here's the upshot:
American individualism is far more complex than our national myths, or the soap-box rhetoric of right and left, would have it. It is not individualism in the libertarian sense, the idea that the individual comes before any group and that personal freedom comes before any allegiance to authority. Research suggests that Americans do adhere to a particular strain of liberty — one that emerged in the New World — in which freedom to choose your allegiance is tempered by the expectation that you won’t stray from the values of the group you choose.
The nature of individualism is complex, however, and there are at least a couple of ways that Americans in the ISSP and similar surveys do appear more individualistic than Europeans. For one, Americans are usually the most likely to say that individuals determine their own fates. What happens to you is your own doing, not the product of external circumstances. For Americans, things are the way they are because individuals made choices.
Yeah, in other words, take "personal responsibility" and don't have a "bad attitude" about whatever goes wrong for you. Don't think in any way of blaming the authority structure that has you under its foot. Things are the way they are -- period.
And what does this give us to celebrate as (a clearly emasculated) nation and society? Besides copious economic opportunity today and a wonderful free market enabling it, not a whole hell of a lot. Perhaps how there's less crime than there used to be, and how we're so much safer? While I'm on this anti-authority kick, consider this growing problem, outlined on The American Conservative blog:
Here are seven reasons why police misconduct is a systemic problem, not “a few bad apples”:
1. Many departments don’t provide adequate training in nonviolent solutions.
This is particularly obvious when it comes to dealing with family pets. “Police kill family dog” is practically its own subgenre of police brutality reports, and most of these cases—like the story of the Minnesota children who were made to sit, handcuffed, next to their dead and bleeding pet—are all too preventable. Some police departments have begun to train their officers to deal more appropriately with pets, but Thomas Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council, a police consulting firm, says it’s still extremely rare. In the absence of this training, police are less likely to view violence as a last resort.
2. Standards for what constitutes brutality vary widely.
“Excess is in the eyes of the beholder,” explains William Terrill, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Michigan State. “To one officer ‘objectively reasonable’ means that if you don’t give me your license, I get to use soft hands, and in another town the same resistance means I can pull you through the car window, [or] I can tase you.” The special deference police are widely given in American culture feeds this inconsistency of standards, producing something of a legal Wild West. While national legislation would likely only complicate matters further, local or state-wide ballot propositions should allow the public—not the police—to define reasonable use of force.
3. Consequences for misconduct are minimal.
In central New Jersey, for instance, 99 percent of police brutality complaints are never investigated. Nor can that be explained away as stereotypical New Jersey corruption. Only one out of every three accused cops are convicted nationwide, while the conviction rate for civilians is literally double that. In Chicago, the numbers are even more skewed: There were 10,000 abuse complaints filed against the Chicago PD between 2002 and 2004, and just 19 of them ”resulted in meaningful disciplinary action.” On a national level, upwards of 95 percent of police misconduct cases referred for federal prosecution are declined by prosecutors because, as reported in USA Today, juries “are conditioned to believe cops, and victims’ credibility is often challenged.” Failure to remedy this police/civilian double standard cultivates an abuse-friendly legal environment.
4. Settlements are shifted to taxpayers.
Those officers who are found guilty of brutality typically find the settlement to their victims paid from city coffers. Research from Human Rights Watch reveals that in some places, taxpayers “are paying three times for officers who repeatedly commit abuses: once to cover their salaries while they commit abuses; next to pay settlements or civil jury awards against officers; and a third time through payments into police ‘defense’ funds provided by the cities.” In larger cities, these settlements easily cost the public tens of millions of dollars annually while removing a substantial incentive against police misconduct.
5. Minorities are unfairly targeted.
“Simply put,” says University of Florida law professor Katheryn K. Russell, “the public face of a police brutality victim is a young man who is Black or Latino.” In this case, research suggests perception matches reality. To give a particularly striking example, one Florida city’s “stop and frisk” policy has been explicitly aimed at all black men. Since 2008, this has led to 99,980 stops which did not produce an arrest in a city with a population of just 110,000. One man alone was stopped 258 times at his job in four years, and arrested for trespassing while working on 62 occasions. Failure to address this issue communicates to police that minorities are a safe target for abuse.
6. Police are increasingly militarized.
During President Obama’s gun control push, he argued that “weapons of war have no place on our streets;” but as Radley Balko has amply documented in his 2013 book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, local police are often equipped with weapons powerful enough to conquer a small country. Police use of highly armed SWAT teams has risen by 1,500 percent in the last two decades, and many police departments have cultivated an “us vs. them” mentality toward the public they ostensibly serve. Although possession of these weapons does not cause misconduct, as the old saying goes, when you have a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.
7. Police themselves say misconduct is remarkably widespread.
Here’s the real clincher. A Department of Justice study revealed that a whopping 84 percent of police officers report that they’ve seen colleagues use excessive force on civilians, and 61 percent admit they don’t always report “even serious criminal violations that involve abuse of authority by fellow officers.”
This self-reporting moves us well beyond anecdote into the realm of data: Police brutality is a pervasive problem, exacerbated by systemic failures to curb it. That’s not to say that every officer is ill-intentioned or abusive, but it is to suggest that the common assumption that police are generally using their authority in a trustworthy manner merits serious reconsideration. As John Adams wrote to Jefferson, “Power always thinks it has a great soul,” and it cannot be trusted if left unchecked.
More American heroism to be proud of, I suppose. The above list refers to AMERICAN police forces, by the way, not those in New Zealand or Western Europe.
So I suppose we can just keep on celebrating ourselves with those burgers and dogs on the grill, and perhaps some fireworks (where you won't get cuffed and stuffed in a police cruiser for lighting them, that is).