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An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

American Ethos. Myth or Reality? Blessing or Curse?

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I picked up a book at a garage sale “The Last Patrician, Bobby Kennedy and the end of American Aristocracy” by Michael Knox Beran, published in 1998. 1 As I read I was amazed at how little things have changed. The problems Kennedy identified 50 years ago are still with us, only compounded due to our increase in population.

At first I figured I would learn a bit about Bobby Kennedy and found myself learning about what Kennedy learned about the American Ethos.

Ethos is a Greek word that refers to an accustomed place or habitation; hence habit, custom, character. It refers to the distinguishing characteristics, habits, customs of a people. What sets Americans apart from the British and all others.

In earlier essays I discussed the concept of Nomos. Our Ethos is a part of our Nomos. Our Nomos explains how the world works, the laws that govern all things. It is personalized, every person’s Nomos is unique unto them, even though there are some commonalities. Our Ethos is descriptive of the collective. If you meet someone from another country and they learn you are an American, which happens the minute you open your mouth and utter a word, our Ethos colors their perception of us, until they get to know us better!

What is this Ethos according to the author and those wise men that he quotes? It is our rugged, self-reliant, individualism. There was some debate at the start of the American adventure as to whether this rugged individualism could produce a lasting form of government, or even a “cultured” society let alone an economic powerhouse. So far we have done all three but that doesn’t mean that we can rest on our laurels or that we are the model to be followed by other developing nations. We have and have had our share of problems. This very Ethos, of rugged self-reliant Individualism, has been part of our problem. It has influenced public policies, laws, Religious beliefs, political party platforms…..

Kennedy became disenchanted with the Liberal Nomos; “more government money, more government programs” will solve our problems. He came to realize that “no genuine and lasting improvement in the conditions of life in the ghetto would occur unless such improvement resulted primarily from the efforts of the individuals who inhabited it.”

What a remarkable realization, people that help themselves do better than people that don’t! I was reminded of the old poem about Humpty Dumpty. “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

As a child I didn’t understand why they couldn’t fix Humpty Dumpty, with a little super glue and duct tape you could repair anything! As an adult I have come to realize that ONLY Humpty Dumpty could fix what was wrong with himself.

Kennedy also realized that many of our government programs and Bureaucracies created more problems than they solved by stifling that rugged, self-reliant Individualism that enables a person to surmount life’s difficulties. Beran said that in Kennedy’s book “To Seek a Newer World,” 2 he wrote: “Bureaucracy amounted to a ‘denial of individualism,’ a denial that ‘human beings matter,’ a ‘suppression of individuality,’ a trivialization of human action.’” He was however restating what others had said before him that a bureaucratic approach to human life “stifled the imagination and poisoned the soul.”

He saw that the “children of the cities exhibited all the signs of people who had never been given any sense of their value, their potential, their unique human worth.” And that “The apathy, the dejection, the sullenness that characterized so many of these men and women resulted in an atrophy of nerve, a paralysis of will, a listlessness that the unsympathetic outsider was likely to confuse with laziness or stupidity.” Pages 105 -107

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Some Conservative Republicans want to simply cut welfare programs in an effort to control our debt, pull the plug as some call it, forcing people to sink or swim, or as some Liberal Democrats would word it, throwing the people to the wolves. As a Liberal Democrat I realize that we need to help people regain what society and life’s circumstances has taken from them and then they will remove themselves from the welfare rolls.

I think Kennedy realized then (50 years ago) what I realize now that “all the Kings horses and all the Kings men “ (our military might and economic powerhouse) can’t fix problems of the human spirit, the problems of our cities or the problems in the Middle East or in the other conflict zones around the world. I came to this conclusion long before I read this book about Bobby Kennedy and so it seems did the author of that childhood poem. It seems that no one listened to Bobby Kennedy. I doubt they will listen to me!

IF our nation is going to fix the problems of poverty, crime, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, addictive behaviors, of young men and women running off to join street gangs, drug cartels, or groups like ISIS/ISIL, that it would have to start by finding a way to help people help themselves. We will have to find a way to help people mend their own broken souls.

This is where Religion enters the picture since taking care of Souls is the job of Religion, or so the religious leaders claim. I think they are wrong. Creating strong healthy souls is the job of all of us. What good is it to save Souls for a heavenly after life IF that Soul is dead before it leaves this life?

All of this is only part of the great “food for thought” contained within this book. I mentioned at the beginning that there was some debate at the start of the American adventure as to whether this rugged individualism could produce a lasting form of government, or even a “cultured” society let alone an economic powerhouse.

As a Taoist I am aware that there is always a little bad in what is good, every positive has its negative aspect and I started to think about the negative aspects of this “rugged, self-reliant, individualism”.

Human beings are often called herd animals. I think that is a misunderstanding of human nature and herd animals. I think it was meant to be derogatory or perhaps meant to keep people quiet, obedient and subservient. Herd animals are incapable of independent thought. Herd animals are fairly easy to keep under control, or to at least steer in certain directions, where you want them to go.

More accurately I think we are pack animals, think of a wolf pack. But pack animals with a very strong independent streak. We are constantly at war with ourselves, between the desire to be strong, self-sufficient, independent Beings (looking out for ourselves) and an accepted member of the “pack” (working cooperatively with and looking out for the benefit of the pack).

There is no denying that America has become an economic power house. There is also no denying that the Haves have gotten more and more and the Have Nots keep getting less and less. This is the downside of that “rugged, self-reliant, individualism”. Without some checks and balances, self-restraint and self-control it leads to greed, selfishness, and narcissism. It leads to people that look out only for themselves, and far too often at the expense of others.

It can also lead to a loss of compassion for those “others”, all of those that aren’t a member of your “pack”. During the health care debates a few years back one Conservative Republican Christian commented “that if people wanted health care they could get a job.” He is one of those unsympathetic outsiders mentioned above that confuses “The apathy, the dejection, the sullenness, the atrophy of nerve, paralysis of will, listlessness” with laziness.

If you are one that buys into this Ethos of strong, self-reliant individualism, the needs or rights of others are seen as not being worthy of your concern.

Here again is where Religion enters the picture. One part of the Christian Ethos that many Christians struggle with is that Christians help those that are in need. All the world religions have similar concepts, this idea of helping others isn’t unique to Christianity. This Ethos of helping those in need is at odds with the Ethos of rugged, self-reliant, individualism.

To be fair I should mention the Liberal Democratic Ethos since it is a full partner in creating the problems this world faces. The Ethos is, as I see it, this belief that Enlightened, Educated, human beings will behave rationally and logically for the benefit of everyone.

After the last financial collapse one of the Big financial gurus, can’t remember who it was, commented that he never thought the BIG Banks would in essence -- my words not his -- shoot themselves in the foot and bring about their own destruction. What the Big Banks and financial institutions did went against what he believed Enlightened, Educated, Rational people would do. For years he promoted policies that deregulated the financial industry, removed the checks and balances needed because far too few humans exhibit self-restraint and self-control that would have them consider or place the needs of others equal to or ahead of their own.

The educational reforms of the last few years demonstrate the problems when Ethos and Nomos collides with reality. The Republican “No child left behind” plan (the Nomos) emphasized accountability of educators (the Ethos) and ignored accountability of parents. Teachers can’t teach if children don’t know how to behave and don’t show up for class. Parents are responsible for how their children behave and for getting them and keeping them in school. The Democratic plan put the emphasis on competition for more money, the Nomos mentioned above “more government money, more government programs” will solve our problems and Enlightened Educators (the Ethos) know what is best for their schools. When what was/is needed is the encouragement and empowerment of parents to become full and active participants in their children’s education. We need to teach parents to be better parents and we need to remove the obstacles created by our governmental institutions and social attitudes that keep them from becoming better parents.

Another example. The Republicans see the stalemate in Congress as keeping the government from sliding into the Moral Abyss, from creating more government programs and throwing more money down the rat hole that creates more dependent not independent citizens. The Democrats see the stalemate as the Moral Abyss, the failure of Enlightened, Educated, human beings to behave Rationally (compromise) for the benefit of everyone.

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There is another aspect that this Ethos of strong, self-reliant individualism ignores. There are some folks that simply aren’t—strong, and self-reliant. I think this was something that Kennedy missed or ignored. An Ethos lumps us all together, ignoring individual differences. Many of our governmental programs are designed as a “one size fits all” program. Yet we all know that “one size” does not fit all. In regards to education, some of us are hands on learners. We have to take things apart, manipulate them and put them back together again. Some people are more verbal than others and find it fairly easy to express themselves, to write essays and books. Some people have a very restless nature and are constantly squirming and moving around, never sitting still in one place for very long. Some people are calm and contemplative, the artists, musicians, and the poets. Some see these differences as problems to be overcome, it is easier to control and manipulate folks if they are all alike. I see these differences as our strength, the Individualistic part of our American Ethos. Some folks will never be as strong and self-reliant as Kennedy hoped they would be. BUT they can certainly become stronger and more self-reliant. Some folks need and will only thrive with the nurturing support of a strong compassionate community.

Let’s don’t forget that there will be times when even the strongest and most self-reliant amongst us are brought to their knees by circumstances beyond their control—accidents, natural disasters, illness, loss of a job…..

Some also seem to forget that we all need to breathe clean air and have clean drinking water and a safe food and drug supply just to survive. The farmer the manufacturer and the worker all depend on the same roads and bridges to get themselves to their jobs and their products to markets. Modern communications and travel have shrunk our world, the call from isolationists to close our borders and to get out of foreign conflicts is simply not possible. We are all in this together. The Ethos of rugged, self-reliant, individualists is more of a myth than a reality.

We should remember what some other wise poet once wrote, “No man is an island, no man stands alone, each mans joy is joy to me, each mans grief is my own. We need one another so I will defend, each man as my brother each man as my friend.”

Where does Religion fit into all of this? Religion and religious leaders can help us or hinder us, empower us or stifle us. They can help us to understand and have compassion for the “other” (those that aren’t just like us) or they can fuel our fears of the “other”, help us “demonize “the other. They can help us temper the bad/down side of our rugged, self-reliant, individualism with the development of strong healthy communities of people that work together for the benefit of all within the community and those outside the community. They can become part of the solution or be part of the problem.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. boo cover Michael Knox Beran, "The last patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the end of American a ristocracy," St Martins Press, (1998). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  2. book cover Robert F. Kennedy, "To seek a newer world," Doubleday, (1967). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Originally posted: 2014-FEB-18
Last updated 2014-FEB-18
Author: Susan Humphreys
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