Quintessential Americanism (defined)

A few weeks ago I watched The Newsroom pilot for the first time and the title character is asked an utterly American question, ‘Why do you think America is the greatest country?’ — his response — ‘It’s not’ and in true Aaron Sorkin form offered a whole lot of information to support the argument. I had a small home cheering moment, but the thing that bugs me are exactly these silly assumptions — #1 that the US is still a great country and #2 that we’re the best in the world. Unfortunately, neither assumption is true — we lag in most measurable categories including education, health care, vacation/leisure time, our economy has shifted from a balanced economy to one that has gutted manufacturing and shifted ‘working class’ jobs to a model of inequality focused on poorly paid service sector, even higher education is showing evidence of not being worth the cost. Essentially, we are living in an age of rising inequality in the US.

Yet in the face of this stark reality, Americans remain bizarrely convinced of our overall infallibility and greatness.


Quintessential Americanism… defined

So, what do I mean by Quintessential Americanism — very simply, “A blanket refusal to change your opinion, even when confronted with direct evidence to the contrary…”

Why did this come up, in particular right now? Well, my Mom had lunch the other day with two of her friends from high school (they do this for each other’s birthdays and major holidays… it’s very sweet and they have a good time) and is updating them on what I’m doing, etc. since I’m in Germany. At this point in the conversation one of my Mom’s friends says that Germany’s on the brink of economic collapse, unemployment is dire here, oh my goodness, yadda yadda yadda. My Mom tries to respond with the stuff she and I’ve been talking about (e.g., quality of life, economic growth projections, the very low unemployment here … that kind of thing) but her friend will have none of it because Fox News said…

Obviously, Americans aren’t the only ones who are dogmatic — frankly all societies have quirky stupidity, but we seem to revel in our own ignorance and arrogance combined — that’s the heart of this ‘quintessential Americanism’ — we’re confident and we don’t have a good reason to be. FFS … opinions and facts should not be confused… the latter should inform the former — not the other way around.

Why is it so hard for Americans to not only be informed but also be open to new information? Of course, all peoples’ have blind spots and annoying belief structures (that’s the nature of the social animal); however, Americans are increasingly less informed, more dogmatic, and more rigid in our ways of thinking. We’ve been indoctrinated since really the McCarthy witch hunt for Commies and more recently with the GW Bush Administration to believe that if someone criticizes Uh-Mer-Ika or Uh-Mer-Ikans they’re not a patriot because those in power have a much easier time maintaining order and control when people are not engaged nor informed about basic social, economic, and political issues. There is no GOOD reason that the US can’t and shouldn’t be the country we once were (economically at least… I do think we have ups and downs in our social and political system over the years), but there are a whole lot of bad reasons — the ignorance of average Americans, our poor education system, our systematic disenfranchisement of the poor and working class, our shift away from a balanced economy, a media that simply doesn’t work, and an ethic in the US that would silence anyone who would have the audacity to suggest we could do better.

When I posted a quick frustrated comment about this on Facebook yesterday, someone I would have thought would have better sense responds to me with the following:

 i wonder if anyone has attempted studies to test that claim. a cursory google search yields nothing, but it seems like it’s taken for gospel among so many people that i can’t help but wonder. 

It seems it’s basically the liberal side of the house’s answer to “the average gun and freedom loving American,” except it’s “the average American moron who can’t think for his or her self.” both have this weird privilege of being viewed as hard fact despite their near-caricature status. Maybe it’s b/c i’ve never lived in middle america but I can’t think of a place I’ve lived where I could say anywhere near the majority of people I was around fit either description.

This is someone, who should frankly know better than to claim a “uh, I couldn’t find anything and therefore, it’s probably wrong” kind of response; unfortunately, this is also a person who represents a very typical American response to critique of the US/policy/Americans — they’re quick to dismiss and not really that interested in engagement.

But leaving the hard evidence aside for a moment (oh, don’t worry, I’ll come back to it :) ) — what’s made me come to this conclusion? Is it because I’m a liberal who sheepishly follows talking points set out by the oh-so-coordinated ‘liberal agenda’ people? LMAO… not so much. I have literally lived from coast to coast in the US and north to south — mostly living and being around working class folks. Add in 15 years of teaching at a range of institutions of higher education from flagship state institutions, to small/local state institutions, to city-run colleges, and private colleges I have a pretty good sample of the general knowledge base of average 18 to now about 35 year olds (geez I’m getting old) that I have taught and/or coached. And then, I have the nearly innumerable random “pub” conversations about life and people with folks from all walks of life. I’m pretty confident in my understanding of different demographics in the US (and that doesn’t even count the actual research I’ve done on American demographics, attitudes, and belief structures). I’ve lived with someone from a different country (who comes from a working class background and can compare his blue collar parents with my blue collar parents) since 2006, traveled and talked with lots of folks (sustained and policy-based conversations) from lots of places, and now, I’ve had a chance to spend about 3 months immersed in a seriously working class/ struggling part of the UK and 5 months mostly in rural Germany (nice thing about not working, you get to know the community and locals) and outside of the ‘academic’ knowledge, my personal knowledge seems to verify it. Why does that matter? Well, it doesn’t/ shouldn’t to most folks… only tells me that from a variety of sources, I can feel comfortable with my conclusions.

But what about the hard evidence? Are Americans really less informed than people in other countries about politics, policy, social issues, etc.?

In two words — hell yes!

A quick peak at the evidence and keep in mind, while I haven’t done an exhaustive search, I’ve also NEVER run across ANY hard evidence to the contrary….

And how about outcomes or consequences of Quintessential Americanism? There are tons; however, I’ll give four examples…

American ignorance is dangerous — mostly to ourselves, but not exclusively to ourselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if being patriotic meant actually wanting to critically examine the US, without the veil of “taking our country back” or any of the other crazy bullshit that people articulate? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could elevate the level of conversation so that we could examine what’s working and the vast amount of stuff that isn’t? But we’re not there yet.

Instead, we continue to dumb down everything. Awesome job you quintessential Americans!

Darn that verifiable information….


Number of illegal immigrants falling

Federal taxes are lower than they’ve been in 60 years

America has never been richer (well, at least rich people are richer ;) )

The US spends twice as much on health care but gets worse results than other developed nations

Wall Street crashed the economy in 2008

Roger Ailes was the GOP’s top media strategist

Poor tippers aren’t the problem, it’s our 3rd world economy

PoorTippersArticleAre the poor tippers really the problem for food service employees?  A Facebook friend posted this article on his newsfeed today and while I empathize, have worked in food service, and wondered about this lady’s “skills” as a server, I think this very common sentiment is completely misplaced.  Instead of complaining about the poor tippers, we should complain that any employee is paid below the minimum wage (and yes, the minimum wage is a joke, but that’s an entirely different can of worms).

A “tip”, by definition is, “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation usually for some service”.  Tipping in the US — especially in the food service industry — is clearly not really voluntary, we are obligated to leave a tip for the employee because I think most of us understand they’re not properly paid.  By modern social obligation in the US, the customer’s cost of dinner is really 20% higher than the price posted on the menu because we have to pay the wages for the food/ drink service employees.  But what does the tip mean — is it just a ‘free market’ evaluation of the server’s performance? Not really — it’s also an evaluation of the quality of the food, the ambiance, the mood of the diner(s), etc.  Yet, the food industry has managed to keep this little loophole in labor law to legally define people in food service or ANY industry receiving more than $30 per month of their wages in tips as having a minimum wage at or below $3 per hour (for good background information on the history of this, check out Wiser Waitress).

The result is that the food industry have consistently the lowest wages and the highest levels of job insecurity in the US, yet they are the fastest growing sector in the US with about 70% of new low wage jobs in food service.  The irony is that the food industry demonstrates a genuinely third world approach to employment and work because, as last year’s (2012) National Labor Employment Project reports, the industry is marked by many of the large corporations in the industry posting record profits while the workers see the purchasing power of their wages diminishing.  Certainly, the report goes beyond just servers; however, the theme in the industry is clear — workers quality of life doesn’t really matter.

While servers are in the most volatile position in this third world economy that Americans are building where the rich and the “corporate people” are boasting record profits while average people are getting poorer with each passing year as our wages in the last decade have stagnated at a level higher than during the Great Depression.  Oh, and let’s not forget that the overwhelming majority of food service employees in the US get no paid sick days and the irony is that the Center for Disease Control estimates that because people go to work sick an average of 5 million people get the flu alone each year because of workplace policies regarding sick days.  Great — we support a third world economy AND it’s likely to get us sick because those who can least afford not getting paid are serving us our poncy meals out.

Yet, why do Americans continue to ask the wrong questions or make the wrong critiques?  Well, in this case we can relate to this young woman — either because we ask if she’s a crap server/ works in a crap restaurant or because we’ve been there and empathize greatly (especially in a college town).  When we focus the conversation on the bad tippers, we’re conceding that the corporate interests supporting paying people under $3 an hour are OK. I’m not saying “don’t tip” in the US for obvious reasons; however, instead of being embarrassed at not tipping enough, we should be angry that a large segment of our workers are abused workers.  I get her frustration because there have been many a shitty business night (e.g., Mondays or Tuesdays) where I went to work and was the only server on duty and made like $20 because we only had two tables the whole night.  Why should the employer be allowed to schedule me to spend 5 hours of my time for functionally no wage? They don’t do that with the back of the house. The owner certainly takes their money — but they do it on the backs of the serving and bartending staff.

My last food service job was working at a cute little Tapas restaurant where I made pretty good tips (I made more in tips for fewer hours than working as an adjunct college instructor while finishing my dissertation… lovely) and there was a great German couple who came in one night.  They were friendly, chatty, enjoyed the food and drink, thanked me for my great service, and left me a 10% tip.  My first reaction?  Honestly — ‘What the fuck?’ and then I remembered — servers are actually paid in Europe and a 10% tip is an EXCELLENT tip.  So, what could I do — it wasn’t their fault Americans don’t believe employees are worth paying a wage.  If the cost of food and drink needs to be 20% higher in order to pay at least a decent wage to our food service employees, that’s what we should support so that a tip is a voluntary and not a social obligation.  Instead of supporting a third world economy, Americans need to hold all businesses to account for their labor practices.

And no — it’s not taking money away from the ‘job creators’ — it’s ensuring we stop our slide to becoming the richest third world country in the world… GO USA!

Having a well-deserved slice of ‘told ya so’

Last month, I suggested that Papa Johns was a corporate whore whose politicizing business was not a sound business strategy. I do find smug pie delicious. Not surprisingly, the favorability rating of the company among ‘casual diners’ has dropped by a little over 30 points since the company’s founder decided to double down on politicizing pizza.

Papa John’s isn’t the only company whose seen its reputation tarnished by using their restaurants as political tools — Denny’s “Obamacare surcharge” prompted a quick drop and apology by their CEO and Applebee’s favorability rating dropped by 25% when a New York area franchise owner appeared on Fixed News saying that he wasn’t going to expand because of the new health regulations.

You see, what the brain trust that exists here seems not to have realized is that they’re in a saturated market. If they adopt bad corporate practices, make stands on issues that are not just highly controversial but also ethically questionable, and frankly are just reactionary asses people can go elsewhere. If not Papa John’s then Pizza Hut, Domino’s, or any of the bajillion other pizza places in the US. If not Denny’s then Perkins or one of the bajillion local diners. If not Applebee’s then Chili’s, Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Friday’s or any of the bajillion generic restaurants.  Wal-Mart gets away with being corporate whores because they have the market cornered on cheap crap that people need (or think they need). There aren’t that many alternatives, especially in a hard economy.

At its heart, public relations is about relationship building and relationship management. These company’s CEO’s forgot that what makes a business successful — especially in a market with a lot of competition — is that it doesn’t violate public expectations. It’s not that these individuals opposed Obamacare, it’s that their motives and tactics were so transparent, elitist, and frankly ridiculous.

Americans may not be the wisest of consumers, but we do live in a new world — social media creates can both help and hurt an organization’s reputation in ways that haven’t happened since most businesses were local and word of mouth mattered. This means that companies have to go back to a ‘local’ way of managing their reputations — thinking about what people in their community would say (that is if they didn’t live in a castle surrounded by a moat) if they used their company as a social or political bludgeon and in a way that hurts their employees and/or their community.