Extreme Behaviour an American Specialty

moderation-not-american A quote from a recent Atlantic blog post named Immoderation Nation caught my eye, “extreme behavior of all kinds is both our glory and our potential downfall.” It is hard to dispute such a statement, given the American propensity to take all matters to an extreme.  Why is this the case?

The pioneering mentality has to do with a lot of it: the wild-wild-west drive where it’s all or nothing.  The collective mentality of a people where the land was wrangled from the supposedly savage Indians; followed by flights with its numerous foes: the Spanish, the French, and the British.  All these make the society much more resilient and accepting to rapid rises and even more dizzying falls, where the rags to riches stories are stuff of the legends and the possibility is open to all.

Political and social policies have followed suit in propagating and affirming the American way.  It’s a land where self-sufficiency and bootstrapping oneself is valued above all else; where the value, and the power of the individual is almost mystified.  The government, whether in theory or in practice, has stepped back along with much of a social safety net, and one is asked and told to sink or swim on his own. It is the land of the ultimate social experiment, where one needs to shoulder the burden of all ramifications of one’s choices, good and bad.

Like I said in an earlier post, one simply cannot slack off in America. When you do, you get taken to the cleaner. This in effect, brings out the best in us.  Combine this irrepressible upwardly-mobile drive with an ultra-competitive culture, where any measurable activity can become a test of competency and worthy of trophies, it is not hard to see how the pursuit of the extremes becomes an American specialty.

This tunnel-vision pursuit sometimes impose an incredible mental and physical strain that is hard to shake off. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for an apparent lack of control over one’s long and demanding to-do list, Americans seem drawn down one of two paths.  One of indulgences, one of obsessive activities.

When it comes to indulgences, America does it best.  Whether it’s the matter of gluttony, as reflected in the most unflattering national obesity statistics, or conspicuous consumption, where debts of various kinds have literally enslaved a good percentage of the country, America has seemingly lashed out at its constraining and conformist corporate lifestyle by abusing food, drinks, and its own finances.

When it comes to obsessions, American has recently picked up on the idea of frugality and a penny-pinching mentality, and added this to its arsenal of get-rich-quick, investing, and gambling obsessions.  When the WSJ wants me to forgo a bottle of Evian to save a buck, you know the tide has turned. The NY Times tells me that a shift to savings may be a lasting trend from this downturn.  I cannot agree.  Because the sub-group of savers have always existed, and the group of sensible personal finance gurus have always held clout over their disciples.

But the idea of making money will always trump that of saving money (not that the two cannot be executed simultaneously) in collective American consciousness.  And the chance of those two carrying the same weight is highly unlikely.  Because let’s face it, the American culture is all about dos and don’ts, and not on Greek ethics that concerned itself with the matter of “degree”.  If it was, “nothing in excess” would surely show up a bit more in our daily discourse.

picture source: duchesse-2-guermante

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