Dissecting Cowboys

It's been a great "breaking in" day in Brussels. We spent some time with Flemish journalist, Evita Neefs, getting a basic understanding of the city and the government — including the healthcare system which I'll share more about at the end of this post. Then we were free to roam. Tonight is Nuit Blanche, or White Night and we spent the majority of the evening wandering the city to see various performances (I'll post some images to Facebook).

But first, let's not forget yesterday which seems so far away for me at the moment. Our time with Professor Gary Weaver was as entertaining as it was enlightening. The subject was cultural differences between the the U.S. and Europe. He said to understand Europe we would benefit from understanding ourselves first; then he called out two common misperceptions: 1) American culture is just Northern European with different languages and 2) America is a melting pot. He said the former is misleading because the people who came to the U.S. were actually abandoning their roots to make new ones. Additionally they were Calvinists that had a dualist world-view that made the new world right and the old world they were leaving wrong. The Latter is misleading because we've not seen equal upward mobility that you'd expect from a true mix of cultures. Rather we've created a cookie cutter archetype of success with the Anglo white male (though this is changing now with people like Obama, Rice, Powell, and Sotomayor). He used examples of early immigrants having their names changed when entering the country which rings true. Even my father-in-law experienced this.

So who are we? Professor Weaver says America's roots in a frontier spirit make it unique in the world today. Once we were established as a nation there were really no foreign invaders to disrupt a continual growth of wealth. What this meant was the same exploratory spirit that brought people here could continue after arriving, resulting in success. The abundance of the land meant that any one could save enough money to buy a wagon then head West to the land the government was essentially giving away (whether it was really ours or not).

Over time we built a culture that finds its identity in 'doing.'
- we believe we earn status by hard work and individual achievement and individual action
- we believe in equal opportunity, that we all start from the same clean slate
- we believe in self-reliance and independence which doesn't extend beyond the nuclear family
- we believe in individual competition
- we define ourselves by our future, not by our past
- we believe in good guys and bad guys
- we believe in abundance

Contrast this with a that finds its identity in 'being' such as Europe or Asia:
- we believe family ascribes status
- we believe in entitlement due to social status and affiliations
- we believe in extended family dependence and resilience
- we believe in cooperation and social harmony
- we define ourselves by our past
- we believe good people do bad things and bad people do good things
- we believe in conservation

He said to think about these two cultural concepts bookending a continuum. America tends heavily toward the 'doing' identity. In Europe, Americans may find more cultural affinity with the Northern Europeans like the Swiss and Germans who are more accomplishment driven versus Southern Europeans like the Italians who are socially driven. And maybe the Greeks are in between. But even with some of this common ground Americans are clearly more independently minded. (A side note. The last five presidents have all posed in cowboy hats!)

He also said that the two cultures co-exist and that U.S. Southerners like me tend to live with both, whereas Northerners tend to less bipolar. After a year in Boston I think I can see this clearly. There's a lot of 'being' identity in Southern hospitality. One could say the same thing about the South European immigrants in the Boston area.

But the point of all of this is not to create divisions but to help us understand who we are: why we believe time equals money. Or why, for example, cowboy movies or films like Rambo and Independence Day were very popular here but were confused as satire in Europe. Or why tragedies are the popular storytelling vehicle in a historically war-torn Europe. It also starts to create understanding about our expectations for a government's role in our lives.

We founded this country to protect the people from the state. In Europe there is still an expectation that the state will take care of the people. This is clearly a root of heated debates in the U.S. as we deal with government bailouts of the auto industry and financial institutions, and seek a better solution for healthcare.

Now back to Evita. She shared a bit about the Belgium healthcare system. It is a distribution of funds based upon need. Each citizen has free choice for their care. They earn this right by paying into a central health fund that is redistributed as needed. Employers match a portion of the payment the citizens make at each pay check. They are free to choose their caregivers and are reimbursed for the most part, though there is still a co-payment to ensure accountability for the citizen. It doesn't sound so different than what I participate in now save for the absence of a health insurance company. The concern (much like ours) is that the aging population increase will throw this working system out of balance.