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Nationalism vs. Capitalism: Guess Which One Wins?

By       Message Lawrence Davidson     Permalink
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Part IV - Coping Mechanisms

I think that a growing number of Americans, witnessing the long-running exportation of their livelihoods, do sense that the ground is moving under their feet. A 19 November 2011 New York Times op-ed by Charles M. Blow entitled "Decline of American Exceptionalism" reports that a Pew Research Center poll found that just 49% of Americans agreed with the statement "our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others." That was down from 60% in the year 2002.

It is hard to see your culture as superior when so many jobs are being shipped abroad. Yet, if we can extrapolate out from the Pew poll, nearly half the nation still seems to manage it. How do they do it? Here are some suggestions:

1. Displacing a sense of powerlessness. Whether you -- or your neighbor -- is the victim, one just doesn't know what to do about the situation. But it helps to believe that, even though jobless, you live in a great country, the power and traditions of which assure that you are better off than some worker in an Indonesian sweatshop turning out upscale Nikes. Holding onto that thought, many of the displaced buck up and start looking for other, usually less lucrative, work. Some of them may also take to beating up their kids or spouses when frustrations of the job search run high.

2. Dealing with cognitive dissonance. Two contradictory concepts in your head at once (the U.S. is the greatest show on earth vs. too many of our jobs are being exported, contributing to the fact that a lot of us are getting poorer) can be extremely uncomfortable. So one naturally tries to reconcile the problem. For instance, you can tell yourself that the dichotomy is temporary and will disappear after a period of economic adjustment. Or, this is a great opportunity to get retrained for a position better than the one you just lost (ignoring the fact that the effectiveness of retraining programs is now being called into question).

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3. The phenomenon of volunteering. Those who have lost their jobs but retain enough of a pension or savings to live on (usually an older crowd approaching retirement age) can take solace in the world of volunteers. Actually, this is a pattern of work which allows a lot of non-profit, and some for-profit businesses as well, to get free labor. So the worker ends up doing for free what he or she should rightly be paid for -- particularly in an avidly capitalist society like ours. It is a cockeyed sort of situation, but it does allow many older, displaced workers, to salvage some self-esteem even while they are exploited.

Part V - Conclusion

Most often our lives are too narrowly focused to allow us to understand the larger economic and political forces impacting us. We know our local area, we know the work we do (or did), and we know what those in leadership positions tell us. But all of this knowledge turns out to be inadequate when we are hit by debilitating social change. Then, most of us feel helpless and passively resign ourselves to what we consider fate, or perhaps God's will.

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We are trained from childhood to behave like this. Remember temper tantrums? When our children throw them they soon learn that it doesn't work. As adults we seem to have carried over the lesson. Relatively small numbers of us do occasionally loudly protest our situation, but with rare exceptions what do we learn? It doesn't work. Perhaps we should try harder.

The ideals of capitalism, so ardently believed in, turn out to be false except for (as the current saying goes) the fortunate 1%. And those of nationalism? They too are drilled into our heads from childhood. But, alas, they cannot substitute for one's supper.

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Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.

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