Not Just a Bystander

Examining behavior from applied social psychology to urban psychology.

Feeling Bad or Good About America?

How do anniversaries in summer of 2014 impact our feelings about our nation?

Lady Liberty in New York
Lady Liberty in New York
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The five weeks between the two American anniversaries--Memorial Day and July 4--are "feel-good" weeks for most Americans, with Flag Day on June 14 coming right between them. 

Yet it is often easy for us Americans of all stripes--liberals and conservatives--to feel pessimistic about the state of our nation. We all see so much gridlock in Washington, partisan politics across 50 states, corruption, a "divided nation" of blue and red states, and far too little or too much change on controversial issues of our day: health care, equal rights, the economy, religion, terrorism.  

Happily this summer, there are two very different anniversaries in Europe and Asia which, upon reflection, could make us all feel much better in how we view our own America in 2014. And these two anniversaries are somehow related, since they both involve the same legendary woman.

One is June 4, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising in China on June 4, 1989.  The other is July 14, the 225th anniversary of Bastille Day and the French Revolution in Paris on July 14, 1789.  The woman these two uprisings share is Lady Liberty, who stands so tall in New York harbor.

France, July 14.  After 1776, when Europeans marveled at the success of the Americans' revolution against British rule, many hoped for just such a revolution in their own nation.  In France, it took a decade for Parisians to rise up near the Bastille on July 14, 1789.  Of course, we now know their yearnings for "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" were short-lived. Unlike the USA. France fell into a chaotic a reign of terror within five years, that eventually ended with the despot Napoleon in 1800.  Even Dr. J.M. Guillotin became one of the thousands of victims of the beheading machine that his uncle Joseph-Ignace Guillotin developed for this purpose.

Why the difference? Many social psychologists among us can explain the drastic difference in outcomes this way: the dramatic difference in the philosophy of human nature that underlay these two revolutions.  The French Revolution was based on the humanistic teachings of Rousseau and others, on the inherent goodness of human beings, which will naturally emerge in an environment of freedom. In contrast the American Revolution had been based on the Christian teaching of the inherent imperfection of human beings, who cannot be relied on for good behavior. In fact, the U.S. founders clearly wrestled with this dilemma for a full decade between 1776 and the Constitution of 1787.  How can they create a new system of government that would be less tyrannical than some of the awful models that littered human history: Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Byzantium?

The founders' solution came in the notion of the "separation of powers," with "checks and balances" between the judiciary, legislature, and executive.  This is seen in a single passage some founders cited from the Old Testament: "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; He will save us" (Isaiah 33:22).  How simple yet brilliant. If we consider that the most aggressive and ambitious people among us are the very ones who seek political leadership, then who better than ambitious John Boehner to keep Hilary Clinton in check, and who better than ambitious Hilary Clinton to keep John Boehner in check?  In a way, the gridlock in Washington is an intentional feature of our system, that is at least partly responsible for the unique stability of our Republic the past 230 years.

In France in 1870, as the centenary of the American Revolution approached in 1876, the French commissioned Alexandre Eiffel to engineer a magnificent copper-clad sculpture as a gift to America. Due to delays, Eiffel's Statue of Liberty was shipped to New York 10 years late, and finally presented to a grateful American people on 28 October 1886--a tribute to the freedom that the American Revolution continues to inspire in other nations in all corners of the earth. This was only 3 years before the French erected their own Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1789, to mark 100 years of the French Revolution.

China, June 4.  It was 25 years ago that the world watched in awe, as an anonymous young man in Beijing stood alone facing a phalanx of Chinese tanks.  When the youth in Tiananmen Square sought a rallying point for their brave uprising against their government, they found this in Lady Liberty.  For several days, they joyously rallied around a hand-made replica of Liberty--their precious symbol of human freedom.  Though their revolt was short-lived, the images and memories are not--remaining an inspiration for days to come.  Many Americans and French at that time felt sympathy and pride, that their own national symbol was inspiring young freedom-lovers in China.

America 2014.  Is America on the right track in 2014?  Some of us Americans are dissatisfied with our nation, for the gap between its perfect ideals and its imperfect practices.  Other Americans are more satisfied with our nation, asking "What other nation is less imperfect in its policies than the USA?"

When theologian Adrian Rogers was asked an age-old and complex question, he offered his superbly simple and powerful answer. 

The question: "Are human beings basically good or basically evil?" 

His answer: "Yes." 

Both modern social psychology and traditional theology squarely agree on this answer, "Yes."  We humans have the capacity for great good or great evil, depending on our situation.  As Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram found, the same individual can go either way.  "Situationism."  It is a testament to our imperfect Republic, that our distrust of human nature has given us the same continuous government across two centuries. Our ideals inspire other nations, just as some of these nations occasionally inspire us to come closer to our own ideals. 

Freedom House in New York posts an annual "Freedom Map" of the world's 195 nations on the web, freedomhouse.org The 2014 Freedom map lists only 25% of nations as "not free," compared with over 60% in the 1950s.

Even at times when we Americans feel uneasy about our current society, we can remember that our nation continues to be a model for other nations even after 230 years.  As one admirer of the USA noted: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."  Winston Churchill (November 11, 1947). 

Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Fordham University.

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