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Morality, Meanness, and Mexico
Deep in my heart is a house that can hold just about all of you
Here is something that has always stuck with me for some reason: in the 80s and 90s, I remember every four years when the Olympic Games occurred, there would inevitably be some sort of news article or commentary talking about how U.S. coverage of the Olympics was unique in that it focused almost exclusively on U.S. athletes competing in the games. I recall that broadcasting would only offer in-depth coverage of events wherein U.S. athletes were expected to win a medal. In these times, in that circumstance, the U.S. was a very inward facing nation. I'm not sure that characteristic has changed a whole lot. The MAGA and America First movements are more manifestations of that inward gaze. And if the nation itself is focused inward, why not its citizens as well? Are self-fascination and self-interest traits that trickle down (as opposed to economics, which don't? Sorry Reagan) from national identity to that of the individual?
Rugged individualism is a classic trait that emerged from the U.S. frontier experience. As an ideology, it probably captures the U.S. character better than most. Politicians love to proudly proclaim that the U.S. is a nation built on the idea of rugged individualism and by rugged individualists. In the end, it seems like it's just another expression of self-interest and self-serving ideals. In the U.S., we are individuals, we are islands1. And above all else, it is our self-identity as islands that matters.
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(Intermission: I admit that I am generalizing - not everyone in the U.S. subscribes to the notion of rugged individualism and self-interest. But hey, generalizing is what Mexico Listo, Inc pays me to do, because it makes writing and pretty much everything else so much easier).
A few weeks ago, I read an article in The Atlantic by noted author and social commentator David Brooks. While I don't agree with a lot of what David Brooks writes, this article struck a nerve. The title was How America Got Mean, the subtitle: In a culture devoid of moral education, generations are growing up in a morally inarticulate, self-referential world (the article is paywalled, but here is the link). In the Article, Brooks makes the observation that Americans are, largely, just not very nice to one another. He is, unfortunately, right. There are a lot of bad "isms" happening in the United States of late: racism, ageism, egoism, isolationism. Brooks also observes that there is a notable lack of morality in the U.S. Not the kind of morality that fundamentalists insist everyone should adhere to, but the kind of morality that simply says: be kind to your neighbor. Brooks attributes this lack of morality and the rise in "meanness" not to the current political schism that exists in the U.S., but to the lack of moral eduction, and the lack of interest in institutions that teach morality: that is, the U.S. doesn't teach morality in school, and people don't go to church anymore (and those who do apparently don't pay much attention). The current meltdown of political function in the U.S. exists because there is a lack of morality, and an over-abundance of self-interest.
It is a worthwhile and well-written article, but due to it being paywalled, most of you won't get a chance to read it. So I'm including a few notable quotes here:
...we learn most virtues the way we learn crafts, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a coherent moral culture—a community of common values, whose members aspire to earn one another’s respect.
If what is good, what is right, what is true is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent,’ ” Walter Lippmann wrote in his 1955 collection, Essays in the Public Philosophy, “then we are outside the traditions of civility.
...by 2015, 82 percent of students said wealth was their aim.
If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.
Shortly after reading that article, I watched a video created by a man who immigrated to Mexico from the United States. He talked about his clinical depression that was first diagnosed in the U.S., and how living in Mexico has helped his mental health. Many of the things he talked about resonated with me - aspects of Mexican culture such as: politeness, social responsibility, kindness in speaking, tight-knit families, acceptance of foreigners, helpfulness, valuing how you make others feel as opposed to just dealing with people as quickly as possible and moving on. And this all got me thinking about Brooks' article again, and the fact that his article is so uniquely about U.S. culture. If he had written that article from a Mexican perspective, it would have been a blank page.
That Brooks could not have written that article about Mexico goes a long way toward explaining why I enjoy being in Mexico, and why I feel comfortable here. I am an introvert. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy interacting with people, or that I don't feel the effects of people around me; I am highly aware of how people are feeling, and how they present themselves. I suppose you could say I am a sensitive person: I feel the world around me, and, for better or worse, it impacts how I feel.
I was visiting a small town here in Mexico a few months ago, and there is a restaurant there that had a "greeter" outside - someone who stands - typically at some sort of podium - and invites passersby in. The restaurant was a higher-end, upscale restaurant; the greeter was a young woman. I would walk by this restaurant often, but I was traveling alone and it's not the type of restaurant that one would typically go to alone. The greeter was aware of this, but every time I walked by she would make a point to engage me in conversation. One day she chastised me (politely, respectfully) for not wearing enough sunscreen (it was summer); she was worried that I would get a sunburn. She didn't even know my name.
That was a one-off encounter. A story whose fabric might have been woven by anyone, anywhere at some point in their life. But - it's not a one-off story. It is an anecdote for sure, but it is a typical type of anecdote here in Mexico. And for what it’s worth, I have lived in the U.S. for most of my life, and I never recall a stranger telling me I should be wearing more sunscreen (my wife, that's a different story).
This article feels a bit random, and is definitely highly subjective. But those were my expectations going in and I happily met them. However, I do want to put an end to your suffering through it - but first I want to explain the subtitle: Deep in my heart is a house that can hold just about all of you is a lyric from the T. Rex song Spaceball Ricochet. It evokes for me much of how I feel about Mexico: Mexico is open, it is kind, it is accepting. It is a culture that still exhibits in this polarized and insecure world an enviable degree of social cohesion. And I love that Marc Bolan - T. Rex's tragically short-lived lead singer - phrased the lyric "just about all of you". There are always going to be some you just can't reach. A lot of them are wearing MAGA hats.