Can we identify national values?

I often hear people bandy about phrases such as “our nation’s values” or “the American way of life.” But I don’t really know what that means.

I mean, we can toss about all kinds of platitudes about democracy, equality, and whatnot, but do such concepts actually reflect your experience as far as the day-to-day concerns and mindset of most Americans, or our primary expectations of our institutions? Are there any values that cut across all different generations, economic classes, etc.

I’ll give a shot at identifying what I consider the most obvious American national values. Please let me know why I am entirely off-base, and offer your candidates for our national values. Or inform me why the very concept of national values is meaningless.

To start things off, a short list of 4.

-A tremendous number of Americans – I would suspect a majority – seem to consider their primary goal the acquisition and consumption of goods.
Far beyond providing for adequate – or even comfortable – food, shelter, and clothing, Americans often appear to assess “success” in terms of maintaining a standard of living that far exceeds much of the developed world, not to mention developing nations.

-I think the vast majority of Americans believe in the peaceful resolution of most disputes, and the accomplishment of political change through peaceful means.
There is considerable respect for the “Rule of Law”, although special interests have no qualms about trying to amend the laws to either give them an advantage or to reflect their personal views.

-Free speech seems to be pretty inextricable from the US. However unpopular your opinion, you are pretty free to express it subject to relatively few restrictions.

  • Maybe something about the opportunity for mobility – both moving about our large country, as well as the opportunity for economic betterment.

That’s about all I come up with right now.

I’d be glad to hear from any non-Americans as to your countries’ values, or your perspective on America’s values.

Treating everyone fairly under the law, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

A good place to start would be with America’s founding documents, great American speeches, etc. Things like the Declaration of Independence (especially the “We hold these truths…” section); the Constitution (especially the preamble and the Bill of Rights); Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; King’s “I Have a Dream” speech; etc.

Near the top of the list of “American values” I would put the idea that human beings have certain fundamental rights, and that one of the main roles of the government is to protect and preserve those rights.

I disagree with your first sentence, at least as it is stated. Of the people I know personally, I don’t think it would be fair to characterize many, if any, of them as having “the acquisition and consumption of goods” as their primary goal. Some of them do volunteer work; some of them take lower-paying jobs than they might have in order to make a difference in the world; some of them are just struggling to get by. But I expect one’s perceptions on this issue would be greatly influenced by where one lives, works, etc.

What I do think is fair to say is that Americans have long valued increasing their standard of living. It’s been very common, throughout our history, for parents to want their children to have better lives than they themselves had.

As long as you’re willing to allow that the American definition of “human being” is an ever-shifting one. To wit:

1750: It’s OK to own another human as property.
1787: And they count as .6 of a person for voting purposes.
1900: OK, maybe not property, but they still have to go to separate schools.
1910: Noway, nohow are women smart enough to vote in national elections.
2005: People can only get married if they resemble my parents.

I would say that we place great value on working hard. And we like it when those who do reap the rewards.

We like honesty, particularly of the “plain talk” variety.

We like backbone. People willing to stand up for what they believe.

We are optimists. We believe that no matter how bad a situation, it can be turned around.

We like underdogs. We love champions. We hate braggarts.

We are intouch with our history. No doubt, in part to the young age of our nation. But also because of the ideals it stood for (even if not fully realized).

I like the rjung’s and Thudlow’s answers, as well.

I guess what I was getting at is so many Americans (apparently excluding your friends!) define a “better” quality of life as one that involves “more things.” A bigger house and car, nicer clothes, even if obtaining them requires working more hours and taking on more stress. One case in point is the fact that it is generally accepted that both parents need to work these days, where many could live well – tho not luxuriously – on one salary. IME, if both parents don’t require the personal fulfillment from being employed, raising kids is tough enough without the distraction of 2 full time careers. But just personal opinion, which may distract from the conversation at hand.

I also acknowledge that my social group skews towards white collar professionals living in and near a large city.

rjung – do you really think all that many Americans are terribly concerned with everyone being treated fairly under the law, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? I certainly agree that most people are EXTREMELY interested in themselves personally being treated in a manner they consider fair. But I think many folks are perfectly content to live comfortable lives, untroubled by the inequities visited upon groups they do not identify with.

And thudlow – I agree that documents such as those are a good starting point. But I don’t know if they alone are sufficient to answer the question. MLK may have had a dream. But did/do the majority of Americans share that dream? Or do they define equality the same way?
Even such things as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can be questioned – as long as it is someone else’s “life, liberty, and p-o-h” that are being restricted.
Heck, that was my biggest concern with not allowing Padilla access to his attorney. I had a hard time thinking of something more basic than allowing an American access to legal counsel. But the government and a whole bunch of Americans apparently had no problem with that. So I guess right to counsel isn’t as basic a value as I had thought.

It just bugs me when people talk about our country’s values, or say our foreign policy is aimed at maintaining/spreading our way of life because for me, actually defining those phrases is not that easy.

Magellan - saw your post on preview. A couple of quick thoughts:
Concerning working hard - IME few folks work harder than the immigrant laborers - but I don’t hear that praised too often.

Re: honesty - I agree the public prefers “plain talk” - even if it obscures the truth when provided with respect to complex matters. I don’t know that the public puts all that much emphasis on the “truth.” Instead, I think they desire easily digestable positions they can readily agree with. To paraphrase a great thinker, “Truth is hard!” :wink:

Thanks for engaging in this conversation, folks. Lotsa good stuff here already.

They may not be, but that doesn’t mean that striving for them is not a good thing. Many good things, beauty, for instance, has a gossamer-like quality to it.

I think all Americans would agree that the labor immigrants do is very hard work and they do it without complaint. I think where a split would accur is concerning illegal immigration. Theywork every bit as hard, but some (I included) do not think that trumps their illegality. But that is (and has been) the subject for another thread.

You’re probably right here. The problem is that the more complicated and issue the more difficult to discern if the thruth is being told. Interesting thread, though.

That would be a very misleading statement. They were always considered “human beings.” That had absolutely nothing with anyone’s rights, privaleges, and place in society.

Dinsdale, seems like what you are getting at with this thread is values practiced, not the ideals we strive for. So I would have to agree with much of what you have said, as much as I am loathe to admit it. Materialism is not a value to aspire to, but yet it’s what our society does. It’s easy not to care when something doesn’t affect you directly. We are unaccepting of outsiders and those not like ourselves. That’s the sad, sad truth.
I guess then American values would be Materialism, Apathy and Homogeny.

Guess I’ll go home, close my blinds, turn off the phone and watch my new dvd boxed set of xyz on the plasma screen with Logan 6 and 7.

I feel so cynical. :frowning:

This thread seems to be more of an IMO than a GD, but anyway :
I don’t know if it counts as “values”, but here are some things that seem typically american to me :

  • Patriotism (I won’t elaborate about that), and besides that identifying with one’s country. It’s quite noticeable that americans tend to use “we” when refering to past or current events the USA was or is involved in : “we” fought in WWI, “we” tortured Irakis… instead of “The USA fought in WWI”, “American soldiers tortured Irakis”. “We” used in this way isn’t unheard of elsewhere, but it’s not nearly as common. Similarily, a tendancy to feel they’re somehow responsible for the actions of both their government and other americans. For instance american people frequently feel ashamed by the behavior of fellow americans or of their admnistration or apologize on behalf of them. Which is quite contradictory with the following :

-Individualism and confidence in one’s ability to control one’s destiny. As a result, an individual successes and failures tend to be attributed solely to the merits (or lack thereof) of said individual. It seems to me that the traditionnal distrust for the government has something to do with this (Let me alone. The less you will mess up with my life, the better). It seems to me that american people want their turf to be very clearly delimited and separated from other people’s turf and the government’s turf. By the law. Which leads me to :

-Fascination with law and everything legal. I’m not refering only to the “lawsuit culture” but to endless discussions about legal matters, the incredible (negative) attention lawyers receive, the very common depiction of trials in american movies or series (try to find a court scene in a french movie), the overwhelming importance given to the law over, say, common sense, opinion, etc… and even more importantly to the constitution :

-Quasi-religious respect for the constitution. That has been the topic of one of my first thread here. The constitution seems to be viewed as the holy scripture and the founding fathers as the apostoles. Which results for instance in debates about a very contemporary and concrete issue devolving on a regular basis in an argument about what some dude who died two centuries ago had in mind when he wrote a couple lines about a now defunct militia or about whether or not another long dead dude was a christian or a deist. Speaking about the constitution :

-The importance granted to “free speech” to the exclusion of any other consideration. I don’t think I need to elaborate about this. So ingrained that eventually you find americans clamoring about their right to free speech on a foreign ,privately owned, fucking message board.

Some other things :

  • A still existing belief in the “manifest destiny”, to some extent. The idea that the USA carries universal values, is somehow special, a beacon of light in the darkness, has reached a perfect form that won’t ever change (see my paragraph about the constitution) despite unending, blatantly obvious cultural and societal changes, the assumption that something american is better by definition (even when the person doesn’t have the slighest clue about how things work elsewhere hence can’t make a comparison) or even the belief that the USA has a peculiar importance in God’s plans, for believers.
    -And of course, americans are strongly religious by comparison with other western countries’ citizens. With some amusing peculiarities : people switching denominations on a whim, “shopping around” for a church that gives a better bang for the buck, or viewing their church as a sort of “club” that Jesus probably created so that people could socialize. Excluding fundamentalists, religion viewed as a casual part of life, and for instance people enquiring about a perfect stranger’s religious beliefs in the same way they would ask about their prefered sport.
    -The strong belief in the wonders of the free market. The default position that it’s the best solution to any problem until proven otherwise by very compelling evidence.
    There are probably more I can’t think of right now.

As for the french values, I couldn’t tell. They would be the “default” values for me, and though I could probably tell whether something in particular is actually “french” if asked , it would probably come with a lot of “but” because I notice more easily the differences of perception within french society that what makes it different from other societies.

Though I would mention we are the only ones apart from the chinese to understand what food and cuisine is really about :wink:

On second thought, I think that “equality” is certainly a central french value. Not only equality before law, but social equality. If you get a larger share of the pie, it must be because you used devious tricks, and you should share with your little brother. There’s some shame attached to being richer, and though it’s significantly less true than it used it be, when an american would be likely to lie to exagerate his income or wealth, a frenchman would tend to lie to underestimate them. I’ve witnessed a large number of “I make less money than you do” piss contests over the years. When income is even mentionned, that is, since it’s not a polite thing to do.

On a related note, I’ve noticed that people from seemingly every country are convinced they are especially prone to complaining, undisciplined, unsatisfied and grumpy.

I didn’t intend this thread to be a “rag on current US society” cynicism. It strikes me that many Americans think (or at least proclaim) that there is something uniquely “American.” But I readily admit my ignorance on precisely what that means. Since I seem to often find myself unable or unwilling to accept what is readily accepted by my peers, I honestly sought the opinions of this group of folks who seem willing to put some thought into and discuss such things. Thanks to all who have participated so far.

I realize I may have seemed very contrary in response to some posts. Please excuse what was simply my manner of holding the suggestions up to the light to see if they hold water. (Is mixing metaphors American, or is that just me?)

Did some more thinking about this overnight, and realized that I undoubtedly came across as too cynical. I think one reason I was so ready to dismiss what I characterized as “platitudes” in our founding documents, is the fact that in America there are many rights that are accepted as so basic that we simply take them for granted. Which can be both a good and a bad thing…

One reason I shy away from calling certain values - such as the opportunity for of self-determination - “American” is that I question whether they are uniquely American. Part of this is due to my ignorance or other nations and their cultures, but are not the Dutch (to pick a country semi-randomly) as free as Americans in many respects?

I especially appreciate a couple of the observations from a non-American, especially

Thanks for affording me sufficient grist to avoid getting too much done at work today!

I agree. I was responding to the poster who said that defending and preserving the rights of human beings was a traditional American value. What I meant to convey is that either (a) his statement isn’t true, or (b) it’s only true if you’re being selective about who you call a human being.

I agree. I was responding to the poster who said that defending and preserving the rights of human beings was a traditional American value. What I meant to convey is that either (a) his statement isn’t true, or (b) it’s only true if you’re being selective about whom you call a human being.

Perhaps we need to look at this differently. Maybe there aren’t any uniquely American values. National values might be a unique set of various values. This includes values that are contrary to other values within the set, yet coexist succesfully, if not always peacefully. That in itself is not uniquely American either, but rather endemic to democratic societies. Perhaps it is our set of values, our particular conglomeration, that is uniquely American and one which continues to change/evolve over time as varied cultures in the U.S. beging to cross-pollinate. If we look at nations as individuals, we know that our ethnic make-up, our religions, our occupations, our desires and our experiences shape the indentity of the nation, the individual. So maybe it’s the uniqueness of our set of values that is American and not any single value. OR maybe I’m full of it. :confused:

I’m optimistic enough to believe that a majority of Americans do want everyone to be treated fairly, even if they’re not identified with a particular persecuted group. You don’t have to be gay, or Hispanic, or Black, or disabled, or Muslim, or whatever to believe in the simple power of the statement “all men are created equal.”

I think (and hope) the selfish folks who “are perfectly content to live comfortable lives, untroubled by the inequities visited upon groups they do not identify with” are a minority of the citizenry, sad folks who have an empathy deficit in their hearts.

How about the idea that “the little guy can make it?”

I’ve never lived in another country so I’m not sure about this, but would it be safe to say that America, more than any other country allows someone to change is lot in life from abjecrt poverty to multi-millionaire? Or maybe not to reach the upper most eschelons of society, but to do pretty damn well.


I think that Americans value coming to the aid of other countries in times of crisis, but I couldn’t say that a majority of Americans still hold some belief in the Manifest Destiny concept. I wouldn’t think that most Americans would dwell much on God’s plans for the USA. Just my opinion.

Your take on the influence of the Constitution was tremendous!

I think one of the most prevalent values in America is the belief in “win, win” situations. We believe (and I’m not sure to what extent this is shared with other societies) that it’s possible to solve problems with both (all) parties gaining something, even if both (all) have to concede on other fronts. I do know that other groups (Israelis and Arabs come to mind, not sure about various oriental groups) believe that you can’t ‘win’ unless someone else ‘loses’.

I personally like the ‘win, win’ scenario. A solution to a problem where everyone can point to a benefit is much better, IMHO, than a “I win, you lose” scenario any day.

Is this peculiar to Americans, and if not, who else embraces this philosophy?

It seems to me it’s indeed a prevalent belief. As for it being true, it’s much less obvious.