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by Peter Moskos

August 31, 2010

American Ethos

"In America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable." Most of you would probably agree with that statement. I do, too. But I would be quick to add that culture and background matter. A lot.

Background isn't destiny, but it's a damn good predictor of your future. You can tell an amazing amount of information about somebody based just on where they're born (particularly what country) and how much education their parents have. The apple really doesn't fall far from the tree. Not usually.

Take crime and punishment. I'm not surprised when a black male high-school drop-out ends up in prison. It's (unfortunately) predictable. To know the odds in no way negates individual responsibility, but it does mean perhaps it makes more sense (morally and economically) to change the odds rather than build more prisons.

Conservatives love giving lip service to individuality. They mock liberal sociologists (a term that indeed is generally redundant) for never holding individuals accountable for their actions. And sociologists may indeed be a bit slow to hold some individuals accountable for their actions. But that's better than holding individuals accountable for the actions of others.

Take Timothy McVeigh. I remember I was driving in California when the Oklahoma City bombing happening in 1995. The report on the radio talked about, "dark-skinned possibly Arab men seen fleeing the scene."

"No f*cking way!" I said to my friend. "There are no Arabs in Oklahoma. And if Arabs were bombing something, they would do somewhere else! These were crazy white guys." Now I may be ignorant about the thriving Arab scene in Oklahoma City, but I happened to be right about the bombing not being done by an Arab, and also the more likely location of terrorist attack when it was done by Arabs.

As Stanley Fish writes in the Times:
In the brief period between the bombing and the emergence of McVeigh, speculation had centered on Arab terrorists and the culture of violence that was said to be woven into the fabric of the religion of Islam.

But when it turned out that a white guy (with the help of a few of his friends) had done it, talk of “culture” suddenly ceased and was replaced by the vocabulary and mantras of individualism: each of us is a single, free agent; blaming something called “culture” was just a way of off-loading responsibility for the deeds we commit.
If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.
Need more proof? Compare the flack Obama got from the right for what Rev. Jeremiah Wright preached with the flack George Bush got for the preachings of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Except Bush didn't get any flack.

So now there are those who say the proposed mosque in Lower Manhattan is "symbolic of a culture that wants to kill Americans." (Ironic since more Muslims want to be American than kill Americans.) But when a crazy American slashes an innocent Muslim, the right is quick to say that the stabbing is “the act of a disturbed individual" and “we shouldn’t let anyone suggest that this criminal reflects anybody but himself.”

So let me get this straight: peaceful tolerant Americans who want to build a large mosque and community center represent foreign terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and killed Americans; but hate-filled Americans who actually commit real acts of violence against Muslims represent... nothing at all.

Got it.

Why does my head feel like its about to explode?


Dana King said...

I couldn't agree more. If Americans really believed your opening statement ("In America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable." ) then they'd be willing to accept the idea that a large company-bank, oil company, Enron--is a legal fiction. There's nothing there. We all agree to pretend there's something with substance. A company doesn't spill oil in the Gulf; people did that. A company doesn't write CDSs that eventually bring the banking system to its knees: people do that.

We start holding people responsible for some of this stuff, a lot of things will get straighteend out right quick.

Anonymous said...

"fleeing the scene"

Hussain Hashem Al-Hussaini

PCM said...


And I thought I was up-to-date on my knowledge of conspiracy theories. Yet I had never heard of Mr. Al-Hussaini.

I don't believe it for a second. But maybe I already know too much and of course would say that.

Yohan sabastisn said...

It dosn't mtater how peaceful a certain group of Muslims is, because building a mosque in lower Manhatten is like building a statue of Hitler next to a Jewish sinagog

Moskos said...

Is a Jewish "sinagog" a place where people get together a sing show tunes while agog? Maybe the Producers is playing next door!

But seriously, no. It would be like building a German cultural center next to a Jewish synagogue. Or, get this, building a mosque next to a synagogue. And that's what we do here in New York City all the friggin' time, you ignorant schmuck.