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A Latin View of American-Style Violence

From "A Latin View of American-Style Violence" in the LA Times, 11/25/99:

To gain a foreign perspective on the spate of random violence in the United States, The Times interviewed academics and ordinary citizens in two South American nations:  Brazil, which has Latin America's biggest and most diversified population and one of the hemisphere's highest crime rates, and Argentina, which suffered state terrorism in the 1970s and '80s.  Brazil's murder rate is more than twice that of the United States, and crime in Argentine cities is fast approaching U.S. levels.

Hyper-Individualism in the U.S. Is Blamed

Those interviewed saw distinct cultures of violence in the United States and Latin America.  They saw a disturbing hyper-individualism at the root of the U.S. phenomenon, a cultural force that seems capable of generating destructive rage even at a time when crime rates and socioeconomic deprivation are shrinking.

"These crimes occur in the richest society on the planet," said Roberto DaMatta, a Brazilian anthropologist at Notre Dame University in Indiana who divides his time between the U.S. and his homeland.

"They have a lot to do with the fragmentation and pulverization of social relations in the American world," he said, "a universe in which people follow schedules and live in bubbles, communicating little, even with relatives.  In a society of individuals, confrontations are daily, the solitude is immense and virtual realities become more basic than others."

In contrast, violence in Latin America grows out of a classic landscape of social crisis:  brutal inequality, weak institutions and powerful criminal networks.

"Crime in Latin America is more strictly connected to socioeconomic conditions and police corruption," D'Adamo said.  "Most criminals come from marginalized classes, which are growing.  You have more poor people and more crime."

Violence here seems more organized, perversely logical and rooted in group conflict.  In Brazil and Argentina, police and governmental corruption functions like an invisible skeleton that connects and controls street crime.  High-profile murders in Latin America inevitably lead into labyrinths of organized crime and political skulduggery.

On the other hand, in Latin America the strength of traditional family and friendship networks shields against loneliness, alienation and, according to those interviewed, berserk shooting sprees.

"Everybody wants to succeed, but perhaps we don't seek the American dream as they do," said Bibianna Cabale, 28, an Argentine nurse.  "Perhaps we settle for other things—family, friends.  We still have certain values that make us different than the Yanquis.  They are very cold, individualist, every man for himself."

This is the prism through which Latin Americans view the United States:  They see a society in which police, the courts and other institutions generally function with admirable openness and effectiveness.  But they also see a rigid mentality and severe expectations that can cause people to snap; a culture that confirms the stereotype of the individual as solitary gunslinger and society as a hostile frontier.

"In Brazil, anonymity is profoundly rejected," said DaMatta.  In contrast, he asserted, U.S. culture encourages the "ideological illusion that we are each of us an autonomous unit capable of living like Robinson Crusoe, without a society."

Even seemingly political acts of violence in the United States—such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the August shootings at a Jewish day camp in Granada Hills—tend to be committed by one or two people with loose ties to a marginal extremist ideology.

Rob's comment
Foreigners see clearly that which we don't—namely, our cultural mindset. "The individual as solitary gunslinger and society as a hostile frontier" is exactly the point made in Culture and Comics Need Multicultural Perspective. When our response to everything from poverty to drugs to Kosovo is a "war," our "us vs. them" mentality should be obvious to everyone.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Costa Rica, seems to agree about America's problems. In an LA Times interview, 2/20/00, he had harsh words for our country:

[I]t is time for the United States not only to be the military superpower it is, or the economic superpower it is, but also the moral superpower that it should be....And it is not [a moral superpower] because its value system is wrong. That is for the US to deal with:...so much greed, so much cynicism, so much hypocrisy, so much individualistic values. These values need to be replaced by more solidarity, by more compassion, by justice....

This isn't an original thesis; many social critics have made the argument before. But we Americans refuse to even consider our cultural failings, much less address them. We're blind to our own shortcomings because we lack a multicultural perspective.

New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez also seems to agree. From the LA Times, 4/1/01:

[T]o a large degree the culture of the United States is that this is a people destined to do great things. So if you occasionally have to take somebody's land or exterminate a population, it was God's will. Whereas Americans built the country in a sort of arrogant conquest, Latinos come here with their heads bowed, trying to survive. And of course none of the Latinos are coming in with guns. As one of my buddies says, the first undocumented immigrants were the Pilgrims, but everybody came with guns. They always came with guns. Latinos are coming unarmed, but the transformation that we're making of the country I think is going to be profound.

We could extend this transformative idea to the rest of America's diverse people. Indians met Europeans with open hands, Africans were brought in chains...nobody but the conquistadors and the other conquerors who followed had a vision of, well, conquest. European culture was unique in its extreme racism and violence, and America suffered the consequences.

Today many of the nation's minorities are leading the fight against the Euro-American status quo. They and other progressives are challenging the rampant materialism, the sex- and-violence-infested media, the still-too-common racial profiling and stereotyping, and the me-first energy and environmental policies that threaten the planet. Their answer is to promote the indigenous values held by much of the world's population: community over competition, preservation over progress, the long-term over the short-term.

In short, their solution is for American to embrace many sets of cultural values, not just one. Or in a word, multiculturalism.

Related links
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

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