Feb 8, 2010

On American Core Values

From time to time I work as a contractor for a firm that corporations use to help acclimate foreign nationals who move to the United States as part of their work. My role is to lead these new arrivals through an overview of American history, culture, and politics, and over the years this has been a fascinating opportunity to meet and talk with people from around the world.

I recently added a component to my presentation that I call "American Core Values." I see this as a way to try and explain what it is that most Americans embrace as part of their American-ness: concepts most of share and beliefs most of us hold. Of course, each of these values is open to rather wide interpretation, but if you ask any American on the street about these terms, chances are that person will agree with these as core values. Unfortunately, when I surfed the Internet a bit to look for ideas, most of the sites I came across were highly political, like this site that lured me in with the phrase "American Core Values" that instead focused on perceived attacks on American core values without spending much time trying to define American core values.

I came up with the following list of values and how I describe them:

  • Individual freedom
  • - I think most Americans hold as a core value the idea that individual freedom should be protected and that the government should not have much involvement in individual decisions.
  • Privacy
  • - Most Americans share some concern about the perceived erosion of their privacy, and most would agree with the idea that government has little business in the private lives of its citizens.
  • Importance of family
  • The American nuclear family might not be viewed with the same cultural admiration as it might have in earlier decades, but I think most Americans believe that family is more important than all or most other aspects of their lives.
  • Freedom of religious faith
  • - Though Americans have not always been tolerant of different faith traditions, I think most Americans believe that freedom of religion is an important American value.
  • Patriotism
  • - It is the rare American indeed who is not moved by symbols like the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, or the Declaration of Independence. Politicians from all American political parties know the power of the colors red, white, and blue, and marketers also use patriotic imagery because most Americans instinctively react in a positive fashion to patriotic themes.
  • Achievement and success
  • - I think most Americans possess some level of desire for material success and evidence of achievement. Diplomas, awards, titles, and promotions are often the "proof" of our personal and professional successes, and as a people we tend to be quite fixated on exterior identifiers that demonstrate such successes.
  • Equality
  • - While we might disagree on the forms or means by which equality takes place, most Americans cherish the idea that all people are inherently equal, and that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve their goals.
  • Hard work
  • - Admittedly not all Americans toil at the same level of intensity, and some of us are downright lazy, but I suspect that most Americans embrace the idea that hard work is an important quality to possess, and that Americans are a hardworking people who can accomplish anything if they are motivated.

I am desirous to learn what other core American values readers think should be on the list, as well as any modifications in the general description. Please use the Comments section to offer thoughts about or critiques of this list. Thanks in advance for any suggestions for other core American values about which you think foreign nationals should be cognizant.


Paul R. said...

I don't see "getting drunker than a fly on Granny's rum cake" on your list. That's a great American value!!

historymike said...


I was hoping for more serious commentary, but inevitably the class clowns would have to weigh in.

Perhaps this is karma paying me back for all the times I played the court jester in school and in the workplace.

Randy said...

Tolerance. The idea that Americans value not only our own autonomy, but that of others, is a value that runs through all of those you have listed. Your rights are equally as important as my rights, and my rights can't be used to disparage yours.

The word itself gets sneered at (after all, it inevitably winds up being used to promote The Wrong Agenda), but it certainly is a subtext.

microdot said...

I know you listed individual freedom as a core value, but you also listed freedom of religion...
so let me further break down the categories of freedom and offer freedom of expression and thought.

Regarding Freedom of expression and thought, right now, America is number 20 on the list of freedom of the press by Reporters Without Borders.

Denmark is number 1, Finland is #2 and The Republic of Ireland is #3... Eritrea is 178 at the bottom.
Last year America was rated #36.
It's nice to see progress in one aspect of freedom taking place in America.

Andrew said...

Very well said! Tolerance at it's core is probably a value, but the word as Randy said has been used in all the wrong ways lately.

Mad Jack said...

From MicroDot: Regarding Freedom of expression and thought, right now, America is number 20 on the list of freedom of the press by Reporters Without Borders.

Checking the RSF site I discovered that the US rose in rank due to The Anointed One being elected president, which has nothing to do with freedom of the press, which is what RSF is supposed to be about. Ergo, the RSF rating is worthless.

I don't find the people of the US especially tolerant, although many people would agree that tolerance of others and their cretinous behavior is a highly prized value.

I would add that the right to bear arms and the bearing of arms in defense of the US is a core value for many people.

Possibly education and literacy would be important to most people, at least to one degree or another.

I can't really think of anything else to add just now, as your list seems complete. The US is a large country and I see it as a study in contradictions.

Paul Swendson said...

I read your list of core values more as a list of ideals. I don't know how well Americans really live up to their creed (or even believe in the things they claim to hold dear.) I would add something about personal responsibility. Americans tend to hold people responsible for their degree of success, particularly material success, in life. So if you are poor, it is basically your own fault. A welfare state has evolved to a certain degree over the course of our history, but it is less developed than in most other industrialized nations.

microdot said...

Madjack, the RPSF rating is based on real data. Yes, their rating of the USA has improved since Obama was elected and they acknowlege that fact.
Meanwhile, France has plummeted to 43 and Italy is in a downward spiral at 49.Did you read the criteria and did you read what it represented?
I agree with your opinion that Americans are not especially tolerant, but you have to admit that the freedom of the press has improved since the days of the Bush White House and Number 20, in relationship to what #1 is is quite a long, long journey.
Did you see the billboard in Minnesota of Bush with the legend,
"Miss Him Yet?"
I think it was a prank by Al Franken.

Mad Jack said...

From MicroDot: but you have to admit that the freedom of the press has improved since the days of the Bush White House

I admit no such thing. In fact, I deny it. The freedom of the press has remained unchanged for many years. Likewise, freedom of speech is generally unimpeded. If you disagree then provide us with a few examples of the government suppressing expression.

I've not seen the billboard (Miss Me Yet?) personally, but I've seen photos of it. No, I do not miss King George II. His economic policies were absolutely abysmal, as were his social policies. Contrast King George II with The Anointed One, who has increased military spending and dumped about one trillion into the economy in a failed economic stimulus package. Not much difference is there?

Jason said...

I'd agree with pretty much everything on your list. I think a lot of Americans would emphasize more than you have that the "equality" section means equality of opportunity, not of results, but there is a sizable minority who would think otherwise.

Madjack, the RPSF rating is based on real data....Did you read the criteria and did you read what it represented?
Dunno if he did, but I did, and went <a href="http://www.ejc.net/>above and beyond</a> to read about the 5 countries tied for 1st place. I found it ironic that all 5 have government-owned TV networks whose viewership greatly exceeds the typical 1-2% audience that PBS has, which is doubly ironic when you consider that one of the data points in their questionnaire is whether "media diversity" is threatened by mergers. (And triply ironic when you wonder whether a country such as Denmark, which is 90% Danes, truly knows a damn thing about diversity compared to the US.)

I think they are trying to do a fair job of turning something somewhat subjective into data, but I really believe that the difference between 1 and 20 is hardly anything (and in fact, you could probably put them in any order and it would still make sense), while the difference between that top tier and the bottom tier is a huge gulf.

microdot said...

The only thing I would like to add here is my belief that Reporters Without Borders represents the rights of a Free Press on a world wide basis.
They do not represent the opinions of the present American regime. They did not jack their numbers because Obama makes them feel warm and gooshy...
I work and fight actively for a free press. I am constantly disappointed that the Obama administration does not live up to my standards and ideals, but I think I try to see this in a world wide perspective. I am an expatriot American living in France and I feel I am walking on thin ice when I write anything criticising the the Sarkozy government. There is internet monitoring and censorship occuring here on a level that would never be acceptable in America. All I have to do is go to my blog counter service to see the hits I get from French "untrackable" isps when ever I mention the name Sarkozy on my blog...
You don't know how lucky you are in relation to the rest of the world.
Now do something to protect the rights you have and make some progress!