“American values” are referenced in the headline but not defined in the article of Tom Tugendhat’s piece in The Times today “Trump’s assault on American Values will fail” – though there is an assumption that these values are a “good thing”. (We get the same usage about “British values” frequently these days with an equally absent definition). For nations to have “values” is popular rhetoric, and usually pseudo-patriotic exceptionalism.
That nations differ is obvious and a product of centuries of evolution – especially of culture and language. Whether this evolutionary process creates differences in “values” is much more questionable even when, as in America’s case, they are constitutionally codified. “We believe these things to be self evident, that all men are created equal” was the inspiring claim in 1776 – to be followed by two hundred years of overt racial, gender and other discriminations.
Are historic American values those of the slave owners or of the Klu Klux Klan ? Of George Wallace? Of Charles Lindbergh ? Of the male hegemony that denied women the vote? Of a vengeful crime and punishment system that judicially executed people? And still does.
Are American values those of the unrepealed 2nd Amendment which allows citizens to bear arms and leads to one if the world’s highest Murder rates? Or a healthcare system which discriminates according to an ability to pay? Does the judicial system treat people fairly or are those with the ability to pay advantaged – you know the answer to that one!
In some respects the gruesome Trump years were more representative of the core values of the American people today then the presidency of his predecessor. Liberal America (it does exist) is in a minority in a nation which often simplifies complex issues into insulting slogans.
Human values are surely the same the world over and no nation has a monopoly of good ones – if we can define what “good ones” are , which is questionable. Let’s take the value of having respect for others even if they differ from us. That was at the heart of the “Black Lives Matter” movement but sullied by a politicalisation which moved into some highly questionable policy proposals like “defund the police”.
The more widely we travel the more we see the commonality of values across nations. Love of family (for example) is not American or Western but universal. Respect for the law is fairly universal as well, though often challenged. The right to protest against perceived iniquities is a common value , though again can be problematic in practice.
The truth is that leaders of countries which feel the need to proclaim their values , even suggesting they are unique, often have an inferiority complex about them. In insecurity failing politicians call for another flag and spout “This great country of ours” type bombast. In truth we are all seeking similar outcomes wherever we live and it is how well we educate, protect, look after in sickness and in health, entertain and respect our citizens that characterises us. And that’s a universal goal. Some nations may do these things better than others but that’s usually not about values at all, but about resources.