Great Expectations

One great pleasure in exploring new cultures is the discovery of the delightful differences among us, despite the globalization of media and creeping homogeneity. These differences can take countless forms, ranging from the mundane to the profound. Which carbohydrate is a staple of the national diet (tortilla, crusty bread, rice, etc.)? What do people’s clothing choices say about the national character (micro-mini bikinis in Rio, longyis in Burma, burqas in Saudi Arabia, relaxed-fit jeans in the US)?

Lately I’ve grown more curious about citizens’ expressions of their expectations – not only their optimism or pessimism about the future, but also their relationship with their government.

Take this excerpt from Esther Dyson’s recent blog post during her Cosmonaut training in Russia:

“The attitudes towards risk are surprising: You’d think that in a government-centric society the government would be expected to take care of people, but the attitude seems to be more that people should take care of themselves since the government has so much else to do. I see accidents waiting to happen everywhere, whereas in the US one can see avoidance-of-lawsuits and prohibitions against risk everywhere…”

I have to respectfully disagree with Esther on this point. Russians don’t take care of themselves because they think the government is too busy. They take care of themselves because they know that the government won’t.

It calls to mind the Burmese people’s reaction to Cyclone Nargis last May. The vicious and absurd generals who call themselves the Myanmar government provided no relief, and famously refused help from the international community. For their part, the Burmese people didn’t get angry (at least not publicly). They simply helped themselves, or went to the Buddhist monks (on whom they know they can rely) for help. Contrast that with Americans’ reaction to government failures after Hurricane Katrina: public outcry, demands for resignations, lawsuits (of course), journalistic and legal investigations, and so on. The difference is a matter of expectation: What will the government do for you?

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