Today a homeless person in Georgetown articulated to me a fundamental in difference in American and European thought more clearly than anyone has before. "Here, in America", he said, "If you are homeless, its your own fault, its because you were drinking too much or something". Now I have heard the same sort of thing before, but it is has usually been from empty, over privileged kids who don't have an idea what hardship means. As if completely oblivious to their own situation as well as that of others, they truly believed that it was through their own choice that they were where they were. I usually put it down to their lack of brains, and lack of heart.
This was different, this man was professing an ideology that was responsible for his own situation. This for me demonstrated that this mode of thought was a product of something deeper than just social blindness, a deep seated societal belief. A belief that both takes away the homeless' ability to help themselves and the homed the will to help them.
This is one thing that distinguishes Americans from Europeans. Europeans despite their many differences tend to think much more that if you are homeless and poor this is as much a responsibility for society than it is for the individual. Article 1 of the German constitution even goes as far as to say that the state has to guarantee 'human dignity'. Even in free market Britain, there is a welfare state that although meagre is at least comprehensive.
The reasons for this difference is I believe a result of one of Europe's few shared experiences, war. The battlefield of the two world wars was Europe, and the devastation that it brought to the countries it swept through was a force so powerful that no amount of individual effort could resist it on its own. In Germany, the whole country was brought to its knees twice in the space of 30 years. In Britain, bombs rained down on London as Coventry burned. During the first world war, lines of blood were carved through France and the low countries in the trenches. The reconstruction of Europe after these wars was something that only a society and not just individuals could achieve.
One of the shocking things about America is just how much homelessness and poverty there is. in every public park in Washington there is a small troop of people sleeping on benches. Modern life makes it incredibly difficult for these people to get out of the cycle of poverty, without an address you cant get a bank account or wash or do many of the things necessary on order to get a job and lead a normal life. If this problem is going to ever be solved, one day soon people are going to have to realise, its not their fault.