The Italian exchange student made a comment about how exchange students from the US are handled in European schools. His claim is that American students in Europe are given academic requirements which are tailored to the Americans' background, rather than being expected to follow exactly the same program as the European students. I said that the European approach made sense, but would never be acceptable here because of our infatuation with the idea of equality.
This led us into a long and very interesting conversation about real differences and how we deal with them. I found myself over and over wanting to say, "Yes, that's true, but really we are all still equal." Although I had started the conversation by saying that the idea of equality was pervasive in US society, the extent to which that ideal is embedded in my own psyche was a bit surprising.
We Americans really do believe we are equal, if only in some vague, undefinable way. This is embedded in our literature and law going back at least to 1750, I said, because I couldn't be sure of coming up with any earlier examples if pressed. One way this is expressed is that we almost all believe that we are in the middle class -- as evidenced by the way candidates for political office phrase their economic proposals, all of which are said to provide benefit primarily to the middle class.
The exchange student pointed out that there is a strong spirit of competitiveness and that Americans are quick to take any opportunity to make themselves less equal and more different, especially if that involves becoming wealthier. Of course that's true; it is another aspect of the idea of the American Dream. I suggested Dick Resch as a local example of a wealthy person still connected in many ways to our expansive "middle" class. I don't know Resch (although I've known people who did) so I base most of this on the public media coverage along with what I've heard of his reputation. Resch is clearly no longer middle class in any realistic sense of the term. He has money and uses it to plaster his family name across the community: the Resch Center, the Resch Auditorium, the Resch Trail, the Resch Aquatic Center. (One may note that these gifts primarily benefit the real middle class.) I also said that his grandparents were not rich and we assume that his grandchildren will be middle class, just like all the rest of us. There is some sense, however improbable it might seem, that what Resch did anybody else might have done.
A colleague at work recently argued that Presidents of the United States aren't necessarily more intelligent than the rest of us. He went on to say, in effect, "I could be President, too, if I had those same unfair advantages that George W. Bush had." This illustrates our insistence (against the evidence) that somehow we are equal, even in fundamentally individual attributes like intelligence, while at the same time we denigrate actual and undeniable differences.
I concluded by pointing out that our insistence on human equality and our acting on that belief makes that equality become true, at least partially. Our society is heavily biased against rich and powerful people who separate themselves from the middle class or who lord their wealth over others. The greatest compliment to a rich person (and perhaps the most commonly given) is that he "didn't lose touch with the common man".
We have a presumption that the wealthy and powerful actually are approachable by anyone on the same basis that we approach neighbors and colleagues. To a large extent, people actually act on this presumption; we walk up to leaders of the community to complain about our grievances and we expect the opportunity to shake hands and converse with United States Senators in their offices or at fundraising dinners.
It is true that there are real differences between people, both in themselves and in their circumstances. It is true that we can't clearly define what kind of equality we believe applies across all the people. Nevertheless, we create an actual reality of egalitarianism in the United States by acting out our belief.