Not Those Two Americas
Many people have postulated the existence of “two Americas”. Notably John Edwards built a presidential campaign based on this idea. His notion was that there is a wealthy America and a poor America. I do not disagree that there are two such Americas. The breakpoint, however, is better described as an America politically connected and an America that is not so connected. This of course, leads to the accumulation of wealth, and the disparity of said wealth.
However, this is not the formulation I wish to discuss here. This is more of a cultural reflection by a lifelong US citizen who sees the good and the bad in my home country. I will use each letter of the name America to illustrate my thoughts.
America has always been an aspirational nation. The founding document of this nation, The Declaration of Independence is nothing if not an aspirational document. It was the highest of ideals that inaugurated the United States. It was a declaration motivated by classical liberal ideas. Ideals of limited government, individual freedom and the right of a people to chart their own course. Obviously, the lived reality for African slaves, Native Americans, and women was far short of this ideal. Yet, the ideal was put forth publicly. No other nation was so explicit in it aspirations. This aspirational language has permeated the political and social discourse for most of US history. It is only lately that this use of aspirational language has ceased, giving rise to a political landscape where not only the reality has fallen short but even the rhetoric has as well. Yet, I firmly believe that deep in the American cultural consciousness beats an aspirational heart.
On the other hand, America has from the start been an aggressive nation and culture. From the first colonists off the boat it has been one aggression after another. First the eastern seaboard. Then movement west of the Appalachians. Then on to the west of the Mississippi river, followed by movement west of the Missouri river. Sweeping all Native Americans and Mexicans before them to the Pacific ocean. Then it was on across the oceans. Knocking off the tottering Spanish empire and seizing their possessions, to the rise of global power after the World Wars to the place of global hegemon at the end of the Cold War.
America has always been a forward moving aggressive imperial enterprise. There was no thought to the indigenous populations or the rights of those so situated. It was always forward, forward, forward. As surely as its aspirational nature, it cannot be gainsaid that America is an aggressor nation.
I know it is often a loaded term, but America is, and has for most of its history been multi-cultural. It has not always been a smoothly melting pot of differing peoples but a diverse group it has mostly been. From the middle of the 19th. century until the borders were largely sealed in the 1920s, then again from the mid 1960s on, the US has been extraordinarily welcoming to immigrants. Group after group has come, struggled, beset by bigotry, and ultimately became an integral part of the American cultural landscape, to the clear betterment of society.
Yes, America is, like all other nations often mendacious. The bogus lies that are told are usually in the form of myths about the formation of the country (ignoring the reality of slavery or the treatment of Indians), or propaganda to justify some horrible infliction of violence on others. It is just the societal scale of the innate human propensity to wrap themselves in pretentious bullshit in order to get to sleep at night. When thinking about this facet of America, think about the last time anyone justified a US war as being for oil or control of a strategic piece of real estate. See what I mean?
There has long been an energy to the American project that is notable. Not notable in terms of some innate ability of Americans to be energetic. It is notable that in its striving (and often failing) to achieve its aspirations the US has allowed people to forge ahead using the energy that God gave them to better their lives. Americas most egregious failings have been preventing large out groups from so using their energies in this way. Yet more than most nations ever, America is notable for the sheer human energy it unleashed.
Perhaps because of its accomplishments on the world economic and (sadly) military stage, American culture is marked by a notable egotism. I don’t think it likely that Rome was any less egotistical or Han China, or Britain, but it is a part of the cultural landscape. The US like all powerful empires thinks itself all that. Turn on any news show, right or left, or listen to any government official, and you will hear a tone that is dripping with ego as an assumptive foundation of America.
No, not radiant like a new bride or groom. Radiant in the way that America has always put itself and its culture out there. It is undeniably true that much of the world is drawn to American culture. The voluntary embrace of American culture is in no way “imperialism”. I have clearly not been shy about calling out actual US imperialism. There is no need to conflate free cultural embrace with coercion. The American vibe is a radiant one and at its best pulses out from America to the rest of the world. This is undoubtedly a positive attribute.
On the other hand, much of American culture can be described as rapacious. Grasping, clawing, screw over whoever is in your way is also part and parcel of the American way. As my father used to say, “America where more than enough is never enough”. That sentiment is still true today. Perhaps the fictional character from the Simpsons, Montgomery Burns put is best, “I have a lot, but I would give it all up for a little bit more”. That sadly too is America.
Many, especially the socialist left will think this a bad quality, but they are wrong. It is the fundamental reality of the universe that we as a species cannot consume that which we have not first produced. That means we must work. If you look closely at Scripture, work is not a product of the Fall. Adam and Eve had jobs in Eden. Even the Israelites had to go out and gather the manna sent from heaven. Being industrious is a good attribute. Again, it is not that Americans are preternaturally more industrious than others. It is simply that for most of US history there has been no one standing in the way of being industrious, so lo and behold, an industrious culture sprang up.
Much of American culture is very much impudent. There is a consistent strain in American life that shows little respect for others. Not bowing down to wealth and privilege is fine, but not considering the rights and dignities of another is not. This is a strain that infects all cultures to one degree or another and it certainly predates social media, yet that may intensify the phenomenon. That we live in a culture that allows for material differences and wealth disparities is generally a good thing, but the downside is that people begin to look upon the relatively less successful as an upstart or moral defective.
Americans, like most people on earth can be extraordinarily compassionate. The enormous wealth that has been built up in this country may be a driver of this. Many people innately feel a drive to help others because they have so much. Even if proportionately Americans give less to charity (I am not sure one way or another), the sheer volume of wealth in the US allows for a level of compassionate care that is an historical anomaly. This is the best of America.
Unfortunately America’s compassion seems to go hand in hand with its callousness. This is especially true when we are discussing outgroups. Those deemed “unworthy”, or “undeserving”. This is most pronounced when Americans think about foreigners. It is all too prevalent to buy into imperialist bullshit propaganda and assume that when a country gets bombed they brought it on themselves. Americans typically don’t give much of any consideration to those on the outside. This domestically has long meant people of color, other minorities, or even people who fall ill, if they took too many “risks”. The human ability to write off large swaths of the world and treat them worse than a household pet has bedeviled humanity since the Fall and America is certainly not immune to this.
In the end America is a truly amazing place. Not because other nations don’t have an incredible story to tell. Human history is marked by the cacophony of amazing and interesting stories made up of a multitudinous array of personalities. What makes America particularly amazing is that in its aspirations, even having fallen far short of them, they have managed to produce a land of amazing wealth, peace, and prosperity. No other nation accomplished as much as this. It is not something unique to Americans as humans. There are certainly historical reasons why it all came together this way, in a way that it did not for other cultures. Yet, the amazing story stands. As far short as America fell from its ideals, the attempt to reach those ideals saw America reach a level of human achievement that by any measure is amazing.
Yet, on the other hand, Uncle Sam may be described as one aggravating son of a bitch. Not because America fell short of its aspirations but because it seems hellbent on throwing away the foundations of that amazing story. It is not a question of trying to improve and include ever more people into the American project, that is to be commended. There is, however, no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater and reject everything that gave America the ability to accomplish so much. All nations and empires rise and fall, it is the way of humanity. Yet, to throw away the one that generated so much amelioration of the human condition is aggravating as hell.
Which America Shall We Be?
All of this is an elongated way of saying that America is a mixed bag. It is so because individuals are a mixed bag, capable of great good and great harm. What I note about the better qualities of American culture are that they arose because power (government) more or less got out of the way. Those things that fed into the darker aspects of the human psyche (magnified by America’s power) come from the over exercise of power (government). We will always be a mixed bag, it is the way of humanity this side of eternity. That said we have a choice. We can feed the better aspects of our nature and push aside the power that destroys, and in the process unleash the very best America has to offer while limiting the damage that we inevitably do. Or America can continue to aggrandize the power of the state and crumble beneath the darkest aspects of human nature. In short, America can choose to go back and be unique (if fallible) or it can become completely like every other power that ends on the ash heap of history. May God grant us the strength to make the fully human choice.
Praise Be to God