Saturday, August 20, 2005

America, the Idea!

Who knows, maybe I am a blowhard who is expert at pointing out all that is wrong with the world but fail to offer a realistic solution. I will tell you this much, though. There are a lot of people out there who can accurately state the flaws with our current cultural path, but very few can point to an easy fix all cure.

I was not attempting to be trite in my diagnosis of our failing culture. By saying that no one is special, it is my way of saying that everyone is special regardless of material worth, education or celebrity status. When I complain that there is no social responsibility ingrained in our society, it is my way of saying that people want the best for their neighbors. If for no other reason then it makes their own house more valuable. Most Americans wish no ill on others, but we are a very self-absorbed society. It is a by-product of how our country was founded. We are unique in the sense that the United States is the only country on Earth founded on the premise of self-determination, liberty, equality, justice and other such freedoms. Think about it. Many nations in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world have come to embrace these notions, but none were founded with these beliefs ingrained in the national character. The French came to adopt the philosophy of liberte, egalite, and fraternite, but France was not founded on these principles. Likewise, Britain’s last written constitution was the Magna Carte in 1215. Obviously, no one would argue that the United Kingdom is not an enlightened and free society, but the nation was not founded on these premises.

America is one of the world’s great experiments and for over 200 years it has been, generally speaking, an enormous success. The central premises found in our Constitution ensure the rights of all. And while we have failed in the history of our country to apply these rights equitably to all Americans and our immigrant population, we do make progress every day of every year. Our history is full of mistakes, but for hook or for crook they are our mistakes and as societies go, ours are fairly innocuous.

Our nation has been a success because it affords people the right to ask hard questions about our values and our core principles. President Ronald Reagan once invoked the classic adage that America, the idea, is a shining city on a hill. America is more an idea than a country. Certainly we are a melting pot of cultures. We have not one state religion but many. We have not one official language but many. And more important than all else, we have not one set of values, but many, founded on many diverse cultural foundations. The thing that we all share is the idea that is America. It is the idea of equal opportunity. It is the idea that everyone regardless of cosmetic differences shares the belief that “greatness is a road leading toward the unknown.” Sorry to quote Charles de Gaulle, but he said it best. He evoked this phrase to describe the greatness that he saw in France and the French people, but I believe that it is just as suitable a description of American greatness. America’s real strength is that it is a rudderless ship sailing always forward, following no path and seeking no specific end. Not one person can tell you what America will be like in 10 years, let alone 100 years.

As such, all we have is our values. All we have is each other, in spite of our difference, in spite of selfish belief in self-determination, America binds us together, and many of us thinking that America, the idea, is wounded by arrogance and belief of ideological superiority. Our nation was once pure and free of the imperial shackles that bound Europe almost as much as it bound their colonial territories. This imperialism made European claims of freedom and justice ring hollow. For certainly, how cold Europe truly embrace these guiding principles if they did not afford to all of their peoples.

No, America is now the imperial power on Earth, exporting not our legal and political control, but our ideology and culture. If American style democracy is good for us, it must be good for Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries in the developing world. The main difference between European and American imperialism is that Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were interested in economic superiority, the world over. America already has economic superiority and we achieved it by growing internally and then unleashing our economic might on the world. The way we hope to maintain that superiority is by forcing our consumer-driven culture on the world.

Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times several weeks ago that France and other nations have taken a different approach to economic expansion. They willingly sacrifice a bit of economic growth in favor of societal and familial strength. The French, he points out earn less money yet live better than Americans, on average. Why is that? It is not because the French are any smarter than us. (Though before you snicker, nor are they any dumber.) Perhaps France has achieved a societal maturity that we have not. Perhaps France and most European nations have been around long enough to realize that there is more to life than superiority. Or perhaps since Europe is no longer the defining power in the world it frees them up to focus on other goals.

I love America the idea. I love everything about this country. I love traveling around this country to experience all of the regional cultures that it has to share with the world. I believe that this nation is full of great people. I take them to task for short-comings not because I wish to see it fall. I do so because I hope in so doing it may never fall.


Eric the Papa said...

Interesting...remember that the principles of the Constitution applied at first mainly to white male property owners, BUT it allowed the evolution of political democracy. It has been less successful in encouraging social democracy and less still for economic democracy.
It's Charles de Gaulle!

Anonymous said...

Is it even possible to have a Muslim democracy? Is Islam an angry religion that can only undergo a reformation with a Muslim democracy or its it just a lot of angry Muslims because they live under repressive regimes, with no rule of law