American Contradictions

The American Idea, part 1

Our spiritual quest encounters the universal and the particular. What are we? We are a mix of universal and particular – a mix of what is cultural and the transcendent: what we have learned, how we’ve been socialized, and what is true of us just by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being mammal, or by virtue of being vertebrate.

What are we? I’d like to call us American – I beg your indulgence to allow that. Some of us may not have been born in the US. Some of us may not be US citizens. In calling us American, I just mean that we now live reside within the borders of the US. Even if we’ve been here only a short time, we’ve been influenced by this place – as one cannot help but be influenced by wherever one resides.

But what is this influence? What does it mean to be American? How does answering that question contribute to answering the spiritual question: who am I? what am I?

An article by columnist Yoni Appelbaum looks at "The American Idea" -- and its status lately. He says, in essence (adapted, abridged, and paraphrased):
“The American Idea” asserts that universal and equal rights, freedoms, and opportunity is both a good idea – indeed, a moral imperative – and an American idea – that is, the U.S. bears a special responsibility to model a civic culture that embodies rights, equality, and democracy in a way the world had not seen before. Americans have been held together by the conviction that the United States had a unique mission, even as they debated how to pursue it. From the first, the American Idea provoked skepticism. How could people be allowed to define their own destinies without the stabilizing power of an aristocratic class? It bordered on absurd to believe that a nation so sprawling and heterogeneous could be governed as a democratic republic. The experiment seemed doomed from the beginning. When, after the 1860 election, 11 states seceded, the anticipated collapse appeared to have happened. Yet we persisted.

Americans have never agreed on when to prioritize the needs of individuals and when their collective project should come first. Today, however, we’ve lost the sense that there is any collective project.

In part, the American Idea is a victim of its own success: Its spread to other nations has left America less distinctive than it once was. But it is also a victim of its failures. Recent reports rank the U.S. 32nd in income equality. Its rates of intergenerational economic mobility are among the lowest in the developed world. The U.S. ranks in the lower half of nations in new-business formation and percentage of jobs new businesses account for. Today, Americans describe China as Europeans once described the United States—as an uncouth land of opportunity and rising economic might.

Both left and right are pulling "American" apart from "Idea." The left defends principles no longer identified as American; the right defends an America no longer identified with principles. Thus, even as the left is made queasy by the notion that an idea can be both good and distinctively American, the right doubts that America is defined by a distinctive idea at all. It promotes, instead, a generic nationalism — one defined, like any nation’s, by culture, borders, interests, and enemies. Under attack on both flanks, and weakened by its failure to deliver exceptional results, the nation’s shared identity is crumbling. (original article HERE)
I was a teenager when I first heard Paul Simon’s song, “American Tune.”

I resonated with the bluesy aspects: I've been mistaken, confused -- felt forsaken, felt far away from home. And then the song carried me outside my self to recognize, even in the midst of whatever I’m down about, a kinship with others. Everyone’s been battered. No one feels at ease. Every dream has been shattered or driven to its knees. Some of them, maybe, can be rebuilt, but their final form is never their original form.

So we are left wondering: what went wrong. We can’t help it, we wonder what went wrong. And all this seems somehow a very American state of affairs.

I couldn’t have articulated it as a teenager, but I felt my country's contradictions. To some extent these contradictions are built into the human species, but the colonizers of the land that would become the United States brought a certain particular heightening of those contradictions. As Andrew Sullivan writes, in a book review of Jill Lepore’s These Truths:
“reason and faith, truth and propaganda, black and white, slave and free, immigrant and native, industry and agriculture — ripple through this history, with one obvious period where the country simply came apart in the bloodiest civil conflict in history. No country before or since has been this convulsed with conflict and wealth. No country has been both a republic and effectively an empire across an entire continent. No country had ever been defined as one of strangers and travelers, where waves and waves of immigration constantly churned through society. No people were as passionate both for slavery and for freedom.” (HERE)
No wonder it’s sometimes hard to be bright and bon vivant. No wonder we sense that somehow things have gone wrong.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "The American Idea"
See next: Part 2: Who Are My People?
Part 3: Ain't That America?

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