For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. — Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Sometimes small notions indicate issues of larger moment. In the discussion of a previous post, a commenter delivers a vest pocket critique of America seen from abroad. The salient part reads:
I don’t give a damn whether Americans kill themselves through gross overeating and under-exercising, filling their food with chemicals for short-term profit or turning their cities’ air into poison gas – not to mention handing terrorists billions of dollars to kill Americans (and others) with.
What I do mind is that Americans are setting a bad example for everyone else; as a small example the streets of Britain are filled with grotesquely large 4x4s. I am quite sure the fashion comes from across the pond. As another, the Chinese might well ask why they should restrict their economic growth when America already uses many times more fuel than they do – and they’d be right.
What I do mind is various American corporations not only trying to foist their Frankenstein food on us, but trying to make it impossible for us to tell that they are doing it – did you know that Monsanto are claiming in various court cases that labelling of food containing GM soya is against free trade treaties?
I could go on – but I won’t, except to say two things. Americans’ bad habits are a poor example for everyone else – and America’s gluttony for oil in particular, and their actions to make sure it gets fed, and the money transfers resulting from it, make the rest of the world much more dangerous
Some observations strike me as fair, others as dubious. Most strike me as those a reasonable man might form on a daily diet of the American media melange. It is a dangerous diet; a diet rich in junk and toxins and #FakeNews. In large doses it might make your head fill with harmful fat.
Once your propaganda mills are relentlessly anti-American, a real picture is hard to come by. One is pretty much a slave to one’s choices of input. Not much can be done to change a mind fed a constant drip-feed of lies and complaints from the current America-based “My country wrong or more wrong” crowd.
I can see how the commenter comes by his impressions. I grant that he comes to them fairly by using the dross he is expected to gold plate. Those impressions don’t map well to my experience of ordinary life in America in 2007. As American life, or a simple driveabout will teach you, “the map is not the territory.”
It is not my purpose here to flense his critique point by point, only to note that his intellectual malnutrition is, of necessity, determined by what he feeds his head.
By way of example, my day-to-day experience tells me that while the human results of having “way too much food” are more than visible in America, so is the cult of “way too much exercise.” The buffed anorexic octogenarian and the wobbling obese twenty-something are the bookends of the Big Buffet Bell-curve. Between them I see that most Americans are mindful of what they eat because they can afford to be. Making this possible is a system of food production and distribution that delivers such a wide-spectrum of food choice at cheap prices (organic, non-organic, and junk) to every niche of the landscape. Indeed, the American system of food distribution is so advanced and sophisticated that we have achieved a society in which one of the major problems among the poor that remain is obesity.
The impression that Americans are “turning their cities’ air into poison gas” is likewise well meant but ill informed. It is demonstrably not true.
Today there is still a haze over Los Angeles on most days,
but you have to stand back some to see it.
It is not true from a glance at the steadily declining levels of emission in a steadily increasing and mobile population over the decades. It is can be seen to be obviously untrue from the simple fact of living in America for six decades — decades that have seen more deep and lasting social change than at any other time in the history of the country, perhaps the world.
I was born in Los Angeles seven decades ago. I remember the poison air of the 1950s. I remember the smog alerts, the soot that would settle on the windowsills and grind its way into the clothes. I remember the cloud of black smudge that would be visible within a block of my front yard in Glendale. I saw that same black smudge some three decades later, not in Los Angeles, but in London.
Today there is still a haze over Los Angeles on most days, but you have to stand back some to see it. You also have to stand back in your mind and know that Los Angeles, depending on how you define it, is now home to between 10 and 18 million people (Up a tad from the 4 million of my 1950s childhood when only every family and not every single individual had a car). The only way that air in Los Angeles today could become perfect would be if you gave every resident a unicycle for transportation, a mandated vegan diet, and forbid flatulence under pain of death.Could LA’s air be improved? Certainly it could and inevitably it will.
The same observations hold true for our rivers, our reservoirs, our parks, our homes, our communities, and for all other nation-wide measures by which one might discover the true quality of life.
Racism is the witchdoctor’s feathered fetish shaken in America’s face daily….
At the same time, as it would be in any imperfect human society of 300 million souls, it is perfectly possible to find the pockets of poison and the ghettos of despair in this protean country. Viewed over an inch of time you would note they are shrinking, but you could still stand on a street corner in South Central or Harlem and focus a camera in such a direction and frame the images in such a manner you could deliver the impression of a vile and selfish society in which the poverty-stricken obese were crushed under some corporate oppressor’s boot.
You could, and many still do, ferret out an example of racism daily if you look hard enough. But it’s an evil juju only the most poisoned of our people waste their lives in pursuing. Racism is the witchdoctor’s feathered fetish shaken in America’s face daily by the race-hustlers and rent-seekers in the Democrat Party in order to preserve their plantations of colonized minds. Free men know it is only skillfully shaped propaganda and does not represent anything close to the truth of the American experiment and environment in 2009. Here even our poor are filthy rich measured against the world’s poor.
In the envious person’s world today, we encounter a mindset in which “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is a mindset in which, if the real world falls short of the imagined perfection, it is the real world that is ill rather than the mind of the imaginer. It is a mindset which finds nothing is impossible as long as others do the work and pay the price. It is a mindset forever doomed to disappointment; a doom in which it takes a strange masochistic pleasure. A country that permits all perversions will not shy away from perverted politics. Instead it will seek to fund them in perpetuity.
The American Story rises out not out of the American Agreement
but out of the American Argument
The commenter seems to feel that it is there is some implicit global responsibility of America to set a “good” example rather than, as he feels, its current “bad” example. He seems to feel that as America goes, so goes the world; that the Brits drive big cars in Britain not because they make that choice as free people but because some bizarre ‘American mind waves’ force them to do so against their will; that the Chinese, if impressed by some future America’s return to some eco-idyllic state, will shrug off the desires that the increasing wealth and semi-liberty of their situation affords them and peacefully return to the days of the ox-cart, the rickshaw, and root-grubbing famine. In short he places too much power in the hands of America and too little in the hands of the human individuals in the rest of the world. To this way of thinking the example is all, and that only if the example is a “good” example can the world be perfected.
To a small extent he is correct. The global reach of American media is a force in the world, but a deeply confusing one. Our media’s main export is a mixed message. It constantly tells the world about our shortcomings (“Alas, we have not yet perfected our country. Here’s how…”), but at the same time shows the world our achievements (“Check out the good life, the very good life, and get some for yourself. Here’s how…”). What he fails to note, or perhaps perceive, is that the American Story rises out not out of agreement but out of the American Argument, an argument that we’ve been having here in the land where men have been able to freely speak and vote their minds for well over two centuries. It is an argument we’re not finished with yet.
There are many ways of stating the American Argument with itself — indeed, it is many arguments — but one of the most straightforward is “How shall men be free and how shall a society of free men then be structured?”
The reality is that the American experiment continues its pursuit of the good
and its flirtation with perfection.
From time to time the passions that animate the American Argument run to blood, such as the era that led to the Civil War and, to a much lesser extent, our current era. At other times, the Argument is pitched at a much lower level of intensity. But the Argument is ever present and any number can play. If you can get here and become a citizen you can participate as well. Hell, we’ll let you participate even if you are here and not a citizen. We might even allow millions of you to become citizens overnight in order to join the Argument. You don’t even have to learn English any longer.
The great thing about the American Argument is that it is never over. The Argument will go on and on prompting every generation to add to it and shape it as that generation wills — for good or ill — and trusting that America will self-correct over time as long as the Argument endures and is not won by either side.
The reality is that the American experiment continues its pursuit of the good and its flirtation with perfection. In this pursuit of happiness the American experiment continues to demonstrate to the world what a real egalitarian and free society actually looks like and is. Not what such a society could be, but what one actually is here, now, today. And we arrive there by our constant political argument about “the perfect” vs. “the good;” a “utopia tomorrow” via government intervention in all aspects of life versus individual liberty and the best “possible” world here and now. It is an argument that seeks balance rather than predominance, but when one side of the argument seeks a permanent win the social fabric that binds the country begins to tear. When this happens good citizens of either side will endeavor to patch it once again and continue the Argument.
Indeed, for all intents and purposes, the Argument is the American Revolution today. The Argument is an artifact of the American Revolution. It endures because the American Revolution endures, 233 years later, as the most successful revolution in the history of the world. The American Revolution did not start in 1776 — that was just the shooting phase. The American Revolution began when men from the Old World first came to the New World and decided to make it new; when men of that world set foot here and came “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder.”
We try in our halting, shambling, faltering way to always choose life;
life with all its flaws and complexities and victories and defeats.
The American Argument emerged from the impact of this land on the Old World. This impact is chronicled in the first visions that the New World could be more than the extension of the Old; that it could be truly New. The vision of a world made new is an ancient one in this land. It predates the Revolution and the formal founding of the United States. The roots can be found in such documents as “The Mayflower Compact” and most clearly in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “City Upon a Hill.”
Many consider the Declaration of Independence to be the key document in the creation of the American experiment, but the seeds of it are to be found in many earlier expressions of what it was like to be new in the New World. Of these, the closing words of Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” stand for most of the others:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. “Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.
Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.
“Therefore let us choose life….” That’s pretty much what we try to do here in America some 233 years out. We try in our halting, shambling, faltering way to always choose life; life with all its flaws and complexities and victories and defeats.
You would see, when you came to gaze at the borders of America,
many footprints going in and few coming out.
We don’t try to be perfect — although there are many among us who urge it upon us and expect it from us in order to feel more perfect themselves.
We are by default an example to the world — if not the perfect example so many would prefer. Instead we are simply, warts and all, the best society in all its multi-foliate aspects that currently exists or has ever existed upon the Earth. We are a nation that has never been perfect but always, if you could walk the land and know the lay of it, the warp and the woof and the thought dreams of it, much better than we have any right to be. If you could look at the world from orbit and see the people of the world flowing over its surface in some sort of schematic, you would see, when you came to gaze at the borders of America, many footprints going in and few coming out.
That’s why I am always amused by the exhortations from within and without to “get perfect or get gone.” They always seem to me to be filled with spleen on the surface but with an incredible yearning on the inside; a yearning that acknowledges in its very bitterness; in its very existence that this country of all the others is still “the last best hope of Earth.”
America-loathing knows in its bones that, no matter how much it dislikes the world with America in it, it would be a much less perfect and much more dangerous world with America out of it. Then again, given the shape of the world and the nature of the American argument, perhaps this wish may some day be granted and the world can again sink back into the tyranny of individuals, faction, and totalitarian state-control.
Perhaps. But that day is not yet. With all the rancor now on display, I still believe that we’ve got about two to five more centuries left to continue setting our “bad example.” Hell, give us one century more to argue and our “bad example” might even get you your “perfect world.”