Thursday, March 27, 2008



One of the problem with talking about America, whether one is a black Chicago preacher or a conservative Republican candidate for president, is the common assumption that America is a primarily a government. In the introduction of one of his books, your editor, Sam Smith, tried to suggest otherwise.

From the introduction to Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual (Norton, 1997)

Before we start trying to fix the something we call America, we'd better remind ourselves of what America is. Thanks to all the commercial, political and romantic symbolism surrounding the word, it is not an easy task.

It's also not easy when so many find the symbolism false and the reality cruel. You don't feel like singing when you're searching for a life jacket.

Yet even for many disillusioned or skeptical Americans there remains just below the surface the idea of a place worth saving. To find this America buried in our hearts, we have to turn off the amps of propaganda and hype, the reverb and distortion of our fears and failures, and listen to the country unplugged. Some of the best things can only be heard when everything else is still.

There are lots of different ways to think about America. Some people like to call America a "nation of laws," but that sounds like we just spend our days obeying regulations -- the sort of place only an attorney could love.

Other people think of America as a government, or as a geographical subdivision, which is fair enough but fails to give the real flavor of the place or explain the strong feelings many Americans have for their land.

Here are three things that come to mind when I think of America:

An environment

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California to the New York island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me

-- Woody Guthrie

An environment is more than a place; it is a condition, it is sustenance, it is shelter, it is a thousand invisible threads tying us to that which lies way out there.

The natural habitat of America long overwhelmed anything that could be built by mere humans, a fact that shaped our character and our culture. It has, to be sure, created oddities: we have become the most ecologically wasteful of nations yet have given the world some of its finest environmental writings. We have preserved some of the world's great natural spaces, but only after virtually exterminating those who lived there. The grandeur of our land has at times made us profligate, at other times humble and religious. We are deeply romantic about the wilderness yet have been ruthless in its exploitation.

In the past one hundred years or so we have learned how to replace nature with systems, technology, machines and institutions. For a long time it seemed to work. It appeared that America had a lifetime pass to progress. That Americans could do even better than nature.

But a few decades ago, things started to go awry. Our cities began to disintegrate. Families broke up with startling frequency. Real income slid and jobs drifted overseas. The environment became less a cornucopia and more a problem. Our non-natural systems no longer seemed as wonderful as they once had.

As these artificial systems failed us, some Americans began returning to natural ones, finding in them a wisdom and sustenance the constructed systems could not provide. Farmers rediscovered non-chemical ways to protect their crops. Communities and businesses began to recycle and seek self-sufficiency. Individuals began downshifting their consumption and lifestyles. And planners discovered long-ignored benefits in treading more softly on the earth.

Even after two hundred years of frequent and massive mistreatment, the American environment is still vital enough to welcome us back, asking only that this time we play by its rules. Its message is simple: that we do not have to belong to artificial systems; we can belong to the land itself.

A people

You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world

-- Herman Melville

We can also define ourselves as a people. Because of the variety of our backgrounds, it is not, however, a primeval past or cultural similarity that binds us but rather a shared present and future.

Sometimes -- such as in times of massive disaster -- we act on this communality. We suddenly and without instruction mobilize ourselves to help those miles away, recognizing for a few days or a few months that they are also one of us. We do the same thing when we're having fun; at a concert or a festival we feel a bond with everyone sharing the same experience. And when an admired leader dies, we grieve together.

As with the environment, though, we are inconsistent. America remains one of the most favored destinations for those seeking freedom and a better life, yet the newcomer often finds hostility as well as freedom, discrimination as well as opportunity.

In the end, it is not the culture from which we came but the one each of us is helping to create that will matter. It is our common fate rather than our disparate pasts that will ultimately describe, redeem or destroy us.


You have just taken an oath of allegiance to the United States. Of allegiance to whom? Of allegiance to no one, unless it be God. Certainly not of allegiance to those who temporarily represent this great government. You have taken an oath of allegiance to a great ideal, to a great body of principles, to a great hope of the human race.

-- Woodrow Wilson speaking to a group of newly naturalized citizens:

What we take for granted -- that a nation and a people should be organized around a set of principles -- was once considered revolutionary and even today remains remarkable. It also takes a lot of work and a lot of argument. But it is one of the things that best defines America.

As with our personal ideals, our country has repeatedly failed to live up to what it proclaims. But while we may not always practice what we preach, at least we do not preach what we practice.

The mere existence of our principles and the willingness of large numbers of Americans to work for them gives the country a special character.

In short, America is not the answer; it is only a good place to look for the answer. America has never been perfect; it's just been a place where it was easier to fix things that were broken. The ability to repair ourselves has long been one of our great characteristics as a people and a nation.

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