In its latest edition, its 150th anniversary issue, the Atlantic magazine asked a number of writers, politicians, artists, scientists, and other thinkers to reflect on the future of “the American idea” in “around 300 words.” Somehow I was overlooked, so I will take a stab at it here.
Three little words that seem so pure and virtuous, yet themselves define the contradictions inherent in the phrase. First “the,” the definitive article that implies a single American idea, encompassing the populist American exclusion, arrogance, and belligerence of “my country, right or wrong,” “love it or leave it,” and “if you ain’t fer us, yer ag’in’ us.”
Second, “American,” which connotes both an inclusiveness and a wrongheaded arrogance. There are, after all, as any good PC-er will tell you, many countries in North and South America, yet America is usually defined as a single country: the United States of America, the name of which represents a very American concept--unity amid diversity, a melting pot of cultures.
And then that third word, “idea,” bringing to mind the great “American” virtues of independent thinking (a concept nurtured, if not born, in Greece), entrepreneurship (derived from a French word), and avant-garde (another French word) creativity.
America is above all a land of contradictions, of convenient ignorance, where the anti-immigrant throng fears what its ancestors (immigrants, of course) once wreaked upon the original “Americans”--the destruction of a way of life. To some, the American idea is that all persons, whatever their race, creed, religion, or ancestry, should be able to contribute equally to society, to live their lives the way they want, and to be compensated fairly for their labors, but of course this does not happen in America. It may be true that “anyone” can do this--grow up to be President, rich and happy, an American Idol, etc., but the American idea has never been that “everyone” can. This is why socialism is un-American, and capitalism, unrestrained by anything other than cronyism and the legal bribery perpetrated by lobbyism, is American.
But, of course, I am also a contradiction. Here I am complaining that the American idea is more individualistic than collectivist, yet I’m a musician who plays “unpopular” music, ignoring the tastes of the majority; a devoted father who insists on a capricious career that involves large chunks of time away from my family instead of conforming to the societal norm of a salaried, corporate, home-every-night job; and an anti-church socialist who decries the self-centered, materialist ways of the decidedly church-going, capitalist society I live in. In short, an individual, an entrepreneur (though hardly a successful one), a true American. At least, I like to think so. You got a problem with that?