Cross-posted from Deconstructing The Manifest
Aww – it’s our “birthday,” again.
I’m going to do my bit and meditate on the idea that is “The United States of America,” and some on identity and ritual and coercion, collusion and self-delusion. Yes, you should go elsewhere for parades and fireworks…
Disgraced politician (but I repeat myself) John Edwards made famous the idea of there being “two Americas,” Bobby Kennedy (taken down before he had the opportunity to disgrace himself) limned a similar meme when he dared to be photographed with poor folk in his brutally truncated Presidential run. We have the “1%,” the “99%” – the social Darwinish “rugged individual” Americans, the barn-raising Socialisty communitarian Americans, post-Enlightenment secular humanism America, hell-and-brimfire God-bothering America, public library, transportation, and education America, and home-schooling get-off-of-my-lawn America.
I could go on, of course. There are many Americas, millions at the least, perhaps a different one all the way down to each individual who utters, “America.” This was never a consensual reality, this experiment was never preceded by an adequate hypothesis – one might hold up “inalienable rights,” but we never seem to be settled on the quality, universality, or even the robustness of these “rights.” Life (the death penalty,) Liberty (our disgracefully populated prison system,) and the Pursuit of Happiness (we have never properly educated our youth on what “happiness” even means, and our culture is most ubiquitously settled on acquisition, consumerism, and careerism for its officially sanctioned expression.)
I have my own “America,” of course. Contested as it is, I’ll try to resist the folly to claim that it’s the definitive one, but of course that is my feeling. One of the problems with my vision is that I have always felt that the founding charters and realpolitik that defined its birth were wanting, and hence I am forced to hold on to a progressive, or evolving, view of this country if I am to have any love at all for her. This is certainly true for pretty much everyone, I’m guessing – but since the expression or direction of this “progress” is hardly agreed upon, it’s a pretty weak board upon which to pin unity.
For purposes of context and disclosure, I’ll share my view. I see the American Experiment as a work in progress, as an historic effort to organize ourselves around “good” principles. We know what they are in general, but we are not so certain as to how they are. We’ve branded, in that 20th Century American way, our inalienable rights, and in our lazy habituation we follow the logos without nurturing the principles behind them, nor do we give attention to what is required in order for them to become more than a Nike “swoosh” run up the flagpole.
For one thing, transparency is essential. There is nothing American about nobility or elitism of any kind, yet our country is shot through with it. It is a peculiarity of our institution of democracy, adulterated as it is with vulgar patriotism, that we actively cheer on this elitism. A country that should be in high dudgeon over the recent Snowden revelations* instead is participating with self-proclaimed “insiders” in the debate over “how much” information the great unwashed should be allowed to have, how much it can “handle,” and “who” has the right to tell us this. That is all bullshit and very un-American – in my sense of “America,” of course.
There is a brutish, violent, elitist and imperialistic vein that shoots through this country, and it has been trying to own “brand America” at least since the Civil War. And it’s doing a good job of it, as well. This is predictable – when you are trying to own a brand, you flog it, so those lapel-pin flags tend to mean what you want them to mean. It’s hard to fight that – a true patriot knows that the first step in losing transparency is to get everyone to stare at a symbol, so he or she tends to eschew pomp and circumstance (just typing “true patriot” grates on my nerves, so quickly does patriotism turn to vulgarity.) “True patriot” Hunter S. Thompson was haunted by this venal streak within America, for him finding corporeality in Richard M. Nixon and, somewhat ironically, the conspicuous consumption of elites.
This is another thing that we have accomplished in brand America – that bizarre what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas habit we have of celebrating a system that is robbing us in broad daylight. Because brand America has built into it the American Dream that we’re all Marlo Thomas – we’re going to make it after all – then it is in our own best “interest” to protect wealth and the wealthy. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we have upended the proverb and trope instead towards the privileged.
All of this matters on its own terms. There is real suffering that occurs because of our mindless participation in these things, and real people would be made literally happier (one of our charters, right?) if they were rectified. Yes, there are some – the rumor is about 1% of us – who would suffer some privation… of wealth, however, not “happiness.” Try and sell that, though. But there is a larger, historical context in which this matters a great deal more.
While we may have put the cart before the horse in declaring our Exceptionalism and our Number Oneness before we nailed down exactly who we actually are, we have – fortunately and unfortunately – done a bang-up job in selling pretty much the entire planet on it. If we were quietly misadventuring our way through our little experiment it might be a little different, but we’ve become Leviathan, and everybody is watching. Sure, the experiment could break out and begin anew (and even better because it might do something about accursed property rights and the legal standing of Nature,) but even this might be tainted by our poor example. We could, seriously, be a serious drag on History itself. This is not my America.
Because we have become a poor example, and we are experiencing the humiliation that goes along with the globe awakening to this fact. I’m not going to litanize our misdeeds here, but one cannot escape the fact that we are finally beginning to reap disrespect in a serious way. We deserve it, and I hope we can at least keep our eye on that ball, because if we have a temper tantrum over this deserved disrespect then I will have nothing “America” at all to hold on to. Not that I’ve got a firm grip now.
So, yea, Happy Birthday America and ho-hum yes by all means celebrate it with vulgar patriotic zeal or with this sort of offensive post-Modern smug irony, but I find more comfort in hoping that at least some of you are peeking behind the logo, and looking this country in the face. Love her.
*Yes, yes – of course most of us “sophisticated” folk knew what the NSA was up to, but I have no tolerance for using this as an argument to be sanguine about it. Save your smug superiority for the mirror.
Photo by Daniel Lobo released under a Creative Commons license.