The question makes for customary newspaper fodder July 4 and other national holidays, although to me it's a 365-day fixation more interesting than inquiries into the meaning of life or the existence of god: What does it mean to be an American? The most reassuring answer is that there'd better never be an answer: American identity is best left elusive, less sure of itself than of its endless possibilities. Which is what makes the certainty of recent answers-when the question was posed to local newspaper readers-the more disquieting.
I was catching up on old clips when I came across the July 1 cover of my own paper (the News-Journal), a colorful four-column, top-to-bottom mosaic of thirty people-various races, colors, ages, dental care-explaining what it means to them "to be an American." Almost every answer was a variation on the theme of freedom, usually personal freedom, but in the abstract, as if they each were repeating by rote phrases from a hymnal than speaking truths they knew and felt first-hand, or could explain. A 16-year-old: "To me, it means freedom and having the right to do what you want to do." An 8 year old: "It means that we live in a free country and that we get to do a lot of stuff that other people can't." A 54-year-old: "To have personal freedom to do what I want to do, when I want to do it." A 60 year old: "It's liberties and freedoms that are preserved and cherished in the Constitution of the United States."
The sameness of the answers belied their very point: While almost all of them felt free in the abstract and could say the kind of flag-waving phrases that do sloganeering Elks and Rotary clubs proud, hardly any could go beyond the rote, and only a handful were safe from unwitting irony. When a 25 year old says it's about "living free to accomplish your dreams," it's difficult not to think of the near-bankruptcy of the notion, of the very real fact that upward mobility, once a staple of American life, is now far less of a reality in the United States than it is in supposedly stultified and class-full Europe. This 26 year old seems to get it: "Everything is still within my reach, but to get it you have to be strong and determined." This 49 year old, not so much: "The opportunities, dreams and the fulfillment of a truly valued life." (The one who does get it is black, incidentally. The one who doesn't is whiter than a shade of pale.)
A 60 year old and a 48 year old attribute Americanness to "freedom of speech," which may be true in the abstract, but is among those freedoms least valued, least protected, and most badgered in our day: we have the freedom to say what we please on our blogs and in our living rooms. But so do the Chinese (and they live in a totalitarian regime). And even then, those freedoms are being restricted: let your employer find out what you think or do that may clash with your company's "culture" and you'll be out the door before you have a chance to scroll down to your explanation (a few weeks ago a waitress of long date at a local Olive Garden was summarily fired when her employer saw a picture of her holding a beer on her daughter's MySpace page). "Freedom of speech" in the media is even more of an fallacy. The spectrum of accepted ideas is embarrassingly narrower than it is in most European countries. The voices in those media form a small, hermetic, repetitive and self-preserving elite that has less to do with ideology than a form of religious belief in the status quo. Once again blogs have dented the club and forced it to own up to realities it might not have otherwise, but even the blog world has developed its own class system, its own establishment, conventions and, quite rigorously, its own rules of intolerance. Freedom of speech is pointless when it doesn't provoke conversations, when dissent isn't accepted not only as an inherent value of the liberal mindset, but as its necessity.
I'm tempted to say that we live in a conformist age. But in reality most of American history has been one age of conformism after another, shocked and jagged periodically by brief periods of radical rethinking, by that shaking of the tree of liberty Thomas Jefferson spoke about, often with drips of blood as a consequence. This is not, by any means, one of those periods. Not even close. Dissent over Bush has formed its own establishment. But a movement to be rid of something as specific as one presidential administration and its follies isn't the same as a movement to change the culture, politically and socially. There isn't, among viable Republican or Democratic candidates running-with the occasional, and so far mostly rhetorical, exceptions of John Edwards and, on his more lucid days, Barack Obama-the slightest desire to question the status quo, to, for example, up-end assumptions about the market economy or challenge the eminently challengeable belief that American interests begin and end with its business interests. Fire up those engines of subversion and see how far your "freedom of speech" will take you.
I liked, among all those answers on the front page, the slightly doubtful one, by a 56-year-old woman, who said: "We're free than, I think, the rest of the world." That doubt is healthy. It suggests that perhaps our assumptions have gotten a bit too far ahead of us, as in fact they have: In terms of press freedoms, for example, Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States a miserable 53 rd in the world, alongside Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. The United States ranks high in terms of economic freedoms, in fourth place, but then Hong Kong, which belongs to China, is first, and Singapore, a libertarian's nightmare, ranks second. As for the Global Peace Index, which ranks countries from most peace-fostering to least peace-fostering, forget it. Norway, New Zealand and Denmark occupy the top spots. The United States comes in at 96, sandwiched, appropriately enough, between Yemen and Iran.
The disconnect between the neocons' Bush-Cheney version of the world and the reality we face is clear enough. With simple-mindedness that makes George Babbitt seem like a foreign policy whiz, Bush thinks that American power and institutions are innate virtues that the world craves, that no people could want another system. It's what drove his assumptions that American tanks in Baghdad could metamorphose into the making of another San Antonio on the banks of the Tigris. He got an Alamo in reverse, writ large. But he had the majority of Americans' support as late as 2004. And if he did so, it's because the disconnect he projected is alive and well in the heart of most Americans. They have soured on Bush. They haven't lost their illusions about Bush-like assumptions, revealed so clearly in those July 4 spreads about what it means to be American.
Bush will soon be gone. Not so the fatal assumption that to be an American is to be the world.
© 2007 The Daytona Beach News-Journal