“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter---tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further . . .and one fine morning . . .“
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Gatsby
Nine months have passed since newspaper headlines and editorials from western democracies across the globe expressed incredulity and amazement that the American electorate had returned to power an administration that is widely unpopular in their home countries and increasingly viewed as incompetent and fraudulent. They questioned Americans’ intelligence and wondered aloud about the nation’s commitment to its own ideals. The interim performance of the buffoons, cynics and liars who rule the nation has continued to fan international fears and incredulity. While understandable at a superficial level, such questions are deeply troubling because they reveal a surprising depth of ignorance about the nature of the American character even in countries with which the United States shares close cultural and historic ties. There are no valid excuses for the current state of affairs in America, but perhaps the least one can do is to proffer an explanation.
I admit that a certain conceit infuses any effort to explain the character of the American people to the rest of the world. The assumption that an accurate description can be fashioned in a few paragraphs, speaks of a society that believes the American identity is clearly discernible, its values subject to a marketing presentation with the bulleted items revealing a logic compelling enough to command attention, if not respect.
The possibility that such a construct doesn‘t exist, or that the moral and political weathers of the commonwealth are so ephemeral as to defy analysis, and fail to deliver the comfort of predictability, is alien to the American character. Vast, diffuse, bold, uncertain, often adrift, rarely humble and frequently arrogant, the American character is in Sisyphean conflict with itself. Sampling the pervasiveness of that struggle (if only anecdotally) offers a means to understanding the American psyche and why, in its relatively short history, it has been capable of choosing leaders from the progressive left to the current reactionary right.
America scoffs at critical introspection but revels in self-congratulation. America is anti-intellectual. She loudly condemns the thoughtful, the abstract, the complex or nuanced response in favor of self-evident truths and the clarity they bestow on all who respect the power of decisive action and the joys of immediate results. The Academy is derided as elitist. Those who test competing ideas, consult history, evidence caution and deliberation are assumed to be weak, indecisive---- possibly European. The scientist is popularly portrayed as absent minded, always out of style in dress and speech. That which is “academic” is irrelevant. Yet there is something vaguely disingenuous about this red necked pride.
America is also the plays of Eugene O’Neill, the relativism of Albert Einstein, a walk on the moon, the Manhattan skyline from a train on Hell Gate Bridge, the haunting prose of Hawthorne, and microprocessors approaching the speed of light. America is the “special effects” of the uncommon sense of extraordinary minds.
America is armed, brutal, and cruel. Her bedrooms, back alleys, and hotel kitchens, are stained with the blood of untold killings. A black man is dragged to his death from the back of a pickup truck in Texas. A gay man is crucified on a fence post in Wyoming. A school library in Colorado is transformed into a killing field. Gallows in Delaware, firing squads in Utah, electric chairs and lethal injections from California to Virginia are the weapons of official murderers. With constitutional sanction and cultural imperative, the gun spreads a primeval equality across a bloodied and lawless land.
But America is also an innocent, beautiful place where acts of generosity and compassion occur all the time. Volunteers spontaneously group to search for a missing child. The rescue of trapped miners focuses the aspirations of the nation for days. Communities reflexively unite to help the victims of disasters. The American instinct is to overwhelm tragedy with material kindness. But it’s the unnoticed gifts on which this American trait is honed; the cord of fire wood left mysteriously at the rear of the widower’s house at the edge of town, the path to the sidewalk that’s shoveled clear on a storm tossed winter morning, the groceries left on the back stoop every Friday. America is the place where the largest donation in the annual report is marked “Anonymous”.
The American character was chartered by secular humanists and deists who sought, among other things, to ensure spiritual freedom by exiling religious power from the halls of government. The result is a vibrant national religiosity, with scores of sects displaying a tapestry of religious colors. Yet within this rich pluralism there exists a large and potent strain of sectarian dogma that has no use for the liberality of the republic’s founders or the Enlightenment they embraced.
These American zealots possess a fundamental religious truth the propagation of which compels the disestablishment of all that is heretical. Theirs is a high-tech Great Awakening designed to recreate the nation and the world in their God’s image. All means are justified in this Christian Jihad, be they the murder of abortionists, the treasonous lies of a complicit President to justify his Crusade of choice, or the conversion of an Alabama courthouse or the Texas capitol lawn into a temple for Moses’ deliverance. This perversion of the national heritage, this poisonous fusion of the medieval and the fascistic, has ebbed and flowed like a virus in the nation’s bowls for two centuries, quietly stalking the depths of American intolerance.
Americans suffer from the nearly universal misconception that all their levels of governance are democratic. The New England town meeting is proffered as an egalitarian myth which morphed into state and national examples of representative democracy without peer. That the town meeting is a marvelous mechanism for thwarting public action, or that state legislatures remain the gerrymandered handmaidens of the regional plutocracy, is never seriously acknowledged.
Nor will one find in the public discourse much consideration of the premise that the republic’s constitution codifies, in the halls of the national legislature, the ascendancy of an 18th Century rural, propertied and socially reactionary class that threatened to veto the entire experiment if anything approaching majority rule were seriously considered. From the beginning, Americans have championed and fervently attempted to export something they don’t have. Perhaps nowhere is the conflicted American character more evident than in the specter of the poor and middle-class repeatedly voting against their economic self-interests while considering the privilege of doing so, nothing less than a self-evident, inalienable right.
Whatever one calls the American approach to structuring its public life, the collective urge to boast of victories over historical cycles of human abuse and degradation is as justified as the excesses of a hundred Independence Days. Some of the battles were uniquely American, such as the nation’s Civil War. The country nearly devoured itself in the effort to end institutionalized slavery. The movement to implement that victory beyond abolition has continued in a halting progression against daunting odds, but most tellingly, the efforts continue. Across the republic, north and south, the spirit of goodwill survives in gestures grand and small.
A distinguished, white haired black man wearing a vested suit pauses in his walk, smiles broadly and waves as the train passes through the streets of Malvern, Arkansas. I wave back, but he doesn’t see me. He rests his long white and red pointed cane against his shoulder as he waves, confident that someone must be returning his welcome.
There is a collective sense of fair play ingrained in the American character that rails against the unjust and demeaning. This equitable imperative has changed the social and political landscape in countless ways. Before World War II, timetables listed “Weekday Trains” and “Sunday Trains”. The concept of the “week-end” didn’t exist. The forty hour week and a living wage were the subjects of socialist propaganda. It was a time when life was cheap for adult and child alike. Strikers were clubbed to death by management mercenaries or shot by federal troops. Pubescent girls were trapped in burning shirt factories. 90 years ago women couldn’t vote. 50 years ago, United Airlines listed its 5:00pm non-stop from Chicago to New York, as “The New York Executive - For Men Only.”
The nation’s geography has been enlisted in conflicting notions of the national character. A manifest destiny to be a single continental people provided the rational for both genocide and unparalleled feats of civil engineering and industrial growth. Sectional stereotypes fade, but not even the homogenizing drone of national media, a dominant language, the internet, or airborne accessibility of disparate regions can reduce America to a standard offering of dialect, diction and customs. The countless views from her train windows remain. They reveal the American soul.
At first light, the train leaves Wenatchee for the eastern flanks of the Cascades. Migrant Hispanics who have followed the harvests north for 1000 miles are already working in the orchards. Dawn comes several times as the sun competes with mist, snow squalls and cliffs for the sky. The window is a sea of diffuse yellow light revealing the lofty, snow locked desolation of adolescent mountains. Soon the Olympics breach the Pacific as if they were the Hebrides of the New World. A loan fisherman casts a line into rippled water.
Darkened grain elevators in North Dakota are silhouetted against the Northern Lights. Images that haunted the Sioux and the Cree dance in the night sky. A bright streak of red slashes the window and lingers as the counterpoint of the crossing bells fades into silence. I look out onto a vast, incomprehensible universe of earth and space. I’m at one with my country; alone, awed, ashamed, proud, ---- part of every joy and every tragedy that has come before, and profoundly vulnerable to an uncertain future.
“So we beat on”, Fitzgerald concludes in his masterpiece, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Today those currents are fierce, but the boat remains upright and half the nation continues to row.
Eric C. Thorp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org