America: the Unknown Ideal

1998-03-06

In an essay on the Objectivism-L list, my friend Kurt Keefner raised a fascinating issue regarding the essence of America. I have found myself reflecting on the same question over the last several years, and I think it's especially timely given the recent release of Paul Johnson's long-awaited book A History of the American People (which I have not yet read, but which I think could help me in my thinking about this matter).

Actually, I think there are three related issues here:

  1. What was America in the past?
  2. What is America now?
  3. What will America be in the future?

It's #3 that I'm especially interested in, since I will likely be living in that American future. But of course we need to understand #1 and #2 in order to make some educated guesses about #3. And for what it's worth I think Rand's analysis was predicated greatly on an interpretation of #1 and a vision of #3.

Here are some random facts that I think need to be integrated into an analysis of "what is America":

As for Objectivism, I think Rand had ambivalent attitudes regarding America. There was much that she loved but also much that she disliked or to which she was indifferent. She strongly preferred (for example) Franz Lehar to Duke Ellington, Dostoevsky to Mark Twain. As Kurt partly noted, myths and experiences that are central to American life (Abe Lincoln, the Civil War, the love/hate relationship with the Indians, the cowboy as a symbol of American living, etc.) figure not at all in her writing. Rand had no obligation to like American culture or to deal with American history and myths, but her work does show a curious detachment from the American experience. I think her version of America contains not a little of "America: The Unknown Ideal".


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