Understanding America

2006-05-29

In my continuing efforts to understand America, I've recently read four books on the topic:

If modern American history is a series of footnotes to Alexis de Tocqueville, then The Radicalism of the American Revolution is significant for describing how the America that Tocqueville observed came to be out of the ferment of the revolution. The short version is that the post-revolutionary generation took seriously the philosophy of "all men are created equal" and "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" -- more seriously than the Founding Fathers would perhaps have liked. Whereas the founders were (or aspired to be) gentlemen, their sons and grandsons got busy with a form of hustling commerce that was something new on earth. No more were people to be known by their breeding or knowledge or accomplishments -- now all that mattered was the leveling force of work, work, and more work. For better or worse, the grasping, teeming, democratic, individualist, opportunistic, workaholic, visionary, evangelical, entrepreneurial, modern America had emerged with a vengeance.

Ledeen simply reminds the reader of the importance of Tocqueville -- better, I think, to read the original if one has the time (if not, Ledeen's book is a short, friendly introduction to Tocqueville).

Jasper's thesis is that Americans are the people who do not rest. We move far more frequently than people anywhere else. We change our names, our stations, our jobs, our careers, our families, our friends, and just about everything else. We attract far more immigrants than any other nation (60 million of them in our history), who move to America for opportunities that don't exist elsewhere. We move up and down economically and socially. We move into new scientific, technological, and economic fields at an alarming pace. Jasper doesn't think this is good (one gets the sense that he'd like America to be a lot more like various nations in Europe), but many of his observations are well placed.

Brooks provides some of the deepest insights into contemporary American that I have found. He explains the surface phenomena that Jasper describes by connecting them to the thoroughgoing future orientation that has been characteristic of American culture since at least the Revolution (indeed before -- as Jasper points out, ever since its discovery the New World has been perceived as the land of the future). Our future orientation makes us optimistic (often unrealistically so), entrepreneurial, utopian, messianic, hardworking, imaginative, creative, anti-intellectual, and much else besides. Brooks invokes (correctly, I think) Walt Whitman as the greatest seer into America:

Whitman saw that America is the permanent revolution, that deep in middle-American life, even in the most placid-seeming suburb, there is an unquenchable longing and hope, and it is in committing to far-off dreams that we fight the insularity and the trivialization that threaten to swallow us up every day.... Even in his darkest mood, Whitman radiated a spirit of radical optimism and inspired hopefulness.... In these pages, I have described aspects of everyday American life that are tawdry, inspiring, and comic. But I think for all his overblown rhetoric, Whitman was still essentially right. America is not a perfect country. It is often an embarrassing country. But it is a great country, and it is greatly different from other countries. It is infused with a utopian fire that redeems its people, despite the crass and cynical realities.... We are motivated by the Paradise Spell, by the feeling that there is some glorious destiny just ahead.... We are an imaginative people, a dreaming people. Middle Americans may not be contemplative or dark and brooding. We may not be rooted in a deep and mysterious past. But we do have our heads in a vast and complicated future, and that gives the American mind a dimension that is not easily understood or dismissed.

Very well said.

Brooks refers to some more books that I mean to read in my pursuit of understanding America:

It seems that it's back to the library for me...


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