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Quid sit America II

Back in the ’60s people used to go off to look for America. The idea was that you’d drive your car across the country or hitch a ride on a freight train with your guitar or something and then you’d meet the people and find out how wonderful and democratic America is or whatever. Off the top, I think the idea had been somehow present as far back as Walt Whitman, hit some kind of peak with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, took a bad turn with the movie Easy Rider, and ended in suburban angst and sentimentality in Simon and Garfunkel’s Look for America.

I haven’t heard much about the idea lately, I suppose because the idea that America might actually exist as something you could find in a particular place is no longer generally acceptable. To say America exists here rather than there, or involves these people doing this rather than those doing that would evidently be exclusionary, intolerant, and ipso facto anti-American. So today it seems we’re left with the following choices:

  • America as an idea. We live in a “proposition nation” based on equality, or freedom and equality. Everything and everybody gets treated the same, which means among other things that all goals of all persons get forwarded equally. That’s the whole point of social order, which puts America at the cutting edge of societal evolution.
  • America as a religion. We live in a shining city on the hill. Otherwise life would be no fun and we wouldn’t know what we’re up to. That city is based not so much on freedom and equality, which are hard to make sense of because men and goals conflict so some must give way to others, as on the cause of freedom and equality. The latter seems to set more definite tasks and provide a clearer basis for social discipline. America as a religion comes of course in “left wing” (Angels in America, Achieving Our Country) as well as “right wing” variants.
  • America as a team. It’s a bit fanatical to take the cause of freedom and equality altogether seriously when freedom and equality themselves don’t make much sense as ultimate goals. Still, pro sports show that you can develop a lot of enthusiasm for winning even when the ultimate goal is basically pretty silly. So go team go! I think “Team America” explains a lot of present-day conservatism.
  • America as an enterprise. Pro sports is a big business, and the American team has lots of very weighty material concerns and offers the ambitious attractive careers in management. NAFTA and the current immigration bill strike me very much as instances of treating America as an enterprise. Enterprises grow and succeed by acquiring human and other resources and by strategic mergers and acquisitions. Why shouldn’t America do the same?

Personally, I don’t like any of this. I think most people don’t. Does that mean that most Americans aren’t really American any more?



Rememer the popular traditional folk singers from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s? Here I’m thinking of Burl Ives, the Weavers, etc. The emphasis of their songs (the leftist and labor union advocacy songs aside) was on the traditional folkways of America and not so much on the greatness of American democracy. Some of them (like Ives) literally did trainhop across America meeting people and collecting the type of folk songs that nobody really cares about anymore. I like to share their songs with my children. It says something about who we are and where we come from. Plus they’re a lot of fun.