Monday, December 13, 2010

What is America?

That's the challenging question posed by "Landgirl," a transplanted Midwesterner now at Home in the Highlands. The Scottish Highlands, that is.

She writes, "I'm doing an unofficial poll of real Americans in response to a BBC series over here trying to define America."

Although I'm anonymous, I'm quite real, and quite willing to take a crack at this one.

First, America is not just a place. The space we occupy on a map isn't even particularly important (although, once you're in you're required to stay in. See, Lincoln and the Civil War).

It is for this reason that the very notion of "Homeland Security" bothers me so. Germany has a fatherland. Russia has a motherland. But America is the only nation, ancient or modern, that is founded more on shared ideals than geography. Geography is at the root of most nations. Or religion. Or ties of blood. Sometimes combinations of these three things.

But not America. What makes America America is that we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

We the People of the United States haven't always lived up to these ideals. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses of the Old World yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of their teeming shores -- these were not always welcomed to America with open arms, and certainly not always and by everyone in accord with our highest ideals -- but where in the world have more been welcomed better?

America is a state, of course, like France is a state, or Germany. (It's a grammatically incorrect state: The United States of America is a state... but I digress.) The point, though, is that unlike other states, America is also a particular state of mind. And that is where the notion of American exceptionalism comes from, at least for me.

So many people, here and elsewhere, are 'one worlders.' Human progress will be stifled, they think, and wars will flourish, until we are all united under a single government. Some idealists at the end of World War II saw in the United Nations a vehicle for eventually accomplishing this goal. Many other Americans have been scared to death of the U.N. for that very reason.

But, actually, the best vehicle so far invented for uniting humanity into a single nation was promulgated in Philadelphia in 1787. It is the instrument that allowed the 13 original independent nations to unite to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity. It allowed independent nations like Texas and California and Hawaii to join as well. (We can also defer to a different date the question of just exactly how voluntary or unanimous was Hawaii's surrender of national sovereignty.)

I don't know if this abstract discussion has really explained what I think America is. An evening of Frank Capra films will help: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life -- even the much darker Meet John Doe. No, we don't always live up to the ideals portrayed in these movies either. And sometimes that spirit is sorely lacking here in the sinful, wicked City. But not always. And I've been in small towns on bright, sunny days; I've felt the warmth of strangers' greetings; I've basked in the courtesy and respect of people I've never met and will never meet again and I am here to testify: Capra had it right.

However, if you're not in a cinematic mood, you might want to read this post I put up in November 2007, about the South Korean landlords and the Iranian tenants.

One final attempt to illustrate America: Before I was married, my future wife's apartment was next door to a synagogue. I was a frequent visitor at the apartment, of course, and, one Fall evening, the future Long Suffering Spouse and her roommate and her roommate's boyfriend (now her husband) and I were all out on the back porch of her building looking down into the Sukkah constructed behind the synagogue. It was after dinner, near dusk. We were watching the little kids from another apartment in my wife's building playing around the Sukkah. The kids were Iranian (around the time of the Shah's fall, there were a lot of Iranian immigrants in Chicago). It occurred to me, even then, that we were four Catholics (of Irish, Cuban, German, and Lithuanian descent) happily watching Muslim kids playing in the yard of a Jewish house of worship. The wide open spaces of the West and the cornfields of the Midwest are uniquely American -- but so, too, was this tranquil scene around the Sukkah.

Does this answer the question?


susan said...

Yes, beautifully.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

i think you nailed this one curmy! good show!

smiles, bee

landgirl said...

Oh, yes, Cur. Nice job. America is not a place or a fixed ideology; it is about trying always to be as good as we would like to be albeit knowing we will inevitably fall short.

I may have an American film fest and subject my Scots friends to a cinematic slice of real America.