Who do we think we are?

constitutionSovereignty resides in the people.

On that extraordinarily revolutionary – but not, as it turns out, especially straightforward – premise we have built a great nation. There are those, though, that identify the greatness of the nation in its Anglo-Saxon and Judeo-Christian heritages, and who are concerned that this greatness is weakened as the demographics of the country reduce the influence of those heritages. Others argue that we can safely put our faith in the totality of the people, who are attracted to and activated by this premise, who are now of the citizenry, possessed of and expressing this fundamental sovereignty.

But can we really do that? Is not that premise – together with the legal, national, cultural institutions built upon it – itself the product of that decidedly unique and rare Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian heritage? Can the philosophies and structures spawned by it be borne, be maintained, by people from decidedly different lineages?

After all, the “people” envisioned by the Founding Fathers are individuals who have their own various aims in life, and who hold themselves specifically empowered to and responsible for attaining them. But there are vast stretches of the globe populated by cultures with ancient traditions of viewing the “people” as collectives in service to an unquestioned patriarchic authority. The individuals in societies like this see themselves less as discrete entities charting their own paths through life than as interconnected elements of a whole in which they are fully bound, with respect to virtually every aspect of their lives.

Can people from cultures which view individuality as fundamentally meaningful only in its connection with a family, clan, or larger community participate in furthering the American experiment alongside those who see individuality as intrinsically meaningful in and of itself?

Think of it this way: people from (and, generally, living traditionally in the homelands of) collectivist cultures often implicitly, unconsciously perceive themselves as involuntary emanations of the group. People from individualistic cultures tend to think of the group as a voluntary creation of wholly independent individuals who conceive of and choose to build the group. It is in this latter sense, it is worth noting, that the “people” were envisioned in our founding documents.

The question quickly becomes, then, given such differences at the starting point, should we aim for assimilation, or for European-style “diversity” (and it should be frankly acknowledged how much that latter phenomenon tends to express itself as ghettoization)? Can we rely on the continuation of our historical experience of assimilation triumphing over the generations in immigrant populations at great distances from their origins? With that latter point in mind, does the proximity of our Hispanic immigrants to their lands of origin refute, extend, or have no unique effect on this process? Does anything suggested by such questions offer any challenges to our culture that it hasn’t confronted and dealt with before?

And, as long as we’re on that subject, what, actually, does assimilation mean? We clearly don’t live in the culture that obtained at our founding. But we nevertheless retain our sense of uniqueness, exceptionalism, and, largely, of our responsibility for our own destiny – that is, of our sovereignty. What, about our society, has changed, then? And how has it done so while maintaining the vital, core element of the American identity? Is it the natural evolution of our ideas and culture? Is it the introduction to and enrichment of it by the ideas and approaches to life of immigrant populations from other cultures? How is it that we – however else we change – retain this fundamental aspect of our national character: that the individual is the sovereign?

It is often said that democracy is no way to run a railroad. It is messy and inefficient, it is argued. But the alternative is one or another degree of despotism. And we aren’t having that, are we? Similarly, we have argued over the generations who the “people” are that have the sovereignty and enjoy the right and responsibility of exercising it. White, male, property owners – or all of us? Natural inheritors of the cultural and historical tradition that gave rise to the revolutionary concepts upon which our nation is built – or assimilators of those concepts who inevitably enrich while internalizing them?

There is an old Marine Corps admonishment about military bearing and presence. If someone accused you of being a Marine, it challenges ironically, would you be found guilty? If you travel around the world you will see people of wondrously diverse national and ethnic origins. But I’ve noticed something in my own travels: for all the lack of national or ethnic cues, you can nevertheless, with surprising but satisfying frequency and accuracy, identify the Americans. It’s an ineffable element of their carriage, their attitude, their approach to everything – it’s in the quietly implicit awareness that they are – innately and with an unstated intimacy with the fact – sovereign.

If it can be so easy to be sure of our profound Americanness overseas, we ought to be confident of it at home, as well.

Back up!

Internet service here is typically outstanding. Nevertheless, due to peculiar location issues, my own internet access has been unreliable and intermittent for a few months. I am now returned to base, however, and everything is back up.

While I haven’t been able to post, I have continued to write. So, I thought I would mention today what is in store here in the coming weeks. Please note that some items may be published in an order different from their listing here, and additional topics may be inserted.internetopen

We will see reviews of a few contemporary non-fiction books that address issues of import, and no little controversy, concerning both humanity in general and American culture and politics more specifically.

We will then return to my consciously selective survey of seminal events in American history. We will pick up from the Founding Fathers with a brief review of America’s growth to mid-century.

It will then be necessary to take time for a difficult discussion of the Civil War and of the America that both made it inevitable, and of the America that won it; we will look as well at the fact that the struggle – to realize the ideals so dearly suffered for in that conflagration – still smolders.

This discussion will consist of some essays regarding these issues: their genesis, their denouement in the war, their persistence. As a part of this, we will review some biographies of three uniquely American figures in our history. We will also consider the meaning of a most remarkable – also a uniquely American – song.

We will next move quickly through the period of the preeminence of corporate titans in the economic and political life of America, to its close upon the onset of the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. It is this pivotal moment that saw the first steps, taken by Theodore Roosevelt, that led irresistibly to what has been called the administrative state, created under his cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this period, we will look at a biography of Albert Einstein, and discuss associated themes in developing American society and culture. We will not, however, review either world war in depth, although possibly we will pause to consider the Great Depression.

We will pick things up again with post-World War II America. And after that, the challenge will be to see how to wrap up this unintended and unexpected – although, for me at least, highly enjoyable – survey, and then move on to what was actually the intended purpose of these pages: to explore our daily habits, devices, and institutions – both in and of themselves and as artifacts of the society from which they emerged and which they help shape.

It may be worth noting at this juncture that it is hoped, as well, that the discussions outlined above will serve to offer some perspective assuring that what we are seeing in this election cycle describes neither America nor American culture – it contributes to those descriptions, yes, but doesn’t define them. We do that. American life is lived in our homes, our communities, our places of work, worship and association. There is no people in the world more in control of its own destiny, more vigorously if quietly shaping its own nature, than Americans. This is far from the first election cycle that has tended to obscure that fact. But fact it is.

See you soon!

Bad bios

As no doubt have you, I’ve read many biographies, and lately have been going through some recent ones about our Founding Fathers. As a rule, they are, as one might expect, quite good.

But I’ve come to see how really very good most of my reading has been due to one that was very bad indeed. It can, in fact, best be described as a hagiography of Thomas Jefferson. There were three remarkable problems with this book.

First, according to this author, Jefferson’s virtues emanated from every crevice of his character and illuminated every aspect of his life and of those of others who were so fortunate as to have attracted his favorable notice. We learn of these not merely from the narration of events of his career, but from a veritable flood of glowing remarks about him from admirers’ letters.

Second, on the occassions when the author couldn’t avoid at least acknowledging Jefferson’s flaws, he invariably attributed them to the overwhelming influence of his great virtues, as if they were mere detritus thrown up and suspended in the penumbra of his greatness. They must be suffered for their very indication of those underlying virtues – indeed, they should be overlooked because they are the mere inevitable accompaniment of them, and thus it would be petty – or, at least, shortsighted – of us to dwell on them.

Third, while in such a treatment you would expect at least to be presented with detailed explanations of his great accomplishments, there is, in fact, amazingly almost nothing at all. For the Declaration of Independence, for example, we get a torrent of quotes from contemporary observers about how great was its author for producing it – but we learn nothing about how he did that – nothing about his sources of inspiration, his literary guides, his adaptation of these to the Revolution’s ideals – not to mention nothing about how it evolved in the committee and in Congress before adoption (other than a brief reference to Benjamin Franklin’s insistance on describing rights as “self-evident.”) His roles in the Washington and Adams presidencies are just as mysteriously nondescript, as almost is that in his own presidency.

To learn about how the Declaration of Independence actually was written and adopted, how the Louisiana Purchase actually transpired and the associated Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as everything in between, we have to read the biographies (reviewed in these pages, beginning here) of the other Founders, where these events are covered in some – certainly greater – detail. As for this biography of Jefferson, the only details you’ll garner from it are the names of every horse he ever owned (seriously), and the like.

But the authors of these other biographies have in mind to present to us the importance of their subjects to our nation’s history and culture, and this importance derives from all of their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and their failures, and are all best understood with a full appreciation of both sides of their coins.

When you’re considering purchasing a biography, be sure to screen for the objectivity and breadth of vision of the biographer. You will learn more that is useful, appreciate the subject’s value more, by receiving a comprehensive, frank presentation of the story.

Madison

James Madison (1751-1836), the last American Founding Father, had a remarkable career that placed him at the center of seemingly all the central events that created and established the new country. Beginning as a delegate in the Virginia legislature during the early years of the Revolutionary War, he soon became a key member of the Continental Congress, an architect of the Constitution, a centrally important contributor to the famed Federalist Papers, an indispensable congressional ally of the first president in creating the new country’s institutions, a critically important figure in establishing the foundations of the two-party system while working to oppose the actions of the second president and then to promote those of the third, finally becoming the fourth president himself, during a second war with the United Kingdom that some argue represented the actual conclusion of the revolutionary period, finally securing independence for the United States.

How do you tell so complex a story, of a single man whose deeply inspired work influenced the creation of the core institutions of the country, then moved on to help lay the foundation for its most strident and enduringly competing instincts, all while nevertheless retaining philosophical integrity and political coherence? How can a single-volume biography comprehend so complex a task, that yet is so important to understanding America’s formative years?

David O. Stewart, in his “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America,” accomplished this feat by relating Madison’s career as the story of his stupendously constructive relationships with five key figures in the early life of the country: Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, and his own wife, Dolly Madison.

This turns out to be an excellent idea. The author in this way effectively covers the critical issues that were the objects of the collaborations. In the course of this he both informatively describes the issues and events that animated the relationships, and frankly evaluates the performance of Madison, each collaborator, and the relationship itself. He further uses the relationships to uncover, highlight and explain points where Madison’s political thinking and alliances changed or evolved.

This has proven to be a very engaging and interesting way – as well as an exceptionally productive one – to read about this period of U.S. history. And just as importantly, this author (along with all other of those, but one, I’ve read in this series abut the Founding Fathers) lends credibility to his relation of events through the frankly detached critical objectiveness of his narration, about Madison as both a man and a political thinker/actor, and similarly about his collaborators.

Stewart has performed a marvelous feat in drawing the reader into so important yet complex a story by hitting on this technique for telling it in so natural and engaging a way. Get your copy of “Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America” and enjoy a terrifically illuminating stroll through American history from the Revolution through the War of 1812.