The American Soul
The heart and soul of what it means to live in the United States is, very understandably, not ever defined by a logical progression of specific events or a single, simple narrative thread. There are some who do try to assign singularly important mythic narratives to our Country, even though doing so is not always useful. Assigning romantic narratives to a country's history is not something to mock, and it is quite human to infuse our national consciousness with clearly defined origin stories. It assigns purpose and identity and narrative to a shared cultural experience.
A sampling of the infectious narratives we spin to 'explain' the brilliance of the trajectory of the United States:
*The Founding Fathers were a 'big bang' from which all else sprang.
*Proud Confederates prevented the big helium inflated minds of city folk from running off with the country's soul... and continue to do so, to this day.
*A small group of extra special leaders - Presidents, Generals, and Entrepreneurs - made brilliant key decisions that molded us.
None of these origin stories are necessarily false, but they only represent a sliver of the shared American experience. There are plenty of messy, diverse theories about 'why we're so great,' just as there are many messy and diverse countries in the world. Our messiness is not special - but our particular brand of sprawl is unique to us, I think. Our messiness and diversity comes not just from our geographical diversity, but from our reactive petulance, a unique recipe of boastful competitiveness, hypocrisy and pride.
But aren't all countries that way, you ask? Isn't every relatively proud country boastful, diverse, hypocritical? Isn't nationalism, by definition, something that every country (not in the throes of violent revolution) shares? Yes, but I also believe that, large or small, each country in the world has convinced itself (rightly or wrongly) that no matter its size or relevance, it has something special to contribute to the world stage. I think in many ways this is true.
The United States is currently at a disadvantage when it comes to assessing its own importance on the world stage. In short, we 'Americans' (I realize that the term itself is a misnomer that disrupts and offends South American and Canadian identity, but for the South American God Bochica's sake, bear with me.) Were I Brazillian, Costa Rican, Argentinian, or Venezuelian, I'd demand the title 'American' back from those who stole it. But for argument's sake, assuming that moniker has been appropriated in very much the same way we've appropriated so much else in the world, why not simply abdicate the term 'American.' If I hailed from the continent to the South, perhaps I could boast about my South American heritage, purposely setting myself apart from those vague 'Americans' to the north, those non-descript, confused re-writers of history far above me. I might even bemoan the term 'American,' as much a (rightful) claim as I may have to it.
So 'American,' in all its vagueness, is exactly what we are in these United States. Its non-specific allusion fits us very well. We Americans are constantly surrounded by - if not living our lives with the ironic awareness that stems from - the myth of all-inclusiveness and diversity fueling the American identity. We are intermittently presented by the realities of our own insecurities as a nation, our sense that a certain greatness that still possesses our self image is, in fact, over and done with and encroached on by other nations. When we say that we are at our best in times of tragedy, there is a truthfulness there. We are possibly at our best because tragic times let down our guard and infuse us with a humility that I think should and can also help define our character. If we'll stop for even a second to let it in.
We are also possessed by a very American insecurity: a back-of-the-mind awareness that not only is our greatness myth ended, but that the diversity, the acceptance, and the inclusion is all a pretty lie, and always has been, a lie to make us feel better about what we did to get this huge, and what we did to plant our roots in other nations, just like any large, ambitious nation in the history of the world. When I hear politicians boast about what a humble, righteous nation we are, I wonder if they get the irony.
During the Bush years, America seemed terrified of letting its guard down for even a moment, displaying that humility. We strutted and postured with the assumption that nuance meant hesitation, that diplomacy meant appeasement, or that nations would target that vulnerability in moments of weakness. We've become like the celebrity who becomes convinced that everything is a test designed to knock us down a few pegs. Kanye West is our ideal emissary, a man so convinced of his own potential that the actual worth of his present achievements becomes a kind of cipher, a distraction from his own innate insecurities.
The American soul grapples with insecurity over size, insecurity over its place in the world, insecurity over how its history of acceptance and inclusion may dilute its blunt strength in the long term, its ability to defend its intellectual property and its borders. All these fears define us. Our reactions to our fears help construct how the rest of the world sees us. The media, in its quest to dominate the competition, makes things 500% worse, kicking us when we're down on the mat trying to figure out exactly how we got there in the first place.
First, we must once and for all conclude that there is no one American identity. The characteristics I describe - hypocrisy, insecurity, self aggrandizement - are not 'American' per se. Go into any country around the world and soak it up and you're likely to see the same problems. The main reason I bring up the United States is also the most obvious one - I live here. This is my experience, and therefore, I am more invested in solutions that might increase the value of my citizenship. I have a personal stake in identifying what it means to be 'American,' because it's how I am identified around the world, and I want it to mean something more than what others define for me.
Thereby, I seek solutions to the malaise that seems to have overcome the American soul. We need to stop spinning one-track myths as a way of conveniently wrapping ourselves up. It's time to truly re-define and reboot and trust the rest of the world to see our re-examination as a strength rather than a weakness. The United States is a franchise in need of re-branding. Hollywood reboots franchises constantly, and makes bank.... why shouldn't we? We must stop listening to what other have been saying for years about what it means to be American. We need to throw off the myth of all the shit that makes us what we are - and for chrissakes, let's stop putting those platitudes in our political speeches. If I have to listen one more time in a State of the Union address about 'what makes America great...'
What we need to do is stop, get quiet, and listen. Then, we need to assess our own experiences living here. We should ask ourselves a series of questions. How is being born and raised here different from coming here for opportunity from a place where life is worse? I live in an area where there are far more immigrants than natives, an area which is a source of great pride when we boast about our innovation and diversity and technological success and military might. If the Bay Area is such a point of pride, then why not - once and for all - integrate the modern immigrant experience that fuels our success wholly into that narrative? I don't mean the safe, folksy nineteenth century Irish and Italian immigrant stories, but the stories of the people who, under the yolk of a multinational tech giant, haven't had a chance to properly integrate themselves or their families.
Nowhere in the U.S. has this proclivity for amoral reaching toward fame and success and global recognition been more prevalent than in the American west. It's vastly more than a drive for great amounts of sudden wealth. It's a do-or-die battle for relevance in an 'us versus them' environment. It's not new to the American experience, and in some ways is we've always been about. It's one facet of the American identity, but it's the one at the forefront of our braggadocio and street cred. It typifies entrepreneurial spirit, but also typifies elitism and division.
I've lived most of my life in the American West, and witnessed the tech gold rush over the course of the 80s, when it was more of a long slide toward technological advancement. Companies hadn't yet mastered the art of saving huge amounts of money, so the Valley stayed gentrified for that stretch. I was here for the first insane internet tech bubble in the 90s, when hype and enthusiasm droves huge swaths of hubris across the valley, changing the landscape both literally and figuratively. This first bubble also drove a whole lot of fascinating people away to other environs (myself included). The west has become synonymous with indulgence, excess, brilliance, innovation... and as investment opportunities increase, so does the mad scramble for success at any cost.
I have also been here to witness the second bubble, which has been actually more obnoxious than the first. The connective tissue between the hype masters, their enthusiast cheerleaders in tech journalism, and class conscious consumers is more solid than ever. Everyone is a bit less starry eyed and less taken off guard about the kinds of wealth that can be created in this environment, and that has taken some of the charming naivete that dominated the first tech bubble and decimated it. Everyone's more cut-throat, more desperate, and less concerned about consequences than ever. And while I hate to beat this drum over and over again, I blame 9/11.
9/11 stole our souls in a way that made us place all our focus on self examination in some areas - foreign policy, immigration - and allowed for our moral compasses to spin wildly toward the loudest, most reactive voices. I've said it before, but we are deeply traumatized, we Americans, and many of us are convinced that we've talked through all our trauma. We haven't. We haven't even begun to broach it. In the minds of the post 9/11- American soul, if we simply earn enough cred to make us important again, we won't have to feel bad again. We won't have to face the pain of having had our asses handed to us by murderous thugs. But the problem is, as much as we've examined the trajectory we set off on after 2001, including NSA surveillance, unlawful detainment, drone warfare, and misguided attempts at spreading democracies in the Middle East, we haven't spent enough time gauging how the last 13 years have taken those American tropes about self-reliance, innovation, freedom and inclusion, and made many of them sad, dead memories.
I've also lived in the American South, and I've encountered the American identity there. This is the facet of the American soul that thrives on pride in the past (not so much in the future). There are long scars running through those lush, low green hills - racial scars, scars of resentment toward just the sort of elitism that the American West typifies. So much of the South is concerned with long held beliefs about race, abortion, religion, and morality, and it will be interesting to see whether those unmovable bastions of tradition get further edged out by our country's larger need to hype it's way up out from crippling self esteem issues.
Parts of the South are slowly giving up this stagnant brew for a piece of the pie. Cities in Georgia, and the Carolinas are all finding ways to mount and incubate the economy. Charlotte, where I lived, is an economic hub where families are moving to make a decent living, and buy affordable homes, and raise families in a gentrified environment. When I was in the South, I felt no affinity with the culture, but I felt surrounded by mainstream ideas in a city that was almost the antithesis of cultural elitism. There is a smugness in the South, make no mistake, and a haughty sense of superiority to the rest of the country, but it isn't of the amoral, cut-throat variety as in the West. No, in the South, things move a little slower, and the knife - when it is made necessary - twists a little slower and a little deeper.
There is brittle hype in the West, all lit up and applauded and worshiped, but in the South, I see the American soul beating in time to an older drum. The racial resentment there sits and digs dirt out from under its nails at the local gas station, and turns slowly to spit in the dirt. The love of god there is not a right. It is a requirement, and an expectation, and shit fire and save matches if you don't go to the local Baptist church. Bless your heart if you don't pity the sinners, because you are more likely to be one of them.
I've also spent a brief time in 'live free or die' territory north of Massachusetts, and while it is the corner of the country I know the least, it is possibly where much of my affinity lies. I think there is truth to be dug up there, in the backyards of suburban Pennsylvania, in the burrows west of Manhattan, in the barrens in Jersey and Maine. I think the roots of our American spirit lay there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered. Perhaps the bones of the founding Fathers can lead us on a 'National Treasure' type scavenger hunt and at the end of it all, Nicolas Cage can tell us all what it means to be American. I'm just sayin' - he might have a better idea than most.
So, we return to this idea of the 'heart and soul' of what it means to live in our not so United States, and we ask ourselves: is there a level of self examination that we have yet to reach? Is this kind of examination helpful, or does too much of it stall our momentum in a world where the question of our relevance looms ever larger? Striking a balance between self-examination, action, and the preservation of certain values is not so much the problem. The real problem is all coming to a consensus about what values we can agree on, and how we apply those values. It's not enough to say 'I believe in God' or 'I believe in Freedom' or 'I believe people have the right to do what they want as long as they aren't hurting anybody.' Those values can be interpreted to serve multiple masters, so we must be more specific with ourselves.
I think that the first step in exposing and purifying the American soul is understanding the extent to which entertainment is necessary to keep peoples' attention. Speeches, news reports, town hall meetings - they pander to us because media and Government and big business are afraid of losing our attention, so they treat us like pets. We're trained to response to certain memes and sound bites and news wrapped in a hilarious candy shell. We want to be informed, but we don't want to be challenged too much. We have our comfort zones and it's one thing to be told that the debate over civil liberties and classified data is important, and entirely another thing to be asked to draw conclusions.
To delve into the mire and come out feeling a little less sure about what we stand for as a nation is something we are all terrified of doing, but it's also the key to re-establishing our American soul. There is a very understandable fear that, in moments of deep humility and reflection, our cohesive unity may fall apart. We must have more faith than that - not just in our capacity for not losing heart after a dark night of the soul, but in our inherent need for re-ordering the myths that drive how we see the United States.
The key to not falling apart as a nation lies with discarding the brittle hype of innovation, letting go of the clenched pride of tradition, letting go of the overwhelming fear of being swallowed up by a Statist nightmare. This letting go is not an ugly thing to be avoided. It's what must be done, if we want any future value assigned to what it means to 'be American.' It will never mean what it has meant in years past, but it is not supposed to. Our country has simply endured too much - and continues to weather an increasingly untenable storm - to ever mean the same things again, and the sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we can heal.