July 04, 2006

This, This Is My People

From John Hall and Charles Lindholm's Is America Breaking Apart? (pp. 83--90, omitting footnotes):

One thing that has often been held to characterize Americans is the ambiguity, confusion, and "contagious vagueness" of their understanding of political theory. Americans may know, for example, that citizens have rights, but are extremely unclear about what those rights might be; they know Americans are supposed to be free, but not how freedom is limited, or what freedoms are permitted; they know that "all men are created equal," but cannot reconcile that precept with the protection of property. In other words, most Americans are very proud indeed of the principles that their country is built upon, but for them those principles consist primarily of abstract notions, such as liberty, justice, and equality, rather than a systematic set of specific precepts or practices.

The major sources of "contagious vagueness" are to be discovered in the priority Americans have always given to pragmatic experience over philosophical system-building. Under the fluid circumstances of American life, ambivalence and woolly abstraction have certain advantages. ... While remaining faithful to nebulous abstractions of "freedom," "individualism," and "equality," Americans can still be pliable in action without betraying their integrity or finding themselves immobilized by contradiction. Ideological vagueness thus allows Americans to feel a sense of unity without the trouble of actually considering exactly what that unity is based upon.

The abstraction and ambiguity of taken-for-granted foundational principles also allows Americans easily to "hold contradictory ideas simultaneously without bothering to resolve the potential conflict between them." This, too, is not necessarily a bad thing in a pluralistic society, where central authority is relatively weak. The blurry quality of American assumptions about their shared creed allows them to accept innovations easily, so long as the innovations are metaphorically bathed in the aura of tradition, and to react according to circumstances without too much concern about agreement with prior positions. Most important, an ability to ignore contradictions permits Americans to overlook disputes that might tear a more ideologically consistent society apart.

Corresponding to American abstraction and vagueness in the realm of political philosophy is a positive can-do approach to ordinary problems. ... It is no surprise that the predominant American philosophy is pragmatism.... However, what pragmatism takes for granted as "common sense" is actually a culturally constructed perspective, based in large measure on what has recently been called modular thinking. This is a strategy for instrumental action which assumes that complex wholes can be broken into elementary parts; these parts can then be efficiently recombined according to need. Modular thinking is American to the core: it is an atomistic, flexible, anti-organic, and anti-authoritarian view of the world — one which dispenses with tradition in favor of efficiency, and places all alternatives on an equal footing, subject to personal evaluation by the active innovator, who decides which combination is best.

Modular thinking has had a successful history in America. It is responsible for the development of the assembly line and Taylorist innovations in scientific management, and it provides the foundational principles behind everything from the construction of shopping malls to the planning of school curricula. ... [T]he pervasive pragmatic modular approach to life permits Americans to avoid divisive ideological issues by visualizing the world around them as a machine that can be retooled, or taken apart and rebuilt, in order to achieve maximum efficiency. ... Disagreements are not over principles, but over design. Though this mechanistic instrumental worldview may remove much of the magic from the cosmos, and though it certainly does not grasp complex social realities, it is not likely to arouse great passions either — and so is conducive to social peace.

It is especially striking that for Americans even the self is considered to be a kind of modular entity, capable of being reconfigured to fit into preferred life styles. This malleability is often decried as indicating American shallowness, or else praised as the postmodern triumph of the signifier. But the American emphasis on perpetual self-transformation also serves the cause of unity, though perhaps not in the way Protestant moralists would prefer. This is because the search for identity is a notoriously solipsistic pursuit: such quests do not lead to revolution, but to harmless participation in the therapeutic, self-help, and twelve-step groups that have so mushroomed in America. At the very worst, the search for an authentic self draws the most perplexed seekers towards immersion in the multitude of sects and cults that have always sprouted on American soil. Occasionally, it is true, these groups spiral into psychosis ... but generally these new religions are akin to the "healthy-minded," "once-born" faiths that William James found so characteristic of America. They typically affirm the goodness of all creation and preach accommodation with the world as it is, stressing mental discipline, while applying the optimistic American "can-do" attitude to spiritual uplift and practical self-betterment. Membership in them is no more harmful than membership in any local PTA.

American faith in the power of individuals to change themselves is quite understandable as a product of the immigrant experience in combination with the Protestant ethos. Protestant sects believe that individuals can be spiritually transformed through disciplined, virtuous action in this world. For most of the original settlers immigration to America was just such a transformative action, a voluntary pilgrimage in search of the City on a Hill. In secular garb, this model continues to hold: becoming an American is a kind of conversion experience. The newcomer "is not required to learn a philosophy," Daniel Boorstin notes, "so much as to rid his lungs of the air of Europe." This point is not invalidated by the fact that more recent immigrants, male and female, rid their lungs of the air of China, India, and Africa. For all these newcomers, past and present, America has been the "Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome." The content of the glowing welcome offered by the Statue of Liberty is not a dogma, but an opportunity. America presents itself as a place where newcomers can achieve their dreams, free at least from the chains of tradition, class, and history...

For the zealous believer of colonial times, the end sought through migration to America was a passage into heaven.... For the modern entrepreneur, the goal is likely to be far more mundane: owning one's own business and acquiring a house in an exclusive suburb. Whether what they sought was spiritual or material, immigrants to America have worried little about conceptual consistency or a systematic organization of principles. Central instead is a belief that individuals have the capacity, through personal effort, dogged discipline, and creative innovation, to leave the past behind, to pursue happiness, and to become whatever their potential allows. Only in America would the Army call on its recruits to "be all you can be."

We can feel the heady appeal of this transformative aspect of American life in a letter sent by a French migrant to California during the Gold Rush:

In the mist of this world of adventurers, who change their occupations as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became a typographer, a slater, plumber, etc. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit for any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.
For such adventurous souls, America indeed offered — and continues to offer — an opportunity for taking on a new and better identity, for making a mollusk into a human being.
They go on to talk about why we are so friendly and nice, and why believe that love is the only legitimate bond between people, but I'm skirting the bounds of fair use as it is, even in the interest of patriotic display.

The Beloved Republic

Posted by crshalizi at July 04, 2006 17:00 | permanent link

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