How American are you?

There is a brilliant man by the name of David Brooks who wrote a brilliant book on America called “On Paradise Drive”.  It forced me to take a good look at how the society I grew up in affected me, what ideals America stands for, and I found myself thinking, “huh. He might be right about this, but how do I feel about this?”  My insatiable striving for success, my future oriented perspective, my restlessness, and my “all-pervading spirit of improvement”  –likely stem from the country I call home.

I highly suggest the book, but if not at least read these excerpts:

We may not all be chasing the same thing, but we are all chasing something.  What defines us as a people is our pursuit, our movement, and our tendency to head out. It’s not the steering wheel that distinguishes us, it’s the throttle.  The mystery of America is the mystery of motivation.  Where does all the energy come from?

When we are not striving to move outward, we are striving to move up.  Americans are the hardest working people on the face of the Earth. We work on average 10 years longer than the average European.  Further more, this work is not compulsory.  For the first time in history, people at the top of the income ladder work longer hours than the people at the bottom.

Our energies can take us to both good and bad extremes.  We have high marriage but high divorce rates.  High incomes but also high spending and hence low savings.  We are productive but also wasteful.  We are quick to embrace innovations, but also quick to jump at get-rich-quick manias. We have income mobility but also high violent crime rates and incarceration rates.  We spend more money per school pupil than any other nation, have the highest high school and college graduation rates, some of the best universities in the world but also some of the worst elementary schools.  Because Americans are relatively allergic to restrictions, regulations, and restraint on their mobility, our government is smaller.  Only 38% of Americans say that government should work to reduce income inequality.

America, especially suburban America, is depicted as a comfortable but somewhat wasteful, complacent, materialistic, and self-absorbed.  Americans have become too concerned with small and vulgar pleasures, pointless one-upmanship, and easy values.  They have become at once too permissive and too narrow, too self-indulgent and too timid. Their lives are distracted by a buzz of trivial images, by relentless hurry instead of genuine contemplation, information instead of wisdom, and a profusion of superficial choices.

Whether they know it or not, they have inherited a certain style of idealism, a faith, and a fulfilling and chiliastic creed.  It is often declared that America is not only a plot of land but also an idea and a cause.  As the political theorist Martin Diamond has observed, words like “Americanization” “Americanism” and “un-American” have no counterparts in any other language.

What Americans share is an inherited sense that history has a story line; and that each of us, individually and as a citizen of the nation, plays a role in bringing the story to its happy ending.  This mentality leads to a few behavioral traits.  For example, historians point out that a tremendous strain of anxiety runs though US history, the nagging and times panicked sense that we are failing to live up to our ideals and mission, that if we Americans fail, then that will be the most terrible failure in human history.  This anxiety propels Americans to strive and reform perpetually.  It helps account for the periodic awakenings and moralistic crusades that recur throughout American history.

One of the first outstanding American sociologists, Lester Ward, described “this all-pervading spirit of improvement” that marks American life. To us, there is not real resting spot.  “It is provided in the essence of things,” Walt Whitman acknowledged, “that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.”  We are bred to want more and better and deeper, to ceaselessly reform and improve ourselves.

One feature of a distinctly American mind is the Paradise Spell: the capacity to see the present from the vantage point of the future.  It starts with imagination-the ability to see a vision with the detail and vividness as if it already existed. Then the future-minded person is able to think backward from that vision to ask, “what must I do to take the future that is in my head make it exist in the world?” That person is more emotionally attached to the glorious future than to the temporary and unsatisfactory present.

“Dearest to him of all, and most delectable, was the thought of the royal mansion which he had already erected in his mind.”

The Paradise Spell is at the root of our tendency to work so hard, consume so feverishly, to move so much. It explains why, alone among developed nations, we have shaped our welfare system to encourage opportunity at the expense of security; and why, more than comparable nations, we wreck our families and move on.

Most of the time, we are not even aware of how this mentality shapes us. When you go to a place where people do not live with a mood of radical hopefulness, where people’s lives are not infused with a sense of perpetual anticipation, where people do not assume that they have the power to remake their own destinies and radically transform their own lives, you do feel the difference.  When you go to a country where the past is more real than the future, and then you return to America, it becomes clear how distinct the American imagination really is, and how each of us in this culture is molded by our horizon dreams.

Hope tortures and incites in other ways.  In the land of the future, one’s relationship to place, to a job, to a lifestyle is always provisional, because at any juncture, you might move on in pursuit of the horizon.  But more fundamentally, a relationship to beliefs is provisional, because they are always being renovated and improved.  George Santayana observed that Americans tend not to believe in eternal and absolute truths.  Instead, ideas are always in motion, and people are always progressing on to new opinions and beliefs.

Americans often feel a manic need to seize opportunities before they slip away.  In People of Plenty, David Potter points out that in the US, the word “liberty” really means the freedom to grasp opportunity, and the word “equality” also means the freedom to grasp opportunity.

Brooks, David. On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s