How do you make a mission statement for a country? has been the theme of my last few posts. How can we recreate a unifying national myth to which all of us can resonate? What follows is a list of eight possible components of an American identity. These are not simple things – they contain within them many of America’s contradictions, which we must hold at once. “Do I contradict myself,” asked Walt Whitman? “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
So here’s my list, a work in progress. I hope you’ll add to, edit or comment on it.
The Land. We start here. While the pre-European natives’ connection to the land differed markedly from that of the yeoman farmers Jefferson called the backbone of the new nation – and from the young families who pushed into suburbia after World War II, Americans have always had a special feeling for the land.
The Frontier. It wasn’t just the land, but the land “realizing westward” in Robert Frost’s words – pushing from civilization into the wilderness. In American mythology, beyond the frontier line lay an empty continent waiting to be filled – although, of course, it wasn’t empty at all; people had been living there for millennia.
The Document. Not the Constitution, which is really an operating manual, but the earlier Declaration of Independence, which expressed a set of principles to which we still aspire and constantly fall short.
The War. The Civil War was a bloody, ruthless, total war that left a million Americans dead. It was fought to settle the definition of our nation and to rid it of our “peculiar institution,” – history’s most brutal form of slavery – which undermined every one of America’s ideals.
The Icon. The French gift to America to honor 100 years of independence, the Statue of Liberty stands above a broken chain and proclaims to the millions of immigrants who have sailed past her, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The Game. Although baseball is no longer the country’s favorite sport, it is still our legendary game. For years it had a rigid color line, and blacks who wanted to participate in America’s pastime had to do so in the Negro Leagues.
The Machine. Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908 and kept rolling for 20 years. Ford built it for “the great multitude,” realizing that if he paid his workers a decent wage, they too could buy his car – and he later introduced the five-day week so they could drive it on weekends. But Ford violently put down his workers’ attempts to organize, and he is the only American praised in Mein Kampf.
The Gadget. The iPhone epitomizes American ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and consumerism. It also, in both its creation by Steve Jobs and its use by a billion people, embodies the enduring tension between individualism and community – between the solitary loner and the inveterate joiner – that has defined American history.