Thursday, July 3, 2014
"What is America for?"
The question was posed recently by NYTimes columnist David Brooks, who is one of those bright University of Chicago grads and also a man who, in my eyes when I occasionally see him on television, appears to have a kindness in him. Who knows if it is true or feigned -- it's just the way he seems to me: A certain kindness.
It was an article by Harvey J. Kaye that brought Brooks' query to hand. I have no clue who Harvey J. Kaye is, but his article is literate and thoughtful and posits the notion that 'we' must answer Brooks' question, which was delivered in a column entitled "The Spiritual Recession: Is America Losing Faith in Universal Democracy?" Both articles were long on sweeping vision -- and had a kind of grandeur that would have done Louis XIV proud and d-double-dared you to question or balk... this was Important Stuff.
And who knows, maybe it is. All I know is that I got stuck in the starting gate when reading the question, "What is America For?" Brooks' punchline response was, "if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for? A great inheritance is being squandered; a 200-year-old language is being left by the side of the road." Kaye's punchline had a grand solemnity without going anywhere: "We need to articulate America’s democratic purpose and promise anew and remind ourselves and our fellow citizens what it means to be an American."
When I read, "what is America for?" the first thought into my head was, "What is France for ... or Antarctica either?" Must there be a purpose? Who says so and to what extent does that encouragement find its basis in reality and to what extent is it nourished on a diet of self-importance ... a self-importance that smells suspiciously like exceptionalism? Are things really for something? And if you argue that without utility, meaning is lost, my question is the same: Who says "meaning" imparts meaning or that without meaning, communication goes to hell in a hand basket? If I say, "pass the croquet mallet," you don't hand me a crescent wrench. Are France, Antarctica or even dandelions for something?
I'm still stuck in the starting gate. The hares of wisdom have long since disappeared over a near hill. The Important Stuff is not for the slow of gait. I'm stuck wondering if a discussion like this has much meaning without at least a nod to the premises on which it rests. Are things important just because I say they're important? Everyone does that, I imagine, but it's quite a step to say that because it's-important- because-I say-it's-important and posing a necessity for agreement. While a lack of agreement may mean that things will fly apart, isn't that the price life imposes ... no need to be dishonest about it. Democracy is a wonderful thing ... and then sometimes it's not. Societies are approximations that require a tuck here and a tuck there as time passes. A lock-down vision doesn't work very well ... except on paper.
I'm not trying to bad-mouth "what is America for?" It's an ordinary question, one that fits neatly into the Important Stuff category... a mountain peak from which anyone might hold forth, with or without a University of Chicago education. But its premises slow my step.
Which is not to say I'm going to wuss out and not take a swing at it ... that's what Important Stuff is for, right? -- to take a swing and laugh in the mirror.
So what is America for? My swing is this: America is to allow others to love.
Is this a hopelessly grand and squishy and unrealistic response?
It probably is, but I don't think anyone could know that for a fact without first giving it a shot.