Thursday, July 3, 2014

"What is America for?"

Like a tortoise that has barely lifted a forefoot as the hare zooms into the distance, I am left slow and flummoxed by the question, "What is America for?" The analogy is not meant to suggest I have a wiser and more winning answer: It is merely to suggest that I am slow.

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.


  1. Are they asking what the purpose of the country is? or what the people who live here support? In my read of history, people everywhere want to be safe, comfortable and entertained. But some people missed that day in kindergarten where sharing was covered. Some people don't play well with others. So countries have government that exists to satisfy the needs of those who want more without really pissing off the rest of us too much. So politicians are jugglers i guess, just rules instead of chainsaws and bowling pins.

  2. Kind of like what Sasaki Roshi used to say