Over and over again, we hear that America is a country without a history - that America’s still making and writing its history books. The experiment isn’t over or conclusive, how can we learn anything about a history we don’t yet know or understand? So who cares if we’re 17th in global education?
But look at us - the declining power with declining cities, declining law enforcement, declining industry, declining political systems, declining schools, and declining press (yes, I based that list on the seasons of The Wire...). How do we now look so close to the edge of a permanent fall? And if we’re at the edge of such a fall, then how did we rise so high? Perhaps America won’t fall at all, but if we don’t, it’s because there will be reforms in place which completely change the nature of this country, and if the nature of this country is completely changed, then there is quite a bit of history to study and understand.
If there’s one country in the last two hundred years that has a lot of history to study... maybe it’s Germany or Russia, but after them it’s us. Some of us do pay attention to little bits of that history. Anybody who can quote Bob Dylan lyrics or lines from The Godfather has their little bits of history which shape their knowledge of the human heart. Some people even know enough of American history (though not enough..) that their souls feel tired of an American culture that’s clearly not working, and therefore fill their cultural life to the brim with the Europe of critical theory, or the East Asia of action movies and anime and video games. But I can’t help thinking that they latch onto such things because they need an explanation of the exhausted culture from which they hail in which they can no longer believe. Critical theory gives them the required armament to explain why we can no longer believe in our institutions. Meanwhile, the stupefyingly complex technology of Asian culture is still very young, with pyrotechnics that well exceed its emotional maturity so far (with a number of obvious exceptions... for just one, rent Grave of the Fireflies...) But unlike so much prominent American content (never mind the underground stuff), Asian culture is exciting - it’s young, it’s exuberant, and it feels completely new. The recent past belongs to America, but the future clearly belongs to Asia.
But when you stay with American content long enough to get past the current tiredness, you see its entire history laid out before you as it never could be in the past - there is a lifetime of soul-sustenance for those willing to find it: classic rock and R&B and country and bluegrass and jazz, classic Hollywood movies and classic TV, classic theater and classic musicals, classic poetry and novels, classic art and classic architecture, even some classic sports games and classical music. At this point, America has its classical canon - every educated American knows what it is, and every American has to either have experienced it or want to experience it in order to be considered an educated American. Once upon a time, Americans were blank slates onto which education from older cultures formed their awareness of their souls. But there should be no doubt, there is now a fully American Soul - educated and seasoned almost exclusively (much too exclusively) by American culture, and possessed of a wisdom that comes from America having grown a culture so large that it obliterated whole swaths of other cultures from around the world.
Furthermore, American comfort is so widespread, and for the moment its responsibilities for earning this comfort so minimal in comparison to most of the world, that there is ample time to immerse ourselves in this culture, to appreciate and love it, to to discuss and debate it, and to cultivate it still further. The ability of Americans to accrue debt may end tomorrow, but until it does, we are at the point of grand summation - the time to understand what it means to be an American at the zenith of world power is right now, because it can’t last forever, and it’s already amazing that it’s lasted this long. Americans are highly motivated people no longer, and if any of us remain highly motivated, we’re fighting an uphill battle to achieve anything that resembles our dreams. So in the meantime, what else is there to do but amble through this glorious museum of the recent past?
The most important year in American history was, of course, 1945 - when we officially ended the Second World War with the Atomic Bomb. It was the defining American triumph, the defining American achievement, and will perhaps become the defining American tragedy. But I think most people would agree that the most important cultural year was 1968. It was the summit of all the American energy generated by the Allies’ triumph. During the Cold War’s height, education and motivation to learn was considered paramount to the species’ survival. The GI Bill made education widespread, and federal grants made education cheap. But all children develop minds of their own, and by the time the GIs' kids went to college, they demanded to follow the paths on which their minds set them. They not only questioned the foundation of America’s moral triumph, they also questioned the foundation of America’s intellectual triumph. They no longer wanted to read ‘great books’ or set themselves up for scientific careers that would advance human knowledge. Instead, they went that most American of ways - they did their own thing, and did so on a scale never seen before. Before the Baby Boomers, Americans upheld a very particular (and slightly authoritarian) social contract based on the continual enforcement of a community’s shared values of tolerance. The contradiction there should be completely obvious - previous generations may have believed in tolerance, but the community obligation was at very least as important as the individual right. If a community felt that the individual right had stretched too far and negated its responsibility to the community, the community felt completely justified in repressing those ‘deviants.’ The result of this was the unity of purpose which saw us through reconstruction after the Civil War and overcame the Great Depression, but it also looked the other way at racial violence and discrimination, economic exploitation, and imperial subjugation abroad. It was not until the Baby Boom generation that the idea of individual rights as more important than community obligation became widespread. In doing so, they caused enormous, and long overdue, gains in freedom for minorities. And yet they may have simultaneously undone the social contract (hardly a beneficent one) which enabled America’s rise. It was a Faustian pact. We are now a freer country than ever before. We’re also a more stymied, dysfunctional one than we’ve been since The Great Depression. The Baby Boomers changed the definition of American culture into the most American possible conceit - the greatest amount of freedom for the greatest number of people. And by changing it, they probably defined the meaning of American culture for all time.
Just a few years before 1968, Cold War-era universities were places of highly disciplined learning and bastions of what used to be called ‘value-free scholarship’ (scholarship for its own sake). The idea of value-free scholarship is probably a myth - the US government would never have funded it if it hadn’t felt the need for top-quality scientists in the Cold War so direly. But it was the rebellion against the University, not the University itself, that gave America it’s identity.
Just briefly look at the most eminent figures in American culture. No novelist has had anything like the impact on America which Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have had on the Russians. We have a national poet in Walt Whitman, but does he count as our National Writer the way Shakespeare does for the English or Goethe does for the Germans? We probably don’t have a National Writer. Hell, we probably don’t even have a National Book unless you count The Constitution. But if we don’t have a National Writer, we certainly have a National Songwriter. I think a much better case could be made that Bob Dylan already had a larger impact on American society in a half-century than even Walt Whitman has in a century-and-a-half. We have great artists, but no National Artist. However, we have a National Photographer in Ansel Adams, and the impact which Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles have on America dwarves any other visual artist in any medium. We have a number of good playwrights, but not a single one among them ever had the impact of musical theater creators like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Sondheim.
The most important American art, of nearly all genres, was made in recent generations; created to be consumed by either the WWII generation or the Baby Boomers. We have national poets, but we have no national novelist, or artist, or composer, or playwright. Except Whitman, our national cultural figures are all very recent. And even Whitman seems almost completely contemporary in the way that he insisted on a colloquial, simple language. Had he lived a century later, you could easily see him learning the guitar to travel the open road with Woody Guthrie or headlining a Beatnik poetry slam with Allen Ginsberg.
But it is this colloquial, simple language, which defines our cultural contribution. We’re like small children playing with enormous toys. On this new continent, we have created technology which so outstrips anything that comes before it that we barely know how to use it. There is 4,000 years of written poetry and roughly 1,000 years of written music, but there are roughly 110 years of movies and only a bit more of sound recording and photography. Education in math and science and medicine is defined by its exclusivity. If you want to study these subjects meaningfully, you have to learn at an extraordinary level over a period of a decade. But the arts are currently defined by their populism. Anybody can write or sing a song, anybody can make a movie, anybody can write a story. No extraordinary ability is asked of our cultural figures, and it’s possible that the most extraordinary thing about American culture is the technology with which it’s transmitted. Don't misunderstand, simplicity is not a byword for mediocrity, but the fact that there is no reward for craftsmanship in the arts in the manner there is for the sciences necessarily means that nearly half of the artistic glories we’re capable of producing go unrealized.
And it’s not just the artistic culture that suffers from this lack of critical complexity. It’s the civic culture too. Since about 1968, so many of us have come to assume automatically that the nation’s founding was cynical, based on economic interests, the exploitation of Africans, and the murder of Indians. Never mind that America is a country with one of the longest democratic traditions in human history, with freedoms that have never stopped growing (however incrementally), and done because of a founding constitutional document which is so simple that anybody can understand and interpret it for themselves. Furthermore, not a single movement which attempted to move the country away from republican democracy ever gained significant traction in the country’s entire history. American democracy is extremely imperfect, but thus far, it’s always been well-supported by its citizens, continually expanded its freedoms, and demonstrated the feasibility of democracy for the modern age. Any person who does not reflect on these facts in awe shouldn’t be taken seriously when they criticize anything about this country.
American values, such as they are, are no longer commonly shared. We no longer agree about what’s good and evil, and virtually all quarters of America are despondent over the fact that this disagreement exists. Half the country seems to hold to traditional definitions of the sacred, and the other half searches for a new definition on which no two members seem to agree. The American Soul is divided, with one half clinging to past - old world - models, and one half searching uncomfortably since 1968 for a new model which no American has definitively found. One side prizes unity, the other, individual expression. In a conflict between the two sides, do the individuals have a 1% chance of winning?
And because no American has established a commonly accepted new model, the half of America which sees the need for one is adrift. Its members are discontent without realizing the basis of their dissatisfaction. Their native intelligence is enough to show them that something has become deeply rotten in the American Soul, but they don’t have the tools to understand why. More than ever before, America is a nation of individuals. No two people critical of America share the same values, and because they lack the same values, they can’t pool their critical thinking together to effectively criticize the country - incompetent in defining the country’s problems, and ineffectual in creating change.
America needs new definitions. New definitions of good and evil, new definitions of the sacred and the sublime which demonstrate the struggle between the two ethical poles, and new arguments for why it’s important to choose between them. The old values of what is good and what is evil, tied up with old notions of God and retribution, clearly don’t have much hold on Americans anymore. Such notions predate America by thousands of years, and even if they were invented in America, they are un-American in every sense. If we don’t provide a new set of values, if good and evil simply no longer exist, what then is worth fighting for?