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THE HAPPY EMPIRE

By       Message Carol V. Hamilton     Permalink
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In a song on the 1968 Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends, the singer and his lover board a Greyhound Bus "to look for America." The song's refrain depends upon a paradox. The seekers search for a place they supposedly already inhabit. The singer describes himself as "lost," a term that is both geographical and psychological. Now, in 2006, it seems to me that Americans are more "lost" than ever. We suffer from a trickle-down contempt for the beliefs, needs, and desires of other people.

America is not a single homogeneous place, but a multitude of incommensurable places--a process of motion toward an endlessly receding goal. This motion can take the geographical form of the road trip or the social form of upward mobility. America is not only elusive; it is also inherently contradictory. It is a free country founded on the economics of slavery, a refuge from intolerance whose refugees drove out the native inhabitants. To understand the history of this country, one must acknowledge both polarities of the paradox.

In its most appealing form, the American Dream is one of liberty, justice, and economic security for all-not just for one's self. Robert F. Kennedy liked to quote a passage from Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not." Martin Luther King's optimistic "I have a dream" speech made an indelible mark on American history. But as Langston Hughes pointedly asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?"
In recent decades, the dream has been deferred yet again--undermined by our collective selfishness, our lack of concern for the consequences of our actions, our indifference to our fellow citizens. This indifference is evident now in the reckless way Americans drive-speeding through residential neighborhoods, a cell phone in one hand and a cigarette or sandwich in the other, deliberately intimidating pedestrians, cyclists, and the drivers of smaller cars.

In the positive, individualist version of the American Dream, talent, determination, and effort prove more powerful than inherited privilege, and the gifted, successful person contributes to the well-being of the country. Alexander Hamilton, Mark Twain, and James Baldwin are among the many who rose to prominence on their own merit. "There are strong minds in every walk of life," wrote Hamilton, "that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation and will command the tribute due to their merit...The door ought to be equally open to all." But Baldwin relied upon a public library to acquire his cosmopolitan outlook and brilliant literary style. There will be no more Baldwins if we don't fund the libraries that Benjamin Franklin considered so crucial to our civilization.

In its most limited, selfish, and unattractive form, the American Dream is no more than the achievement of immense personal wealth and easy access to power. American novelists have described the ways this second version of the dream can fail. Not coincidentally, therefore, a common figure in American life and literature is the confidence man. Too often the American who rises to great wealth does so by exploiting the labor or the gullibility of his fellow citizens. These days you can see commercials on television that advertise the contemporary equivalent of snake oil--take this pill to get thin, drink this beer to become sexy, participate in this pyramid scheme to attain great wealth.

American "freedom"-once meaning the freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights- is being reconfigured as merely the freedom to consume without regulation, interference, or even criticism. In his own road-trip book, entitled America, philosopher Jean Baudrillard asks: "What has become of the challenge sketched out by Tocqueville: can a nation strike a pact of greatness on the basis of each individual's banal interest alone?"
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If this country is to remain liveable, we need to stop behaving with arrogant contempt toward each other and the rest of the world.

Our flaws are as obvious to the rest of the world as they are imperceptible to us. Our two greatest faults are provincialism and a deficit of historical imagination. Too often Americans lack a sense of historical depth and density. We have become indifferent both to our own ancestors and to future generations. We build shopping malls and housing developments near, and even on, Civil War battlefields. Our national holidays are more allied with sales at the mall than with any emotional grasp of the events and people they commemorate. We confine history to the History Channel. The astonishing historical ignorance of our own citizens is a running joke on Jay Leno.

Our television news programs are much to blame for contemporary American provincialism. Rarely is the viewing public exposed to the considered views of foreign diplomats, politicians, newspaper editors, or writers. Endorsing American exceptionalism, our politicians ignore or disdain the views of other world leaders. Yet the Founding Fathers didn't make up the American government from scratch. They pondered the vicissitudes of Greek and Roman history when they planned our institutions. They read the radical new ideas of Scottish and French thinkers. They acknowledged human flaws. "Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age," asked Alexander Hamilton, "and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?"
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Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network (hnn.us) and CommonDreams.org.

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