As I write, profoundly inspired by these words written over seventy years ago, highly civilized human beings may be scanning my phone records, tracking the location of my cell phone, examining my credit card purchases, observing my movements via video and robot drone, and making record of these very words, all in the name of defending a free and open society.
They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, though I may against them. They are “only doing their duty,” as they will undoubtedly tell you. Indeed, many of them may be strongly protective of their own private lives. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in flagging my words and activities through the use of esoteric search algorithms and other secret criteria, and I am mistakenly placed on some clandestine list without recourse for rebuttal and defense, he will never sleep the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from the responsibility of his actions.
One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of fear. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization we may resist it, but as a primitive force for motivation and control there is nothing to set beside it. Religion and the secret state feed upon it; more than one elected totalitarianist has risen to power because of it; and it is ever the foundation of parochialism, tribalism, fear of “the other,” and all those other bogeymen used throughout history to align “us” against “them.”
That being said, one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation – people and people – are still founded on real differences in outlook. Although the globalized world within which we live would like to suggest that we are very much alike, below the electronic surface of Facebook friends and Twitter feeds, mass marketing and media trends, free trade agreements and the free flow of capital, we still differ greatly from country to country, region to region. Things happen in one country that could not happen in another country. The blight that is Guantanamo Bay could not happen in, say, Switzerland. Even within the United States, north, south, east, and west are highly differentiated.
And yet, when you come to America from any foreign country, you have the immediate sensation that things are different, and the same. From the first few minutes of stepping from the boat or airplane, the sights and sounds, smell and taste, big things and small, conspire to give you this feeling. The hustle and bustle of people of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and colors (more prevalent in some regions than others); the rapid exchange of money at the coffee counter for efficiently brewed and efficiently tasteless liquid caffeine; the outbound stroll past the long lines of shoeless and beltless people being ushered in through the porous shell of airport security as you make your way to baggage claim; and then out onto the street, to a cab or rented car, and into the unbelievably vast expanse that awaits you.
Talk to foreigners, read foreign books and newspapers, and you will come to understand that there is something recognizable and distinctive in American civilization. It is a culture built from many cultures, a people bred from many people, the oldest continuous democracy, a theoretical model for the pursuit of freedom and happiness, built upon slavery and exploitation of the masses, yet with an unwavering belief that hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit can make the world a better place. It is a land of bustling cities and sleepy suburbs, of vast open spaces and once unlimited resources, of the extreme rich and the extreme poor, of a middle class that has lost much of its power, yet still remembers its halcyon days, and dreams.
And above all it is our civilization; it is us. However much we laugh at it, and lower our heads shamefully at what is being done in our name, it is still a manifestation of our collective will. We will never be happy away from it for a lengthy period of time. It is literally ingrained in our DNA. It belongs to us as we belong to it, for better or worse, good or evil, in life and death, from the past and into the future.
Yet, America, along with the rest of the world, is changing. And, because of our distinctiveness, we can only change in certain directions which, to a point, can be foreseen. Although the future is not fixed, some alternatives are possible, and some are not. A cat cannot become a dog, nor a dog a cat, though they may live somewhat peacefully side by side. It is therefore of great importance to understand what America is, before guessing what America will be, and what role it will play in the future unfolding before us.