It is not easy to put one’s finger on the unique characteristics of a nation, especially one as large and diverse as America. It is, after all, the sum total of fifty officially “united states,” plus various territories, possessions, commonwealths, protectorates, influenced areas, and other classifications, covering the majority of races, creeds, and organized theologies on this tiny planet. And, yet, I believe there are a few generalizations that apply to what some would term to be distinctively “American.”
One obvious generalization is our preoccupation with race, nationality, and gender. America is a nation of self-described immigrants, and decedents thereof, who traveled here at great risk seeking to escape the religious persecution and hardened class structures that defined much of the “old world.” That our ancestors, upon landing on the shores of the New(to them) World, immediately set about conquering significant areas of this already conquered territory from the indigenous population, and subsequently built much of it on the backs of indentured servants and slaves is one of the great ironies of our land of the free. That a significant percentage of its “children of immigrants” now seek to actively demonize those who would follow in their ancestors’ footsteps, and deny entry to the next wave of those fleeing persecution and hopelessness merely adds to the hypocrisy. But this is a land that is also constantly wrestling to overcome its violent history of racism, sexism, elitism, ethnocentrism, hetrocentrism, ablism, anti-Semitism, and all the other ways by which people can be classified. And arguably with somewhat more earnest than most other nations.
A second generalization is the quintessentially American love of freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of worship, freedom of privacy, freedom of wealth, and, most fervently, the freedom to collect, own, and carry assault weapons that most other countries restrict to the battlefield. But these freedoms do not apply equally to all citizens of our nation; indeed, our prisons overflow with certain ethnic and racial groups for which these freedoms are manifestly and structurally applied unequally, freedom of expression is routinely relegated to “free speech zones,” freedom to privacy is considered quaint at best, freedom to worship frowned upon with regards to those of a certain Islamic persuasion, freedom to control one’s body increasingly dictated by tribunals of elderly white males, and so on. One could say, in fact, that the only freedoms still unchallenged are the freedoms to own unlimited amounts of wealth and firearms.
Yet, America is also characteristically defined by what it does not have. Specifically, those born with certain Caucasoid features and into a certain mid-level class almost never have to fear the sound of boots kicking in their doors, unreasonable search and seizure, being disappeared, tortured, or raped by members of the police or government, used for medical experimentation, sterilized against their will, subjected to ethnic cleansing, and sundry other unseemly events usually relegated to the third world. And, increasingly, those lucky enough to be born into an even higher economic status in our crystalized meritocracy never have to ever fear failure or starvation.
Here it is worth commenting on a well-established, though not as highly noted, trait, which is the abject fascination of the American people with shiny objects, especially those based on technology. Whether on the battle field, sports field, board room, living room, cyber space, or personal space, Americans have a nearly unwavering faith in the unlimited ability of technology to solve problems that is nearly on par with their belief in religion to do the same. Indeed, we will go into debt, stand in line for hours, willingly supply deeply personal information, and rearrange our lives to conform to some esoteric technical standard, just to hold in our hands some fleeting new wiz-bang bobble marketed to fill the emptiness hollowed out by our embrace of technology over people. After all, America is also a country obsessed with replacing redundant workers with machines in the name of efficiency, while struggling to understand why its consumer-driven economy continues to lag, even as it imposes ever harsher austerity measures on the increasing ranks of those same unemployed redundant workers, who it simultaneously expects to go out and purchase the newest shiny bauble made by the machines that replaced them.
Which uncovers another defining characteristic that, although not uniquely American, does have a uniquely American flavor: and that is our love of capital over labor. The financier, the maker of markets, the entrepreneur, the captain of industry, the “self-made man”: all are worshiped on a pedestal of individualism that negates the shoulders of the “unwashed masses” upon which these towering figures of American ingenuity stand. For America is a country that loves the work, but hates the workers. We have a long history of violent struggle between the owners of capital, and the owners of labor. Our vaunted middle class was, at one time, proudly and strongly blue collar. But that blueness has faded to the white collar of the “knowledge worker,” and a country that once proudly built things, now prefers to export that skill to low wage sweatshops, and to countries that understand the inherent importance of being able to manufacture the infrastructure upon which a society survives.
In the face of all this, though, lies one of the most subtle, and yet powerful, defining characteristics of this country: and that is an undeniable faith in the future. While Americans are notoriously forgetful of the past, and sleepy in the present, it is the unrealized promise of the future that fascinates and drives them. For this fascination is at once the source of our hope, our fear, our pride, our shame, our faith, our realism, our wonder, and our pragmatism. For, if we are anything, in the face of the daunting and overwhelming we are an unfailingly pragmatic and hopeful people, simultaneously at our best, and our worst.