R.W.B. Lewis, who died in June, was one of the founding scholars of the academic discipline known as American studies. Lewis, a biographer and literary critic, claimed "the phenomenon of being an American" as his special field of inquiry. His seminal book The American Adam (1955) offers the myth of "the authentic American as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentialities, poised at the start of a new history."
The scientist Stephen Jay Gould was another distinguished scholar and writer who, like Lewis, lived through the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and died a few months later. Like Lewis, he was sanguine about "the phenomenon of being an American." As the grandson of an immigrant garment worker who landed at Ellis Island exactly 100 years (to the day) before the hijacked 767s hit the World Trade towers, Gould released his feelings in essays of uninhibited patriotism.
"Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door," Gould wrote, while lower Manhattan was still burning. "And that door leads to the greatest, and largely successful, experiment in democracy ever attempted in human history. ... "
I'm inclined to believe that a nation's character, like an individual's character, reveals itself under pressure. In essence, 9-11 peeled off most of the makeup America likes to wear when it looks at itself in the mirror. The past 12 months generated more stress along the basic fault lines of America's identity than any comparable period since 1968, when the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy convinced many people that a nation divided over Vietnam and civil rights was about to implode or split asunder. The Republic held, but a bad man was elected president and the United States of America never recovered the vigor, idealism and sense of purpose that graced our pre-Nixonian civilization.
Tested once again, America will endure once again--one strain of patriotic bluster you had better believe is that we are a nation of unprecedented economic and military power and prodigious, downright embarrassing energy. But the traits we display under pressure, that define "the phenomenon of being an American," are not invariably the ones that Lewis and Gould have celebrated; nor the ones of which publisher/patriot Henry Luce, urging Americans to join the war against Hitler, boasted confidently in 1941:
"We have some things in this country which are infinitely precious and especially American--a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence."
Yet we have straddled the most appalling contradictions from the beginning. The famous explorer William Clark was praised as one of the first influential Americans to show genuine compassion for the Indians. But his compassion extended unevenly to his worthy slave York, who accompanied him on the incredible journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. Clark beat York repeatedly, and refused his petition for freedom when they returned to St. Louis. Clark's brother once rebuked him for whipping a pregnant slave. Sophisticated Europeans, connoisseurs of hypocrisy, were nevertheless confounded by Americans like William Clark.
"You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty and with the other flogging their slaves," wrote the English traveler Anthony Trollope. "You will see them one hour lecturing the mob on the rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil (Native Americans) whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties."
America stands four-square, as it were, on its sacred birthright of self-reliance, human dignity, slavery and genocide. To deny the neurotic effect of this divided legacy is to embrace amnesia.
Human or American nature?
Sometimes it's painfully hard to generalize about Americans. At the moment of truth, when the sky was literally falling, when it was raining fire and corpses, hundreds of firemen and policemen performed with historic courage and died heroes' deaths that are justly celebrated. But at that same moment of shock and adrenaline, when many city employees were sacrificing their lives for friends and strangers, others were busy looting the Municipal Credit Union, which was left vulnerable to unlimited withdrawals after the collapsing towers caused a computer failure. An estimated 4,000 members of the credit union--city, state and federal workers--exploited the catastrophe to milk its ATM machines for $15 million in overdrafts.
Sixty-six who took more than $7,500 apiece have been arrested for grand larceny; one, according to the DA's office, spent a windfall from 53 unauthorized withdrawals at establishments that included Joy Joy Jewelry, Bronx BBQ, Hot Booz Liquor, Foot Locker and the 216th Street Motel.
Three thousand died, 4,000 robbed their co-workers, including the dead, for party and sneaker money. These were the New Yorkers Rudy Giuliani didn't mention in his speeches. And after a few months of keeping up appearances for the media, potential heirs of the 9-11 victims have begun to file lawsuits and fight tooth and claw over their shares of the multibillion dollar Victim Compensation Fund.
"It's sad, but it's human nature," said a lawyer for two of the families involved in Victim Fund ratfights.
To which our enemies reply, "Human nature or American nature?" It never occurred to the perpetrators, but to rob a disabled ATM while your neighbors are still buried alive is to prove to bin Laden and company that we are precisely the grasping, godless jackals they take us for, and deserving of the nastiest fate they can engineer. The petty criminals of the Municipal Credit Union would have harmed their country far less by fighting for the Taliban, like poor John Walker Lindh, or just mailing their lives' savings to al-Qaeda.
An old friend of mine died in the 9-11 attacks; the anniversary of a deep wound Americans suffered together is an awkward time for self-flagellation. So I'll get the worst over with now. Can you name the only sovereign nation ever found guilty of terrorism by the World Court?
That would be the United States of America, condemned by the court for financing terrorist atrocities by the Contras in Nicaragua.
Objections will be entertained. The nature of international tribunals is that they are helpless to restrain the great powers, and tend to vent their frustrations in impotent indictments. Yet America's honor and global credibility have rarely worn so thin as they are wearing now. When the great towers fell, most nations expressed their deep and presumably sincere sympathies. As Washington's squeals of outraged innocence morphed into war cries and calls for specific, drastic military resolutions, the world began to turn away in embarrassment.
Old friends became acquaintances, allies became neutrals, neutrals became hostile critics. Europeans wrinkled their noses at the smell--familiar since the age of William Clark--of that peculiar American blend of adamant inconsistency and self-righteous hypocrisy.
Even as it demanded international support for its crusade against "the axis of evil," the Bush administration was canceling every treaty and sabotaging every international agreement in sight. Capt. Clark himself, a ruthless treaty-breaker in spite of his pro-Indian reputation, might have been amazed to see the United Nations and the European Union told off and sold out like a pack of starving Shoshones. As global warming accelerated beyond any scientific debate, and America unapologetically generated 30 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause it, the president's dismissal of the Kyoto Protocol was a classic display of environmental recklessness and superpower arrogance.
Europe choked, the world perspired. But by the time the White House had torpedoed the World Criminal Court (its opposition shared only by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia and Israel) and withdrawn U.S. support from agreements to ban land mines, proscribe torture, restrict biological weapons tests and protect the human rights of women and children, even our closest traditional allies were disgusted and enraged.
"Respect for the rule of law is so high on the American agenda," said U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan. "Why this contradiction? Why is it 'one law for us, another for everybody else?'"
No one will miss Saddam Hussein; but in this climate most nations support "a regime change" in Baghdad only if it's paired with another regime change in Washington. Though the Bush administration is the most secretive one the press can remember, it's also the most transparent. Journalists are now saying openly what we all shrank from thinking, that the president is exploiting 9-11 as cynically as the ATM bandits--that all the terrorist alerts and dire threats against Baghdad are calculated to distract Americans from the stumbling economy, the market-paralyzing crimes of his dear friends at Enron and Mr. Bush's unsavory career in the private sector.
In France, a book titled The Horrifying Fraud topped the bestseller lists for June and July, with more than 200,000 copies sold. Its author accuses the Bush administration of destroying the World Trade Towers--and faking the Pentagon attack--as part of a right-wing conspiracy to justify a war against Israel's enemies, conquer the Middle East and feed America's insatiable hunger for oil.
Save us, Lord, from such a level of paranoia. This illogical thirst for the blood of Saddam Hussein must be based on important things the president knows that I don't know. I try to believe this, but considering the chronic incompetence of our intelligence "community," I doubt very much that it is so. What I do know is that George W. Bush is in every sense the darling creature, the sleek groomed-from-the-cradle poster child for the cowboy capitalists of America and the energy vultures of Greater Texas. He can no more separate himself from Enron than Gore could separate himself from Clinton, or Brer Fox from the Tar Baby. Over most of his misadventures--the Enron connections, the Kyoto Protocol debacle, the eagerness to drill in Alaska and to fight in the Middle East--there hangs an ominous, acrid stink of oil, oil, oil.
Fat and rich
Are there any good reasons to hate or fear the United States? Begin with a foreign policy that treats proud nation-states like inconsequential children, add our lethal fossil-fuel addiction, then consider the global facts of life: One nation with a food supply 50 percent larger than it needs--for a population three-fifths overweight and one-quarter clinically obese--on a planet where millions starve and billions eat at a subsistence level. Our little band of gluttons is out to eat the earth.
A trace of humility, even some show of guilty conscience might serve America better than Texas diplomacy. There are moments in history when loving your country means deploring the individuals who represent and purport to lead it. After a depressing burlesque of an election in 2000--its result now declared in error by The New York Times--I held my fire and hoped for the best from George W. Bush. And his first act as president was a huge tax break for the same filthy-rich 1 percent who had just picked our pockets clean.
Kevin Phillips' new book Wealth and Democracy confirms our worst fears about the most outrageous flow of wealth from the poor to the rich that ever occurred under a democratic government. In the past 20 years, the 400 wealthiest Americans increased their average net worth from $230 million to $2.6 billion, while Middle America actually lost ground in adjusted income. The 500 largest corporations tripled their assets and profits while eliminating five million jobs. The average pay of the 10 best-compensated CEOs rose from $3.5 million to $154 million--4,300 percent.
It's hard to isolate the most devastating statistic. How about the harvest of 1983-1989, when 60 percent of America's 6.7 trillion in added wealth--$3.9 million per household--went to the wealthiest half of 1 percent? Revelations about the tactics and accounting practices that created this wealth indicate that they literally mugged us, some of these moguls and CEOs, and drove away laughing while America stood in the road in its underwear. And the apparent illegitimacy of the president's ascension, the manner of it, the indecent cost of it in corporate dollars and corporate media--it feels, for many of us, as if a coup has occurred, as if the puppet is in place and the ravenous 1 percent have succeeded at last in becoming the feudal overlords our ancestors came to this country to avoid.
Taliban or orthodontists?
War, as Lewis Mumford always said, is a cynical government's favorite stratagem for keeping us loyal and otherwise occupied while they rob us blind. In America it works like magic. Pinhead patriots revile Saddam or lost Osama or whomever the White House designates. Right-wing fundamentalists form our own al-Qaeda, armchair terrorists without the courage to become human bombs and hurl themselves at the towers of Baghdad or Tehran or wherever they imagine their own Great Satan to reside. My stomach churns when I read that war in the Middle East is supported by Apocalyptic Christians sniffing Armageddon. I'm with British novelist Zadie Smith, who writes in White Teeth: "The Book of Revelation is the last stop on the nutso express."
Shame on every "Christian" bigot who stoops to defame and suppress Islam. Shame especially on Franklin Graham, and on the dismal morons in the North Carolina legislature who think our university freshmen are too impressionable to study the Quran--will they become Taliban fighters instead of orthodontists?
What does it mean to be an American? It's only in America, they remind me, that I can say these things with little fear of a knock on my door in the middle of the night. If this were Colombia, the editor of The New York Times, which torments the president mercilessly, would rest on the bottom of the Hudson River. This is true enough--but keep your eye on Attorney General John Ashcroft, who believes that the Final Solution for internal security is to suspend the American Constitution and tear up the Bill of Rights. The man entrusted with enforcing our laws is so ignorant of their spirit, it's improbable that he's an American at all. A double agent perhaps, or an alien. Are there any photographs of this dangerous man as a child?
Many of the people whose judgment I trust most feel deceived, disenfranchised, peripheral as they've rarely felt before. I've even heard tortured liberals talk about emigrating to New Zealand, as if it were some kind of Anglo-Saxon Shangri-La. The year of 9-11 was not a great, proud time to be an American. But it isn't post-traumatic hysteria that ails us. With its belief that no wealth is excessive and that scruples are for yokels, with its disdain for the weak and unfortunate, with its sagging health care system held hostage by heartless profiteers and its media culture sliding toward the unspeakable, the United States acts like a country with its id permanently detached from its superego. (Culture bulletin, New York City: A couple was arrested for having sex in a side entrance to St. Patrick's Cathedral, while a man with a microphone recorded them live for an FM radio program.)
When did our best self, our national conscience, steal away and retire from public life? We thought it might be cloistered somewhere in a church or monastery, but the altar-boy scandals took care of that illusion. And the universities? Ah, well.
The archterrorist Henry Kissinger, the Abu Nidal of the Cold War--never forget Chile and Allende--taught his disciples that a superpower can't afford a conscience. Kissinger disciples like Richard Perle, a veteran of the Contra disgrace, now advise George Bush on our proper response to 9-11. But the conscience of America has always emerged from outside, not inside the ruling clique. During the imperialist obscenity that was the Spanish-American War, when war fever and tabloid patriotism swept the country and intimidated nearly everyone, the opposition was led by the nation's most famous intellectual and its most famous man of letters.
Pacifists have made Holy Writ of Mark Twain's "War Prayer," which was suppressed and went unpublished for 20 years. Less familiar is William James' angry letter to the Boston Evening Transcript, calling the betrayal of the Philippines "bald, brutal piracy" and concluding: "Let every American who still wishes his country to possess its ancient soul--soul a thousand times more dear now that it seem in danger of perdition--do what little he can in the way of open speech."
In those days, of course, anyone who could read at all was impressed by William James and Mark Twain. Did their passionate words make a difference? Not much at that moment, I'm afraid. Over the long haul, it's too soon to tell.