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Sunday, September 23, 2007

What it Means to be American

Special to the Marco Island Blog

To define the nature of ourselves as members of a living nation-state, we must ask ourselves not once, not twice, but repeatedly this question: what does it mean to be American? Does it mean placing our hands over our hearts and staring at the flag when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? Does it mean the routine gathering under the stars at July 4th? Does it mean the mindless defamation of all things French at every turn? No, not really. To answer this question in its most profound sense, a remembrance of history is in order to lay the foundations of our inquiry.

After much fruitless negotiation with King George III, the thirteen colonies decided to break away from England in order to protest the many grievances held by the colonists, known collectively as the Intolerable Acts: namely, the restriction of town meetings, the unfair trial of British soldiers (British soldiers found guilty of crimes in the colonies would not be tried in the colonies but in England), the forced housing of British soldiers in colonial homes, and the forced remuneration of monies lost during the Boston Tea Party. The first battle of the war occurred in 1775, and the nation as we know it officially came into existence in 1788 with the ratification of the Constitution. The colonists rebelled not against England and not against the monarchy, but against the unfair strictures of their rights.

From its very beginning, the United States was (and still is, to a certain degree) a social experiment. In fact, the term “the United States” is fairly recent – an earlier term would have been “these United States:” the people comprising those states were reluctant to join a larger nation for fear of historical repetition: in fact, the Constitution was preceded by the Articles of Confederation, making the early America not a federation but a confederation – it called for a weak central government and strong states. This early attempt at confederacy failed due to a severe imbalance of power: the states began to manufacture their own currency, laws diverged wildly, and the central government was almost powerless to stop any of it. The second version – the Constitution we know today, sans the coming Amendments – called for a much stronger central government, a federation, and delegated powers to the states not explicitly delegated to the larger government.

This federal system, at least in theory, attempts to strike a balance between individualism and collectivism, and this partially provides our answer. The Founding Fathers, like mostly everyone else born in the last 300 years, were and are children of the Enlightenment – children of an age of reason, wisdom, and the light of science, which among other things championed representative government. Of course, the Enlightenment was a revival in large part of the social and political discourse of the Ancient Greeks, among whom was Plato, who held that direct democracy was the second worst form of government (the worst was tyranny, in his eyes). The Founding Fathers knew this, and as such established both a legal system and a political culture of elitist democracy – essentially the masses of people would be allowed to democratically elect a layer of representatives who would then represent their constituents to government organs in order to participate in the perpetual balancing act between the needs of the citizen and the state.

This balancing act, for the experiment to work, would have to be reflected at all levels of government – from the local city councils to the chambers of the national structure. It would also have to be reflected within the citizen himself – as Plato was keen to say, a well-ordered mind yields a well-ordered person, which in turn yields a well-ordered state. This was true then, and it is true today. So in fact, our Constitution would allow for a fractal system – at any level of social magnification, the structure is always the same – one of balance between self and society.

This is what it means to be American – to successfully strike a balance between self and society, a balance between serving the self and serving the community in which we live. This is in line with the Platonic concept of the ‘reluctant ruler’ and the ancient Roman quasi-legend of Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was an ancient Roman farmer, described as a humble and simple person, who readily served as the leader of the early Roman Republic when called upon, and promptly returned to his farming when his tenure ended. In Plato’s political masterpiece The Republic, a similar concept is illustrated with the perfect ruler who, ironically enough wants nothing to do with politics and instead wants to attend to private matters. This person is ready to shift the responsibility to another like-minded person, and so on: this eliminates the chances of graft and corruption, mainly because no one is interested. This disinterest in power and fame, like the behavior of Cincinnatus, has its roots in the well-ordered mind, which ultimately creates the well-ordered state.

The phase "e pluribus unum" was created to illustrate this balance for the population at large: though we come from many different places, the acculturation process is one where we bond through our common elements. Cultures from around the world seem to enjoy hard work, clean water to drink, and not having to deal with rampant crime, among other things. The bonding through these common elements creates a kind of cascading reaction that spreads via behavior – the traits of the individual are reflected in the collective, and vice versa. The literal translation reads: “from many, one,” and from here we see the true meaning of the phrase “we the people.” It is the realization of the particularly American dichotomy, that the self is aware of the whole, the whole is aware of the self, and in realizing these things we become strong. Every civilization that has collapsed, is collapsing, or ever will collapse is caused by the imbalance between the self and the collective.

It is this commitment to balance that not only makes us American, but also tasks us with leading the greatest country in existence. This is not mere hyperbole – even the people that hate our country want to come here, primarily so they can be allowed to say how much they hate us. Many would say that the belief in our greatness is unfounded, that it is a belief in a myth of a golden past – detractors point to the less-than-shining moments of our nation’s history, and ask us to explain them. We can explain them – we simply say they were periods of imbalance – and not only can we explain them, we can correct them by correcting the imbalance. In correcting the imbalance, the old teach the middle aged, the middle aged teach the young, who in turn repeat the cycle, and in saying this, we are reminded that “the only enduring work of man is that which is reborn with the next generation.

By Michel A. Sanchez


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