Monday, July 31, 2006


My sister went to the new downtown public library recently to hear historian Neil Baldwin talk about his book The American Revelation: Ten Ideals that Shaped Our Country from Puritans to the Cold War, which was released this summer in paperback. Not particularly inspired by Baldwin himself, she was, however, deeply intrigued by the idea of pinpointing characteristic American values that shape our common personality, so when my father came to town for a visit last weekend, we agreed on that Friday to craft our own lists and to come together on Sunday afternoon to share our thoughts about the American personality. The four of us (my father, my sister, SJG, and I) sat on the back porch all Sunday afternoon, quizzing each other in detail about our lists, amplifying ideas, making connections to other related theories—all at top volume and with much manic waving of napkins and leaping about to make an emphatic point.

After hours of conversation, we had shaped a seven-page list, out of which we pulled the following top-five values, which we agreed, as a group, to be characteristic of the iconic American personality. Caveat: these are idealistic values, which, though brilliant in their allure, sometimes manifest darkly and are not experienced by all of the people all of the time. However, they are values to which this particular group feels we aspire as a nation and which we feel do distinguish us as a people from other nations and cultures in other parts of the world.

1) Individualism—the notion, inscribed in our Declaration of Independence, that each individual has certain “unalienable rights,” and that each person has the right to live up to one’s abilities and interests, as defined by self. As Americans, the tension between acting for the greater common good and “doing your own thing” generally plays out in favor of individual choice.

2) Pragmatism—the tendency to figure out a problem based on what works at any given moment rather than relying on pre-established, accepted truth; a sort of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” approach to life; pragmatism as a school of philosophical thought was pioneered in the nineteenth century by American philosophers John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce, and William James (brother of Henry James). Generally speaking, they held that experimentation, inquiry, and observation are the tools for determining “truth,” with complete freedom to re-determine and re-name any of the objects under investigation at any time.

3) Mobility—the general openness of American economic, political, and social systems, whereby individuals have ease of movement among and between groups or places. To be born in one class, in one place, among one set of people does not mean one spends an entire lifetime in that same class, place, or set of people. This plays out in a general flexibility of thought and practice—the ability of the average American to go beyond prescribed limits to see if something is doable or enjoyable. Want to paint your house purple? Go for it! Want to have salmon with chocolate (a definite no-no in French cuisine)? Why not!

4) Fusion—the ability and desire to incorporate cultural expressions of all stripes into the mainstream or to simply accommodate them alongside other options, whether it be music (blues influence in jazz, country influence in rock and roll), food (Cuban Chinese restaurants), vocabulary (street language or foreign terms that become part of everyday mainstream vernacular), or ethnic family groupings (Chinese Jewish families as one example). Our socio-cultural fabric is like a sponge--very absorptive.

5) Optimism—a “things are looking up” approach to life, whereby events are perceived to flow inevitably toward the good, the better, the best. We came up with a list of classic popular songs, such as “High Hopes” and “Accentuate the Positive,” that speak to this American tendency to avoid bad news and to express a distinct preference for "the sunny side of the street."

Try making your own list—see what you come up with!

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