By Will Baker
I would argue that over time American thought has slowly become calcified. As a people we sometimes have a hard time thinking for ourselves and as a result our nation suffers. We seem unimaginative when we should be creative; we are shallow when as a people, depth of understanding used to be a trait. And it seems that we are having a hard time demonstrating the originality which we were previously known for. Yes, it seems to me that one of the great underreported stories of our time is that America is changing and it isnt all for the good.
Think of how we began; a nation cobbled together, folks from different lands in search of a better life for themselves and their families. And then set that understanding against how far we have come. First off, we had the audacity to declare ourselves a free people, ordained by God no less, to pursue happiness. In the context of the historical period when this notion of freedom occurred to us, one could argue that this was groundbreaking stuff.
And then we set about developing an amazing system of government that others emulate to this very day as a model form of political organization. I would argue that from the beginning, a certain level of constructive conflict existed which enabled the development of the critical thinking of the early Collective body politic of our Republic. It seems to me that our democratic form of government played a major role.
I believe that the miracle of democracy set our people loose to dream and work hard as free people, with all the rights and benefits that flow from that reality. We articulated a can-do social philosophy of self-reliance and fair play. We had a heart and as we interacted with other nations we wore it on our shirtsleeves. We were inventive and fast moving and we were focused. Of course we had our moments and made our fair share of mistakes but it seemed as if we were on a mission of transformation and discovery. There was technological advancement and bloodshed but through success and failure we learned and moved forward.
The philosophy of our people continued to develop, and came to greatly influence the doings in the world about us. Other countries modeled their constitutions upon ours, folks continued to immigrate here in search of the promise of a better life and continue to do so. We refined our views regarding the dignity and worth of people and our capacity for innovation and strength of purpose drove us forward. We asserted ourselves as a nation and began to seriously influence world thinking. We fought major conflicts (internal and external) and prevailed, set seemingly unachievable goals for ourselves and achieved them. So what went wrong?
Before I attempt to answer this question I should interject that I am not offering political commentary. These are apolitical observations. In addition I believe the answer to be somewhat paradoxical, in that, the very things that have allowed for our advancement as a people I believe have also contributed to our situation. I should also acknowledge that some folks argue that there is no "problem" with what is going on, that the changes that have occurred to American society represent some sort of maturation of our nation. But be that as it may most would agree that American culture has changed.
I would argue that we have hardened, and the reason has to do with our freedom and the pursuit of happiness or rather our pursuit of our false interpretation of the things that make us happy. Somewhere along the way we forgot about the stuff that drove us forward as a people--things like national sense of purpose, patience, curiosity, hope and wonder and a sense of fair play. Sadly, these ideas have moved to the background, replaced by an emphasis on individual gratification. And notions such as civic pride and responsible citizenship have become seemingly anachronistic.
As a people we seem almost world-weary, too cynical to articulate a vision of what we wish to be. As citizens we sometimes conduct ourselves as if we exist in a vacuum, where interpersonal connectedness is an abstract notion. We do not know our neighbors, we do not know ourselves and a good many of us certainly do not know or give one whit about the goings on about us, beyond the small sphere of activity which directly effects us. All else is extraneous input that is hopefully entertaining. And we have come to set the two (our realities vs. entertainment) against each other and the lines have become blurred.
We have ceased thinking for ourselves. Why should we? It isnt our job and besides, we are very busy and all that thinking takes a great deal of work. And anyway, we have professional politicians, who we have hired to think for us. As a result, to a degree we have become dulled and find it hard to develop or embrace original thought. I have heard folks refer to this new American mindset as being an example of shallow thinking, and when I look about me I am not surprised to hear people say that.
It is my hope that this hardening, this calcification of a people represents a stage in the positive development of the American Experience. It is my hope that as a country we have not peaked too early. And to those who say that what is going on represents a maturation process, to that I say: well if thats the case perhaps we need to retrieve our naiveté. It seems to me that what we have gained in sophistication we have lost in identity.
But our Nations amazing history leaves me optimistic. I have to believe that even though in many ways one could argue that we are currently asleep at the switch, I have to believe that at some point we will receive our wake up call. In the past, America has been referred to as the Sleeping Giant but then we awoke to do great deeds. We faced major challenges before and we overcame them.
I sense that our county is at a turning point and hope that this generation of Americans is equal to the task like our countrymen who came before us were.