It's great to see so many of my old friends featured here, saying mostly sensible things. Not one of them "hates America," but like William James they're all immunized against what he called, in that wonderful letter to H.G. Wells, "our national disease." (“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That - with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word 'success' - is our national disease.")
Patrick Allitt* is a Brit at Emory University. His "Great Course" on The American Identity admits the danger of oversimplifying our pan-American distinctions and differences but also insists on the rootedness of cultural stereotypes in some degree of reality. Not all Brits carry on with stiff upper lips, not all Americans have an optimistic can-do, cash-value commitment to problem-solving. But those are good tropes to test.* As our first week's short essays and comments begin to appear, let the happy testing begin!
One more thing: I was watching a documentary about Ken Burns ("America's Storyteller") last night. If we're going to understand anything about American hearts and minds we'd better revisit his work. Here he was on Colbert last year.
*Patrick Allitt identifies these examples of distinctly American traits. All but the third are clearly evident in William James's pragmatism.
- Lack of Fatalism: Louisa May Alcott volunteered as a nurse in a Civil War hospital, where she contracted typhoid fever and was crippled for life from the mercury used to treat her. Nonetheless, she kept writing to support her family and pay off her father's debts. Her most beloved book, Little Women, emerged from this difficult period.
- Energetic Approach to Problem-solving: Benjamin Franklin was inspired by a firewood shortage in Philadelphia to invent a more efficient source of heat: the Franklin stove. His clever marketing campaign for the invention displays another American characteristic: boundless self-confidence.
- Faith in Economic Growth: Andrew Carnegie made a fortune in various industries before devoting himself full time to steel, seeing its limitless potential. It was then that he said, "Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!"
- Dedication to Education: When Horace Mann was named secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, he encountered a school system in decay. By the time he left the job 12 years later, he had laid the foundation for universal compulsory schooling that would be a model for all other states.
- Devotion to Religious Liberty: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson drafted in 1786, was one of his proudest accomplishments, which he classed even above his two terms as president of the United States. The statute was the foundation for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
- Belief in Equality: When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to "remember the ladies" as he worked to establish the new American nation, she was speaking partly in jest. But her feminist heirs were serious. In the 20th century Betty Friedan sought to give women real equality and real democratic access, rather than the outward legal shell of these rights.