Being raised in the Deep South, I lived most of my life under the admonition “What Will The Neighbors Think?” Since our yards were huge and our houses were not jammed up close to one another, it never occurred to me that our neighbors might want to watch anything that I would do, or listen to anything that I might say, or even be aware that I lived next door. Now, of course, we are able to see and hear far more than we want to of what everyone in the world – or in Space, for that matter – is doing.
Last year, I entered a Vanity Fair Essay contest regarding the way we as Americans are seen in the world around us. I certainly didn’t expect to win a prize – I don’t recall what the prize was, actually – but I did want to put down on paper just what I felt like to be an American. And I wanted to do some research in order to know where we were going as a nation, which meant we had to find out where we had been, and how we got to where we are now.
To See Ourselves As Others See Us – Americans in today’s world
Americans are, economically speaking, a pear-shaped demographic. The head of the pear represents the few very wealthy Americans who either earned or inherited their money; the bottom of the pear, those who live in poverty. The rest of us comprise the vast middle class, the “haves” who do not have it all – yet. What determines part of our character as Americans is what happens when we decide which demographic we will aspire to stay in or rise out of. We are not bound by our circumstances. Ambition and initiative very much figure in the American psyche, as do laziness and boredom. The fact that we can change our situations as Americans sets us apart from most of the rest of the world.
Another key characteristic is our diversity. Ours is a land peopled by immigrants, people who came to America looking forward to that nebulous “freedom” that we consider so important even today. We are not all from the same place or from the same people. Our ancestors wanted to be free from religious tyranny, the religion of the State, and so they tolerated many different expressions of religion, even the right not to be religious. But make no mistake about it: our country was founded on religious principles. We still believe that religion is important enough to appear on our money; to give thanks before we eat; to begin and end government meetings. We do indeed “praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his “Democracy in America” that Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions…This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.
Our forefathers stressed the fact that our freedom depended on a moral, religious citizenry.
The term “American” describes no one person. To picture who and what we are, think of meeting “The Americans” – a four-generation family. Each generation’s family members represents his or her time here in a different way, yet all are members of one family. The time frame is roughly 1930 to 2013.
Our grandparents, in general, observed the tradition of the Father as the breadwinner, and the Mother as the homemaker. Meals were home cooked from food that was home grown. If they wanted something that cost more money than they had, they saved for it. God, Country, Family, and Friends were important – in that order. Authority was not questioned: teachers and church leaders and doctors and their elders were looked up to. People earned – and gave – respect. They were grateful for the blessings of life and its goodness. The family was the support system for each family member and they took care of their own, no matter how hard it was. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” was their mantra, if they had known what a mantra was.
Parents were the role models. We wanted to grow up to be just like our fathers and mothers. They had been through two World Wars, separated by the Great Depression – a dark time. The survivors learned to assess their wounds and count their blessings. They had their priorities in order. Our parents wanted the best for us, and while we were exposed to the basics of their generation – hard work, religion, education, family – we determined that when we became parents, we would work harder, earn more and give more opportunities to our children.
If success meant moving away from family and friends to accomplish these goals, then so be it. Our support system became the people we worked with in the new jobs in the new towns we moved to. We worked long and hard because it was “for the children” and therefore, worth it. We wore ourselves out – and worked ourselves to death – for our families. Stress became a household word and its antidotes were many, from exercise to prescriptions to meditation to diets to non-prescription panaceas.
A new phenomenon emerged: Credit! No longer would we have to wait to have our heart’s desire – we could have it NOW! We could have whatever we wanted, and we wanted it all. We were consumed with consumption. The acquisition of things became the new measure of success.
America was subtly re-shaping itself in terms of its people. The heartland of America still held to the traditional values, but around the perimeter of the country, the people reflected the stresses of City Life. As the pace of constant working accelerated, it became more difficult to stay together as a married couple. While teamwork was touted in the workplace, single parenthood became a more accepted option in the home. “The Children” became “The Children of Divorce.” Balancing work and family life became the goal for the successful single parent. Women became steely in their emotions; men became more emotional in their response to Work and Life. Not having children as a choice became a controversial option. Fulfilling oneself became accepted as a lifestyle.
Television began to have a huge impact on our lives. Initially, we gathered around the tube together; then we taped programs for later viewing; then latch-key kids watched alone without parental monitoring. Soon our children began to get their information and their values from TV. Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street were positive influences, but then television programming changed. It has been estimated that by the time a child reaches school age, he or she has watched more murders, rapes, robberies, and other heinous crimes than entire police precincts in their home towns. Constant exposure to vicarious violence and the degrading of others, nudity, strong language and disrespectful acts numb children to the consequences of their actions. When sensibilities are not developed at home or in our educational systems, we slowly lose our humanity.
Many Americans saw a formal education as a way to succeed, and most Americans believed that every child deserved a public education. We were most proud of our corporate successes for they showcased our vast wealth around the globe. We didn’t learn about “corporate culture” until later. This two-edged sword provided unimaginable opportunities for its workers while luring its corporate officers with the siren song of unimaginable riches. Our news media were zealous in exposing the irresponsible acts of our corporate and elected officials.
In her excellent essay on “Character and Corporate Influence”, Vicky Davis stated: At some point in our history, there was a fork in the road…Honesty, integrity and humanity are (now) characteristics held in low esteem. Greed, dishonesty and inhumanity are rewarded. Just as the magnetism of the poles is shifting, so too is our national character. Right is Wrong. Good is Bad. War is Peace. Marketed correctly, anything can be sold to the American people.
Our children, raised in abundance and relative peace, now modeled themselves on television idols and celebrities. They emulated their dress and their causes and they aspired to their lifestyles. They are willing to attempt outrageous things for a fast buck. They are obsessed with “image” while ignoring the illnesses it spawns – anorexia, bulemia, cosmetic surgeries. They are perceived as being self-absorbed and ignorant of any agenda other than their own. The banner of shallowness is held high, and thick skins enable reality programs to dominate programming. Good manners are not only not used, they are unknown.
Many Americans don’t see the value of learning any language other than their own. The need to do so is not pushed in our school systems nor encouraged in our homes. We are quite satisfied with our own lives and can’t be bothered with learning other equally valid lifestyles. “Think globally, act locally” is not an easy concept to grasp because it involves entertaining thoughts of something other than “the American Way”. We don’t know how to react to the idea that not everyone wants to be like us Americans. After all, we are Number One, aren’t we? Aren’t we?
Recent national and international tragedies have thrust a jagged mirror in our collective faces, and we have been forced to see ourselves as the world sees us. It is not a pretty picture for some. But for others, a more hopeful image emerges. For there is a great silent majority of people in our country who do not rush to register their uneducated opinions at the end of each TV news program on topics they know nothing about. This silent majority chooses to vote their opinions in our public elections, where they do know a great deal about the issues and the candidates who promise to uphold their voting preferences. These people practice the old-fashioned American values that made our country strong and honored in earlier times. They VOTE!
Increasingly, Americans want to travel, to meet different people in distant places. They are willing to educate themselves to get the jobs that will pay for this lifestyle, but they are traveling light. The acquisition of things is not their goal; indeed, they are into simplification. They travel to experience the Earth and her people. They want to leave a legacy of peace and friendship and understanding – of stewardship, if you will. This generation learns by doing, by actually being there, by seeking to learn about everything first-hand, including learning the language. They are perfectly willing to entertain a lifestyle other than the one they experienced growing up American. And they are open to embracing differences and finding their place among those ideas and people and places who are different. They do not think that doing so will lessen their stature as Americans. And for the first time in a long time, these Americans give me hope.