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To my great surprise, near the end of my Army basic training a half-century ago, my drill sergeant revealed a well-read philosophical side in a barracks bull session with several of his trainees. He opined that the draft was a good thing because it helped preserve what he regarded as the best qualities of an American soldier: A guy with little use for bureaucratic games or grand theories, and with a fundamental grasp of the rightness and goodness of American values. He just wants to get the job done and go home and he is pretty confident that he can figure out how to do just that if others just get out of the way.
I found myself recalling that remarkable observation while watching a Twitter video of one of the many unfortunate lefty mutants collected by the Libs of TikTok. How can we distill and explain what is and can still be right with Americanness? And to keep it simple because I am old and lazy, I think we can do it with two words: Optimism and Uncertainty.
First, the role of optimism in the American character:
Over fifty years ago, Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984. In it, he explained that because Americans take our optimism for granted, we cannot really understand how Russians see the world. When an American sees his neighbor drive home in a brand new car, the American hopes and expects the system will allow him to have one too. When the Soviet Russian sees his neighbor’s new car he hopes and expects the system will come to take it away. Ingrained pessimism about economic conditions fosters envy and repression in the name of equality.
In recent years, we have lost sight of the daring and powerful optimism of the civil rights movement. Civil disobedience and demonstrations done respectfully and peacefully were expected to work (and did effect change) because the great majority of Americans are decent, good-hearted people who respond to a justly framed appeal to conscience. We will overcome not just because we are the good guys but because most of them are too. An optimistic view of the essential goodness and decency of our fellow Americans has been a powerful force.
Reagan’s speeches sometimes chided opponents but never stopped being an invitation to join in an endorsement of what had always been the best qualities of being American. That we can have confidence in our collective decency and honor is a vital, energizing belief.
Second, uncertainty: How we deal with it also defines us.
George McClellan was a highly educated man and a brilliant military organizer who had studied the finest in European strategic and tactical theory. He built the Army of the Potomac into the equal of any fighting force on the planet. Nevertheless, he got his tail kicked by a smaller enemy force because he was paralyzed by an inability to deal with uncertainty. The enemy might have reinforcements hidden from his view. McClellan did not have all the intel and details on this or that development so it might be a ruse. Delay and passivity were fatal flaws because of a craving for the security of perfect information to achieve perfect cognitive control.
Increasingly, both private organizations and governments spew rules and protocols for every eventuality which make the inevitable exceptions seem like something to be resented or even feared. Increasingly lacking is the wisdom and acceptance inherent in Harold Macmillan’s wonderful line about the main challenges to leadership: “Events, dear boy, events.” The entire global strategy to deal with COVID-19 was founded on denial of the fact that we do not have the knowledge or technology to significantly stop the spread of respiratory viruses. But we needed to pretend that we do, at horrific expense.
I also think we often draw the wrong lesson from Adam and Eve’s screwup. The Garden of Eden was not about being mindlessly happy and picking fruit all day such that the snake-induced fiasco was a net positive for our cognitive advancement. The capability to build, change grow, and create was already built-in to the gift of life, human nature, and personhood. The serpent’s key selling point was not knowledge or moral insights about good and evil but the part about being “as gods.” It was not the acquisition of wisdom per se but knowledge that could bypass work, effort, and corporeal limitations, to be able to make a new universe spring from thoughts and preferences. In this herpetological fantasy, “wisdom” was less about Solomon and more about being Superman or Captain Marvel.
It is the difference between thinking about and doing what needs to be done to repair a leak in the roof versus bemoaning the inability to order the rain to fall somewhere away from the house.
Thanks to more recent successful sales by the snake, race relations is no longer about mutual respect or fixing tangible problems but about the raw mental power of white people to impose indefinable “systemic racism” with their thoughts. We pretend that we will control the weather and the survival of species with treaties and a mental mandate that energy will suddenly come in new forms. (Remember how the automobile and steam locative came into being because governments set a deadline for use of horse-drawn vehicles by a certain date? Neither do I.) And we can’t let “free speech” disrupt the happy cognitive cocoon of completely scripted exchanges that require no thought or debate and foster the illusion of control and perfect understanding of events.
Who are we?
Optimism, mutual respect, and the courage to adapt and do the work that needs doing when challenges and changes present themselves were widely seen as characteristic American traits. It is why we could have fair elections, a trusted judiciary, great institutions, and color TVs in every house while much of the rest of the world remained in mud huts in nations ruled by thieves and thugs.
Pessimism, distrust, and the seduction of false certainties are essentially what that talking snake was selling Adam and Eve and many of us are still falling for it even though what has replaced the garden can be pretty darn good and get even better if we just accept and affirm it and us in the ways we already know.Published in