America the Abstract

 

I drive my daughter to school each morning, and I often fill the twenty minute commute with an impromptu lecture about whatever happens to be on my mind. I enjoy it; my daughter is a surprisingly gracious captive audience. On a recent drive we (okay, I) talked about roads. We talked about how roads have a real, concrete existence – they’re the asphalt and gravel we drive on every day – as well as an abstract nature. We live out in the country, where most roads are known by the route numbers and letters associated with them: we take highway 3 to 374, then North Catherine to 22 to 9 to New York Avenue, and so end up at her high school. But those names and numbers aren’t really roads at all, just abstract routes that join and overlap and then continue on different physical paths.

Not a big idea, but a way to talk about the differences between the concrete and the abstract. Roads exist in the real world, and they’re relatively hard to change, hard to damage. Routes and paths exist in the abstract, and can be changed in the blink of an eye by an NYSDOT employee sitting at his desk in Albany – though it may take a while for the old abstractions to fade away in our stubborn rural consciences.

And so, I thought, is America a combination of the concrete and the abstract. We’re engaged in a national debate now about border security, about how – or if – we should attempt to control entry into our country. America is an enormous country physically, a spacious and resilient landscape that, for the most part, easily absorbs the demands we place upon it. A few millions, or tens of millions, more won’t strain our natural resources or our physical infrastructure. Indeed, we could probably double our population and remain sustainable.

But despite the geophysical wonder that is America, there’s something more important, more essential to our well-being: the abstraction that is the heart of our country. This abstraction exists in the form of the shared culture, values, traditions, and relationships that unite us and give us a unique identity. It’s a constantly changing abstraction, but it retains its character, more or less, across generations, and it’s that persistent character that defines us.

At least since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, a great many Americans have been mindful of the damage we might do to the physical America. It’s a worthy concern, though I believe many of those who are passionate about it underestimate the natural capacity of our country, and overestimate the significance of the changes we make.

On the other hand, over those same five and a half decades, abstract America has changed in profound ways, and many of these changes have been either ignored by most people, or encouraged by those who simply assume that radical change is part and parcel of a dynamic and free society. For better or worse, the family has been reinvented in the past fifty years. The role of women in society has been transformed. The relationship between children and the state has altered in a way that would have been unimaginable half a century ago. Perhaps most importantly, our awareness of, and willingness to articulate and defend, our own abstract national identity has been attacked and diminished, to the point where even claiming that we are an exceptionally good nation embracing exceptionally good values sounds naive and jingoistic to most educated people, and brings the inevitable firestorm of protests and quisling qualifications.

When people come to America, they leave their physical countries, but they bring with them their abstractions. The strength of America has always been that our culture was strong and appealing, we proclaimed it boldly, and those who came here chose to take part in it, foregoing most of what they brought with them from their own countries. That process was called assimilation, and it made America the destination more people dreamed about – and continue to dream about – than any nation at any time in history.

It’s no longer considered appropriate to champion America’s values. Led by our academics, our media, and our entertainment industry, we’ve become a nation unwilling to talk about our greatness, more interested in obsessing about our shortcomings than in celebrating our unique virtues and encouraging the world to emulate us. We’re like a strong man ashamed of his strength, guiltily suppressing his exceptional vitality, and magnifying his imperfections in an attempt to explain to himself his own crippling self-loathing.

In a way, it’s like Hollywood’s obsession with physical perfection and simultaneous disinterest in moral character. We’re a nation obsessed with the physical environment, but perversely unmindful of the cultural environment: those most aware of the latter are, by and large, bent on its destructive transformation.

If we won’t stand up for our own values, traditions, and culture, then we can hardly expect those who come here to embrace them, to assimilate and take part in America the abstract. Worse, we can’t expect the next generation of Americans, people born here, to embrace what we fail to elevate and honor. Soon, if not already, we’ll share America the physical with competing abstractions, some of which are hostile and incompatible with the ideas that made us great.

And then we’re just real estate.

Published in Culture
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There are 16 comments.

  1. Member

    Henry Racette: Soon, if not already, we’ll share America the physical with competing abstractions, some of which are hostile and incompatible with the ideas that made us great.

    I’m convinced the blue islands (primarily coastal urban areas) already see themselves as city-states and citizens of the world. They have little regard for for what we would traditionally consider America either in the physical or the abstract. Flyover country is something to be avoided and its values something to be mocked. And what’s to keep them from existing that way going forward? Their cities are economic powerhouses and most have ports that allow them to trade with the world while ignoring the provinces.

    • #1
    • October 21, 2017 at 9:44 pm
    • 2 likes
  2. Member

    Randal H (View Comment):
    I’m convinced the blue islands (primarily coastal urban areas) already see themselves as city-states and citizens of the world. They have little regard for for what we would traditionally consider America either in the physical or the abstract. Flyover country is something to be avoided and its values something to be mocked. And what’s to keep them from existing that way going forward? Their cities are economic powerhouses and most have ports that allow them to trade with the world while ignoring the provinces.

    What indeed? Their economic malaise. They all have deeply unsustainable future debts tied to unrealistic pension and other entitlements. As these bills come due they face either economic ruin, fundamental changes in the way they structure things economically at the city and state level, bailouts from the Federals which will be at least strenuously opposed by the red states (remember the Senate) or simply having their political climate turn to dark Red as some of their voters are shocked to reality by a massively worsening economic climate. There will also probably be a huge exodus from these same cities as jobs evaporate. First blue collar and then more lucrative jobs will migrate to more favorable climates in the ‘flyover’ country as communication and even transportation barriers continue to diminish.
    The Socialist scheme always collapses of its own inefficiency and unproductiveness, there is no reason to believe it won’t happen here. Detroit is the first but not the last victim of the foolishness and short sightness of their own leadership.
    This process may take a few decades but the outcome is entirely predictable. It will produce great stresses for national unity but there is no reason that the U.S. system cannot survive and even be strengthened assuming the voters don’t make too many really bad choices. Maintaining what remains of republicanism (small r, not the party) is key.

    • #2
    • October 22, 2017 at 4:20 am
    • 3 likes
  3. Member

    The physical structures from a bygone age, if deemed to be “historical” are protected with ferocity even when their purpose for existing is long past and doing so is looked upon as preservation of a valuable resource. The slightest change to what might be considered “habitat” must be justified with voluminous studies.

    On the other hand, the fabric of our culture and customs – marriage, family, religion, and role models – are aggressively swept away as if less than worthless – unless of course, they represent the view, real or imagined, of a tiny minority that is antithetical to their values.

    The question is how do we as conservatives accomplish true conservation of what really matters?

    • #3
    • October 22, 2017 at 4:32 am
    • 5 likes
  4. Member

    We were on the precipice in 2016 and barely hung on. If Trump can somehow be successful as POTUS, we will have done a lot to hold back, maybe somewhat reverse, the progressive tidal wave.

    • #4
    • October 22, 2017 at 5:28 am
    • 4 likes
  5. Member

    The Harvey Weinstein scandal points to one of the two values we’re most failing to defend—liberty.

    We detest Harvey Weinstein because we see him as a powerful person experiencing no disapproval from his social world for forcing a human being to choose between keeping her soul and protecting her career. And it’s to our detriment that we look away from that, as we’re encouraged by certain people to do, and focus instead on how ugly his appearance supposedly is and how revolting his behavior certainly is.

    Well, what about the good looking, superficially well mannered, wealthy, progressive, gay couple who simply must have it be a Fundamentalist Christian who decorates their wedding cake ?

    Close to the beginning of a poem I read recently was the line “We need to talk about Harvey.” But we don’t, exactly, because the importance of Harvey Weinstein isn’t the particular way he spits on another human being’s right to liberty.

    We need to talk about our right to liberty.

    • #5
    • October 22, 2017 at 6:05 am
    • 2 likes
  6. Member

    Henry Racette: When people come to America, they leave their physical countries, but they bring with them their abstractions. The strength of America has always been that our culture was strong and appealing, we proclaimed it boldly, and those who came here chose to take part in it, foregoing most of what they brought with them from their own countries. That process was called assimilation, and it made America the destination more people dreamed about – and continue to dream about – than any nation at any time in history.

    I don’t know the actual process for bringing in immigrants fleeing war-torn or oppressive countries, i.e., refugees, but I wonder if have any choice in coming here. Is there any screening going on (do they choose the U.S.?), any forethought to what they’ll face when they get here, any kind of preparation for being brought to an alien country? For the most part, they probably don’t know the language or culture and the climate is decidedly different. They come from a distinctly different way of life in many ordinary ways: the kind of house they live in, how they get their food, what they do to earn a living, or how they travel. Isn’t there a better way to give them a new start in a part of the world that is geographically and culturally more similar to where they’re coming from? Will they assimilate or will we have more enclaves of immigrant populations such as Dearborn, Michigan, or Minneapolis, Minnesota? Or maybe that’s not so different from the Irish who came to the Northeast way back? Also, wasn’t this “cultural appropriation” thing previously considered a GOOD thing? Wasn’t that part of assimilation–taking some novel parts of immigrant traditions and making them part of the general culture?

    • #6
    • October 22, 2017 at 7:33 am
    • 1 like
  7. Thatcher

    Henry,

    Henry Racette: If we won’t stand up for our own values, traditions, and culture, then we can hardly expect those who come here to embrace them, to assimilate and take part in America the abstract. Worse, we can’t expect the next generation of Americans, people born here, to embrace what we fail to elevate and honor. Soon, if not already, we’ll share America the physical with competing abstractions, some of which are hostile and incompatible with the ideas that made us great.

    The lame left. Well, Marx said it was all about power and class. Now we know it was all about power, class, race, and gender. Let’s destroy Western Civilization and start over. Marx was right about that.

    The lame right. I’m busy. I’m doing the really important things, science, engineering, math, economics, business, finance, political science..etc. I don’t know anything about Western Civilization and I don’t care. That’s somebody else’s job. Please leave me alone.

    Sound familiar.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #7
    • October 22, 2017 at 10:05 am
    • 3 likes
  8. Thatcher

    Interesting you talked about the abstraction of route numbers, highway numbers and the like.

    Do you know I have discussed with some adults highway numbers as route numbers, an abstraction as opposed to that strip of concrete and not obtained full comprehension.

    • #8
    • October 22, 2017 at 1:41 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    Chuckles (View Comment):
    Interesting you talked about the abstraction of route numbers, highway numbers and the like.

    Do you know I have discussed with some adults highway numbers as route numbers, an abstraction as opposed to that strip of concrete and not obtained full comprehension.

    What’s that saying about “great minds?”

    ;)

    • #9
    • October 22, 2017 at 1:48 pm
    • Like
  10. Thatcher

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Chuckles (View Comment):
    Interesting you talked about the abstraction of route numbers, highway numbers and the like.

    Do you know I have discussed with some adults highway numbers as route numbers, an abstraction as opposed to that strip of concrete and not obtained full comprehension.

    What’s that saying about “great minds?”

    ;)

    From reading, I think you’re a better teacher than I am: In any case, you are starting young. Nobody ever discussed these things with me, I had to figure it out for myself and that took some thousands of miles.

    • #10
    • October 22, 2017 at 2:02 pm
    • 1 like
  11. Contributor

    OkieSailor (View Comment):

    Randal H (View Comment):
    I’m convinced the blue islands (primarily coastal urban areas) already see themselves as city-states and citizens of the world. They have little regard for for what we would traditionally consider America either in the physical or the abstract. Flyover country is something to be avoided and its values something to be mocked. And what’s to keep them from existing that way going forward? Their cities are economic powerhouses and most have ports that allow them to trade with the world while ignoring the provinces.

    What indeed? Their economic malaise. They all have deeply unsustainable future debts tied to unrealistic pension and other entitlements. As these bills come due they face either economic ruin, fundamental changes in the way they structure things economically at the city and state level, bailouts from the Federals which will be at least strenuously opposed by the red states (remember the Senate) or simply having their political climate turn to dark Red as some of their voters are shocked to reality by a massively worsening economic climate. There will also probably be a huge exodus from these same cities as jobs evaporate. First blue collar and then more lucrative jobs will migrate to more favorable climates in the ‘flyover’ country as communication and even transportation barriers continue to diminish.
    The Socialist scheme always collapses of its own inefficiency and unproductiveness, there is no reason to believe it won’t happen here. Detroit is the first but not the last victim of the foolishness and short sightness of their own leadership.
    This process may take a few decades but the outcome is entirely predictable. It will produce great stresses for national unity but there is no reason that the U.S. system cannot survive and even be strengthened assuming the voters don’t make too many really bad choices. Maintaining what remains of republicanism (small r, not the party) is key.

    Amen.

    • #11
    • October 22, 2017 at 3:39 pm
    • 1 like
  12. Member

    Eleven comments so far and not a single one has mentioned the reference to “Silent Spring”–one of the most egregious and damaging fake science projects in the history of the modern American progressivist brainwashing strategy–as making Americans “mindful” of…something.

    I am shocked to see the statement in the OP, but much more so to see that Ricocheteers as a group seem to be as oblivious of this fact of our history as the author.

    • #12
    • October 22, 2017 at 5:19 pm
    • Like
  13. Thatcher

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Eleven comments so far and not a single one has mentioned the reference to “Silent Spring”–one of the most egregious and damaging fake science projects in the history of the modern American progressivist brainwashing strategy–as making Americans “mindful” of…something.

    I am shocked to see the statement in the OP, but much more so to see that Ricocheteers as a group seem to be as oblivious of this fact of our history as the author.

    Some of us old guys are well aware having been there. And I an certainly not shocked to find that, over the years that memories have failed.

    Some of the younger are in fact probably not knowledgeable to any great degree. You probably know it is not reasonable to expect Silent Spring and the consequences to be taught in any honest way in todays public schools or universities – certainly not to the vast majority of students. So why don’t you start an educational conversation here? Or have you – I haven’t checked.

    • #13
    • October 22, 2017 at 5:39 pm
    • 1 like
  14. Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Eleven comments so far and not a single one has mentioned the reference to “Silent Spring”–one of the most egregious and damaging fake science projects in the history of the modern American progressivist brainwashing strategy–as making Americans “mindful” of…something.

    I am shocked to see the statement in the OP, but much more so to see that Ricocheteers as a group seem to be as oblivious of this fact of our history as the author.

    The post was generally dismissive of environmental panic, though I didn’t want to make that the focus of the piece. I spoke of environmentalists overestimating our impact, of a resilient environment easily absorbing the demands we place upon it, and of the ease with which we could double our population. I think paying attention to the environment makes sense, and I do think public attention was drawn to environmental issues by Carson’s book. I also think most environmental concerns are wildly overblown — including all of the popular alarmists (e.g., Carson, Ehrlich, and the entire climate change industry).

    Now that you mention it, it’s perhaps a little odd that no one else spoke critically of her book. Perhaps the other readers assumed, from my post, that I don’t take Carson’s concerns seriously. If so, they’re correct.

    (Then again, it’s a passing reference in a long and rather dry piece, so perhaps the handful of people who read to the end just forgot that I mentioned it.)

    Chuckles (View Comment):
    Some of us old guys are well aware having been there. And I an certainly not shocked to find that, over the years that memories have failed.

    It was more than 50 years ago: many people here probably are not even aware the book exists. Like The Population Bomb or Unsafe at Any SpeedSilent Spring is a discredited remnant from a radical decade.

    In any case, I chose it for a reason: it was profoundly influential in focusing attention on the environment. That’s not a defense of the book, merely an observation.

    • #14
    • October 22, 2017 at 5:42 pm
    • 1 like
  15. Member

    50 years ago, my goodness. I just read that over 800000 people, mostly children, are killed each year from Malaria. And guess what. Scientists have now given their blessings to use DDT again .

    So because of Silent Spring, Rachael Carson’s yanking heartstrings have produced 40 Million preventable deaths. When I read past your mention @henryracette, my eyes popped a bit, but not thinking it was pertinent to the essence of your piece, I moved on. I never delved into Rachael Carson, the person. Was she evil, or did she mean well but was just tragically so very very wrong?

    • #15
    • October 23, 2017 at 6:37 am
    • Like
  16. Contributor
    Henry Racette Post author

    cdor (View Comment):
    So because of Silent Spring, Rachael Carson’s yanking heartstrings have produced 40 Million preventable deaths.

    Well, because of her book and a wildly overzealous environmental movement, yes.

    Again, this wasn’t an endorsement, merely a reference. I’ve mentioned Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, and the Quran in various things I’ve posted, when referencing their significance: none of those were endorsements either.

    • #16
    • October 23, 2017 at 7:51 am
    • Like