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.