Monday, October 31, 2011

Early American Dreams

Daniel J. Boorstin.  The Americans: The Colonial Experience.  New York: Vintage, 1964.  ISBN: 0394705130.

This book tells the story of the early European settlers in the thirteen British colonies that eventually became the United States.  Four things stood out to me as I went through the book.

(1) Americans are historically individualists.  Historically, we tend toward an egalitarian view of the world, even as this view becomes more and more a relic of realities that exist no more.  It was much truer back in the day that Boorstin describes, when there was no professional American army, and European barriers of caste and culture carried little or no meaning on this side of the pond.  (Everyone had to know a little about farming, medicine, and fighting.  We didn't have the means or the interest to separate professionals into rigid castes governed by outdated rules that didn't work at all on the wild frontier of Western civilization.)  Over and over again, Boorstin comes back to the same ideal early American, a jack of all trades who never let his book-learning get in the way of practical experience.  Americans were amateur farmers (having plenty of land to experiment with and no reason to husband it as intensively as their European counterparts), amateur doctors (having plenty of disease to look after, little formal medical schooling to speak of, and no ironclad respect for book learned expertise), amateur scientists (having plenty of new flora and fauna to classify, not to mention geographical discoveries to make), amateur priests (especially in areas where multiple sects existed), and amateur warriors (since they were constantly called on to defend themselves and their families at a moment's notice from Indian attacks).

Reading this book helped me see how, in a certain way, the moral attitude that I have adopted (more like stumbled into)--and tried only too imperfectly to implement over the course of my life so far--is historically American.  I don't like being trapped in a rigid profession, with non-negotiable rules and a fixed hierarchy (of practitioners and of knowledge).  I tend to think that such professions are largely bullcrap, no matter who makes them.  Politicians, professionals, businessmen, and clergy all sound remarkably similar when you strip away the particulars of their speech and look at the generalities: "We are God's gift to the world.  Pay us or risk losing everything worth anything in life.  There is no happiness without conformity to our rules.  Too bad they don't work out for all of you as well as they do for us: God must not like you as much."  Such professions exist to serve values that I find tendentious, artificially narrow, and (ultimately) dangerous.  Most of the time, they make a point of avoiding issues that I find important (like integrity, sustainability, and quality), passing the buck for difficult decisions on to some nebulous higher authority (God, the common weal, or some lesser avatar, e.g. the almighty dollar or a charismatic CEO) whose humble agent (some bureaucrat) has the unfortunate duty of serving the public by playing the role of Divine Inquisitor (or mafia enforcer: pick your own evil metaphor).

(2) Americans are historically idealists.  Many of the first American colonists were religious zealots looking for a place to be the city on the hill that they felt Christ was calling them to be.  They were often seriously, dangerously nutty.  Puritans tortured and killed people who didn't fit the mold that their standard of righteousness demanded.  Some of their victims were Quakers, who were as adamant about courting martyrdom as any Puritan was about dishing it out.  Seriously, what do you do with someone who keeps coming back to your settlement begging that you either accept his (or her) preaching, or at least have the decency to kill the messenger?  Not having learned that passive non-interest is the most effective way to deal crazy Bible-thumpers, the Puritans became the cruel partisan establishment that they had fled.  The persecuted were reinvented as persecutors (and the groundwork was laid for myths like those in the Book of Mormon, which talks a lot about rival preachers with a penchant for going to unreasonably hostile villages where they and their outnumbered followers run the risk of being killed).  Of course, American idealism had positive expressions as well.  Rhode Island was a haven of tolerance for those non-martyrs unable to make it in Massachusetts.  Pennsylvania too welcomed members of many different faiths, who managed to get along with each other remarkably well.  Virginia cultivated a relaxed, practical attitude to religion that ultimately nourished the Deism of several original Founding Fathers (e.g. Thomas Jefferson).  In the end, Congregationalist Puritan craziness backfired, and the sect ultimately became much more practical (eventually giving birth to Unitarianism in the nineteenth century!).  Ironically, the American Quakers became mired in the very kind of narrow dogmatism that their creed explicitly rejects, leading them to a cultural dead end from which they are still trying to resurrect the original divine spark recognized by George Fox.

I am definitely an idealist.  I believe in truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  I dislike lies.  I dislike compromise.  I dislike all the dirty, messy realities that inevitably come up when people organize and treat with each other in official, officious ways.  But my faith crisis has taught me to tone it down.  There is a place for compromise.  There is a place for letting sleeping dogs lie.  And there is even a place for lying (as the nun hiding Jews from the Nazis would know).  But it is really too bad, because I would like to have everything out there in the open.

(3) Americans are historically naive.  The first Americans had all kinds of crazy ideas about life that did not really pan out as advertised.  We believed that we would establish a religious utopia: instead, we have a secular republic (which is in some ways, many ways, a much better thing).  We believed in our European way of life; we thought we were doing the savage wilderness a favor by trying to civilize it.  Even if we were, it was definitely not the kind of favor we thought we were doing it, since our Greek gift of civilization brought a lot of bad stuff (e.g. smallpox) whose real import escaped us entirely.  In many ways, our history reads as a continuous series of brilliant ideas that imagine heaven (utopia, the American dream) only to end up raising hell (civil wars, slavery, industrialization, globalization, Wall Street).

(4) Americans respond to circumstances, valuing empirical functionality over theoretical perfection.  The saving grace of our naivete historically has been that it comes with a healthy dose of practical skepticism.  We start with pie-in-the-sky, but when this fails to materialize, we change the game-plan.  We learn from our mistakes.  When the Indians showed us new ways to raise crops, treat illness, and wage war, we learned (and to this day, many of us still think of fighting as a life-and-death struggle between free men, rather than some kind of organized game for noblemen and professional mercenaries; we still prefer Cincinnatus over Caesar, at least in our mythology).  This is the principle of continuing revelation in Mormonism, and it is an important part of my personal creed as a human being (and an American too).      


  1. 1. "I know that absolute truth is dangerous, and that it makes no sense to me." 2. "I believe in truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." I would like you to reconcile those two statements for me so I can understand your posts a little better. (I am not trying to play "got cha" either; I suspect you mean both of these and they are not really that contradictory.)

  2. 1. I don't see how truth can be separated from context, which plays a decisive role in defining it. Killing someone in cold blood is wrong. Killing someone in self-defense is unfortunate, but not the same thing. Blanket prohibitions and endorsements have a tendency to miss these nuances, creating people and societies who are so busy following a broken rule that they do not know how to be moral (i.e. make personal decision that they endorse and believe in for reasons other than that somebody said to).

    2. I like seeing how things work as many times as possible, in as many contexts as possible, and I like full disclosure. One reason my phrasing of this sounds kind of silly here is that it comes from an earlier version of my persona, a version which believed in absolute truth. I thought back then that I would eventually discover absolute truth if I put all relative truth together. I still think collecting all the relative truth I can is a good idea, but I don't seriously think I will ever have all truth (since new contexts are always appearing).

    You could think of the Zen proverb about the tea cup here. I like drinking tea (truth), so I am constantly filling and emptying my teacup, which can only hold so much tea (truth) at a time. If I did not empty my cup regularly, I could not refill it, and my tea (truth) would go stale. But I cannot drink the whole ocean dry, as I would have to do in order to drink all the tea (truth) out there.

    Every contextual truth is imperfect, because it is unique (to a specific context). The best way to get good at dealing with contextual truth is to experience as much of it as possible, as consciously as possible, so that you can build up a conscious moral regimen for handling it responsibly. It is kind of like driving a car; if you practice enough, you can handle new situations (contexts) better than you would if you thought there was only one way to drive (e.g. forward, with no lights on, because that is how Dale Earnhardt, the one true driver, drives around a racetrack).

    Does that make any sense?