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January 16, 2008
The Future of the American Idea

I love The Atlantic, and I sometimes neglect it, like others I love. Only recently have I waded through the November 2007 issue, which has the heft of a novella, due to the fact that it is the 150th anniversary issue, and has therefore crammed into its early pages a host of short essays by various luminaries on the topic of "The Future of the American Idea."

The editors did a delightful job in places, juxtaposing the mindless Sam Harris, who complains about America's "God-drunk society," with an equally mindless essay from Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, who asserts that "America's founding was based more on biblical principles than any other nation's on earth—and that's the main reason this country has been more blessed by God than any other nation in history."

Apparently they don't study Israel, or the Old Testament, in the Tim LaHaye School of Prophecy. ("Your Biblical Prophecy Headquarters," according to their website.)

There's also the juxtaposition of Judith Martin's defense of manners with Tom Wolfe's meandering celebration of Jefferson's ability to insult British ambassadors. I suppose I fall somewhere between pell-mell and white gloves, but I'm grateful for each pole.

Of the 34 essayists, eleven are university faculty members, and four are from Princeton. Fully half of Princeton's contingent, in the persons of Cornel West and Joyce Carol Oates, is quite possibly unhinged. America represents, to West and Oates (and other essayists), a Taliban-esque prison of racism and brutality. Perhaps anticipating as much, Robert Conquest noted in his essay:

"Today's challenges to the American idea, such as jihadism, are equally driven by lethal certainties. They present what amounts to the anti-American idea. The superficial blemishes to be found in any society are equated with the totally negative cancers in the vital organs of our foes. The idea, and the open society, needs a sense of proportion — not always to be found, even among our own equivalent of an intelligentsia."

After working my way through all of these essays, I found myself drawn back to the guy I used to think of only as "that fast-food journalist," Eric Schlosser, who writes:

"The America that I love bears little relation to the freak show now peddled by Hollywood and the cable-news networks. I've had the privilege of spending time with some of the poorest people in this country and some of the richest, and it's left me feeling that we have far too many of both. The best lives, the happiest and most satisfied ones, seem to be lived somewhere in between. I have no tolerance for anti-Americanism overseas or the complacency here at home. I worry about the extremes and the extremism that have deeply taken root—the anger, the arrogance, the lack of empathy and compassion. The current state of the union brings to mind Thomas Jefferson's famous remark: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

All of this left me thinking about what I'll write for The Atlantic's 200th issue, should they invite me. You'll have to buy it in 2057, of course, but be assured it will likely deal with this reality, that we are a nation besotted with our rights, and fearful of our responsibilities.

Posted by Woodlief on January 16, 2008 at 02:03 PM


Thanks for the wading. Gave up my Atlantic sub after they got kinda shrill and extremist rather than maintaining the centrist, pragmatic and balanced stance that first attracted me. Very sorry to as a pragmatic centrist position is very valuable these days. At one point they were closely linked to the New America Foundation who's central book "Radical Center" is still worth reading. They too lost it, along with the Atlantic, over Iraq and took positions that didn't meet their own standards of data-driven assessments. RadCenter btw is pre-911/Iraq and so concentrates on domestic policy; we've all been woken up since then having squandered our opportunities to anticipate and preempt.
Which leads to the key question - what kind of world would you like to live in ? That would be an interesting series of posts perhaps. Would love to see you and your readership tackle it :) !

My own attempts to address that question, at least sketchily are:
Politics & Policy: http://tinyurl.com/32vfkc and
Brave New World: http://tinyurl.com/ypzhzk

Posted by: dblwyo at January 17, 2008 9:02 AM

I know it is not palatable to most (dare I say white) people to say that Cornell West has a point. Don't get me wrong. I cringe when he uses words like "from whence" (that grates on me almost as much as "anyways" or saying something was "literally" true), but we as white Americans (you and I - I will not make assumptions about your readers) have one thing that really disconnects us from people of color: We don't have to think about being white everyday and have no concept that we are priviledged because of our color. Sorry. I know that there are a lot of people who do not want to hear about the inequality in America and worldwide, but I find that these are usually people who have made up their minds without opening them to the possibility of someone's differing set of experiences. For me, my ministry is one of addressing these issues while also understanding my own background and notions about this world. And I am happy to say that I am frequently wrong. This gives me a great opportunity to learn as long as I am still willing to change.
As I delve more into the Gospels, I realize what a tough religion this Christianity is. There is most certainly no promise of material comfort and following Christ may actually be hazardous to your mortal health! I cannot blame anyone for trying to make the faith fit cultural norms and creature comforts, but I do pray everyday for just a little more from each of us.
"Taliban-esque"? Yeah, that's extreme. I just hate that West gets his words out more than someone who might be more interested in dialogue and relationship than words that get the defenses up first.
Love God AND love your neighbor. That conjunction affirms both commands. One cannot be obeyed without the other. I wonder if West or Oates or you or me fully get that.
Love you my friend.

Posted by: Shawn at January 17, 2008 10:46 AM

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