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American National Character
America can almost be thought of as a massive experiment in culture. Here we have a nation inhabited almost entirely by immigrants; all with different languages, customs, beliefs, and appearances who are forced to somehow reach a common understanding and identity. Through the over two hundred years of American history many differences have threatened to unravel our diverse nation, but still, many commonalities have ultimately held it together. Amidst such a range of economic, political, and racial mixtures it is a daunting task to identify what characteristics are uniquely American.
Yet, what can be considered "American" can also be traced to the roots of the nation. The place now called the United States was founded by puritan settlers who valued the notion of all men's equality in the eyes of God. Accordingly, the authors of the U.S. Constitution included equality under the law as one of its most basic principles. However, our founding fathers also adopted capitalism as the economic base for their newborn country. So as time passed, the universal ideals of individuality, progress, and love became different as seen through the American lens as seen by the rest of the world. The goal of the "American Dream" -- of some material goal in life -- resulted in competition between individuals hoping to achieve more than their neighbors, and the ultimate loss of civic pride and community cooperation. The dominance of capitalism and the race for wealth in American society has displaced the moral beliefs and social awareness present in other societies; and has altered it to a form conducive with the prevailing ideals of progress and economic gain. American society is unique in the way it has twisted the morals of a Christian society with a land-based economy to fit into an increasingly secular society with an industrial core.
It is important to keep in mind, "The continuing influence of puritanism should never be underestimated. The puritan catechism, with its emphasis on deferral of gratifications and the avoidance of indulgence, formed the childhood lessons of most modern adults. The difficulty is that the puritan ethic was made for an era of scarcity." (Hacker 26). And contrarily, the American Dream was born out of abundance and affluence. The original values of duty to community and self-sacrifice stand in opposition to the very basis of economic progress, because with "prosperity so readily at hand, private activities become all the more enjoyable, weakening any tendency to undergo sacrifices for social ends." (Hacker 5).
The puritan moral code, itself, is unique to America. The pilgrims that settled in the new world had been persecuted in Britain and forced to find a life elsewhere. The distinctive values they brought to the Americas included a literal interpretation of the bible and a staunch rejection of the body; for it was the center of all human weakness and the vehicle through which all sin originated. The remnants of this can still be seen in the extreme censorship exhibited in American television and magazines, which is not present even in other western societies.
The Christian ideals brought here by the first settlers also set the stage for one of the great dichotomies present in modern American society. "Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law. But, by a similar concourse of events, religion is entangled in those institutions which democracy assails, and is not unfrequently brought to reject the equality of loves, and to curse that cause of liberty as a foe, which it might hallow by its alliance." (Tocqueville lxxix). In other words, equality between all people comes into conflict with a democratic system in which people are inherently unequal and achieve different levels of social and economic freedoms based upon these disparities. The equality that is so treasured in the American Constitution was born from our puritan foundations, but the economy into which it was born valued individualism and competition rather than unity. So, it becomes clear "that it is individualism, and not equality, as Tocqueville thought, that has marched inexorably through our history." (Bellah xlii).
An example of how religion has become entangled with American law is in legal marriage. Marriage is associated with love, and society identifies love as "a stable union whose purpose is to beget and raise children." (Paz 199). This definition fails to recognize love as the tenuous and fleeting experience most of us know it to be. How many of us have known love for just a few moments or a few weeks in adolescence and known it to be "true" at the time, only to have it labeled as a "crush" by society and even by ourselves later in life? American society fails to acknowledge that love is unstable, and its purpose is not always to produce offspring. Marriage laws are based upon notions of love that are not consistent with human nature -- love is not always between a man and a woman, love does not always last forever, and love is not always directed towards one person. Present day America has mixed the morals of early Christianity with the legal practices of citizens who may or may not be Christian. Separation of church and state, and freedom of religion have not actualized themselves in contemporary America: the notions of equality and religious morality, in this case, are opposed to one another.
Individuality is another value that is uniquely American. Of course everyone is an individual in every society across the world, and this is considered an attribute in all societies; but the way in which Americans value individuality is different than in most of the world. As Americans, "We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness of the individual. Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious." (Bellah 142). The point to keep in mind is that in the United States the inherent worth of the individual is manifested in what he is allowed to do, in his rights with respect to everyone around him. Essentially, individuals in our country are set at a level playing field with everyone else.
By contrast, "The Latin American notion of the value of the individual differs radically from that current in the North American culture. To put it as succinctly as possible, each person is valuable because of a unique inner quality or worth he possesses. The United States credo, on the other hand, holds (at least ideally) that the individual merits respect because he has the right to be considered 'just as good as the next person' or, at least he has the right to an 'equal chance' or opportunity with other persons." (Cochran 123).
The problem with this legalized base for the idea of individual equality is that it is analogous to the start of a race. At the starting line everyone is at the same level, in the same position, and has an equal distance to run. However, some people are naturally faster than others; and these people are likely to be more successful. The race itself could be termed the American Dream -- it is a race for economic leisure. And although, regardless of how successful each person is they are granted equal rights, the fastest runners are more valuable at the end -- they have achieved more under the same conditions. Equality in the United States is more of a starting point; it has little to do with inner worth and more to do with the law.
The idea that Americans see society as a race to the top of the economic ladder results in strong self consideration -- the feeling that you need to "look out of number one." And at the same time the necessity to form a strong community and to "love thy neighbor" is slowly being lost. In the United States the so called "self-made man" is highly valued and even revered; he is seen as an individualist, standing alone, who had the gall to reach out and grab the American Dream. Americans rarely see this same individual as someone who just got lucky. The self-made man almost never returns the wealth he gained from society, and no one expects him to -- it's his.
Although the economic disparity in the United States may be unwarranted or even unjust, the success of some individuals over others is exactly what has driven what most people would call "progress." Technology is the result of a consumer driven economy; one that is constantly searching for new ways to make their lives easier. And it is the abundance of technology in America that has given credibility to the American Dream. "The extension of the democratic spirit is in largest measure the product of a continuing and accelerating technology, which in recent years…[continue]
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