Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The American Credo?

In 1921 a unique little book was published by Knopf called The American Credo by George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken. The book's subtitle is A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind. It is a somewhat dated, sometimes insightful, and often hilarious collection of the 488 "fundamental beliefs" cherished by Americans, many of which are timely, like #36:

"That when an ocean vessel collides with another vessel or hits an iceberg and starts to sink, the ship's band promptly rushes up to the top deck and begins playing 'Nearer My God to Thee."

Or #338:

"That all Mormons, despite the laws against it, still practice polygamy, and that they have agents all over the world recruiting cuties for their harems."

The interests of Nathan and Mencken in writing the book were, they assert, scholarly. At the end of their lengthy preface, which takes up half of the book, they write:

"No doubt we should apologize for writing, even so, so long a preface to so succinct a book. The one excuse we can think of is that, having read it, one need not read the book. That book, as we have said, may strike the superficial as jocular, but in actual fact it is a very serious and even profound composition, not addressed to the casual reader, but to the scholar. . . Well, here is an attempt to assemble in convenient form, without comment or interpretation, some of the fundamental beliefs of the largest body of human beings now under one flag in Christendom. It is but a beginning. The field is barely platted. It must be explored to the last furlong and all its fantastic and fascinating treasures unearthed and examined before ever there can be any accurate understanding of the mind of the American people."

That preface, in seven parts, is the best part of the book. It covers several aspects of the American Scene and is often topical, but occasionally penetrating. For example, it explodes the popular belief that Americans have an unslakable thirst for liberty, and that Americans are all money-mongering boobs.

In Part III of the preface, the authors come close to defining the primary motive of the American way of life, and it is as timely as it was 92 years ago.

But what, then, is the character that actually marks the American - that is, in chief? If he is not the exalted monopolist of liberty that he thinks he is nor the noble altruist and idealist he slaps upon the chest when he is full of rhetoric, nor the degraded dollar-chaser of European legend, then what is he? We offer an answer in all humility, for the problem is complex and there is but little illumination of it in the literature; nevertheless, we offer it in the firm conviction, born of twenty years' incessant meditation, that it is substantially correct. It is, in brief, this: that the thing which sets off the American from all other men, and gives a peculiar colour not only to the pattern of his daily life but also to the play of his inner ideas, is what, for want of a more exact term, may be called social aspiration. That is to say, his dominant passion is a passion to lift himself by at least a step or two in the society that he is a part of - a passion to improve his position, to break down some shadowy barrier of caste, to achieve the countenance of what, for all his talk of equality, he recognizes and accepts as his betters. The American is a pusher. His eyes are ever fixed upon some round of the ladder that is just beyond his reach, and all his secret ambitions, all his extraordinary energies, group themselves about the yearning to grasp it.

This trait among Americans, their upward (and downward) mobility, has come to be regarded as the essential ingredient of the American Dream. Every American desires to make a life for their children that is better (i.e., more materially comfortable) than their own. It's a quite recent addition to the always expanding set of expectations that Americans seem to create to convince themselves that their lives are a success. It is the Constitution, after all, that has guaranteed them "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

But it has just as likely guaranteed dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Like the minimum 3% annual growth rate that every economy requires to be considered "healthy", it simply isn't :sustainable" in the long run. As George Orwell put it, "Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness."(1)

Perhaps it's time for Americans to realize that the American Dream is just that - a dream?

(1) George Orwell, "Arthur Koestler", September 1944.

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