Tony Woodlief | Author

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.

On Key

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