Zinan/My Turn: Reviving our vision
In June 1929, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Truslow Adams wrote a magazine essay titled “To Be or To Do.” Reading this essay for the first time recently, I was amazed at how very little our American culture had changed since 1929. Adams described three major cultural issues:
1. “I think that America is the only country in the world where what a man does counts for so much more than what he is, and where the general public, having no cultural standard by which to judge what a man is, takes as the basis of appraisal solely the visible signs of what presumably he has done.”
2. “There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” Adams then levies much blame on our academic leaders both private and public. For taking in billions of dollars in private/public funding and huge endowments and yet not being able to present a better vision of educating our society.
3. And lastly, he bemoans a general lack of an American culture. Instead, Adams perceived our society with an insatiable thirst for “Power and Service.” This quest for power and service in turn makes us a society of extreme haste. And haste for what purpose except more power.
In today’s terminology, I interpret “power and service” to mean an ever-expanding government bureaucracy or large-scale corporate entity. For example; the National Security Agency’s quest for metadata knowledge on every person on the planet or the Department of Homeland Security regulating every passenger motion on every airline flight.
Adams’ vision of culture were those things that expanded the “beauty and worth of human nature.” Specifically, for him, in a somewhat elitist fashion, European culture. Today’s huge popularity of British TV shows, movies and the royal family probably reflects our desire for an established, steady, rooted culture. The American love affair with sports is our tribal bond beyond the workplace and shop till you drop.
But Adams endures for a different reason. In 1931, in the book, “The Epic of America,” he is credited with the coining the most famous of all expressions — “The American Dream.” Adams wrote the American Dream was more than purchasing the next motor car and obtaining higher wages. Rather, it was “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest nature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
So, what you may ask is the purpose of this history lesson? What the hell does it have to do with my life? Let me ask you this: Have you heard from generation after generation after generation, family, friends strangers and politicians say, “We/I are working our asses off so our kids can have a better life”? The ancient Greeks wrote the Myth of Sisyphus to reflect one man’s eternal and futile toil of pushing a boulder up to the top of the hill and right at the peak of success (literally and figuratively), the boulder forever comes tumbling down, forcing Sisyphus to start the whole process over again.
To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: What myth’s do we live by today?
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson initiated our country’s myth that all men are created equal and we all have the inalienable right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And I love the life and liberty aspects.
However, with the hindsight of 56 years on planet Earth, I wish Jefferson had provided a more definitive explanation of happiness. For the great majority, this translated into the goal of economic accumulation and he who dies with the most wins. Other people much more educated than I say Jefferson was referring to civic virtue and courage, morality, community and self-awareness. Maybe Jefferson was thinking both ways, but one idea got lost in translation.
President Lincoln, referring back to Jefferson, gave us our second great myth in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln predicted the Northern future victory would bring the birth of a new freedom with all men truly created equal; a permanent united country and a government “of, for and by the people.”
In our era, President Obama at his 2009 inauguration address defined the American ideal as honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — surrounded by the recognition that we are part of a common world humanity.
But other people tell me it is World War II, the Cold War and the War on Terror that held us together. And income inequality could split open these ties.
Will our founding myths continue to bond this country or is it time for a new one? Personally, I’d love some visionary to show up in a hurry, please.
Mark Zinan is a Sunderland resident.