A Conflicted Legacy

What makes America different?  During the formative years of colonial America something extraordinary was happening in the world.  Beginning in Europe, new ways of thinking were breaking free from authoritarian institutions and belief systems.  A creative energy was released that came to America with a rising flood of immigration.

The new ethos was grounded in the belief that a rational humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, must be capable of discovering effectual truth.

From this conviction there arose a faith that humankind would, in the words of philosopher and political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie, ultimately secure “universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.”

The idea of a promising future for humankind was powerful, inspiring confidence in the potential to free ourselves from the shackles of an oppressive past.  And, for the thousands of immigrants disembarking in the New World, a working knowledge of philosophy was not required.

Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the emerging American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American character, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of an autocratic culture and restrictive social norms.

There were abundant crises and controversies, of course, to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet.  We did not agree on much.  The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European past: the scar of slavery, the tensions between moneyed and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.

Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of European arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy.  Despite apparent contradictions, the new ideas continued to generate a confident vision on both sides of the Atlantic through most of the nineteenth century.

While much of the brutality perpetrated against Black and Native American people was ignored by Americans of European descent, the horrific violence of the Civil War shocked the Nation.  And then came the twentieth century.

Professor Gillespie describes what happened next:

“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust.  What had gone wrong?  Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience. 

“The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction.  And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation.  The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”

We have admired the generation of Americans who prevailed during the Great Depression and fought in World War II.  We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.”  They did not forget.

They remained proud and frugal for the rest of their lives, though many of their children failed to understand.

Most are gone now.  How many of us today know what they knew…?  We who have drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt.

What happened?

I believe we have tried to walk away from the past with little understanding of what happened.  Both the fear of debt and the destruction of global war have been largely repressed and lost to memory.

The long history of degrading abuses suffered by immigrants and people of color is often forgotten and rarely addressed.  The promises of equality and freedom remain, but are only apparent through a haze of inconsistency and uncertainty.

The practical limits of freedom in a complex world have started to close in on our lives, unforgiving in the absence of clear thinking and moral responsibility.

Are we ready to reflect on where we have come from and to confront the oncoming confluence of crises with responsibility, and with our eyes wide open?

Tom

On New Years’ weekend:  The Will to Freedom

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