Thursday, March 26, 2009

What is America?

Maybe the real question is who, but I'll go with what anyways. I hope to convey my message as it is in my head, despite my lack of truly expressive literary skills. To begin to see how America came about, I think we need to go back, way back, in history.

Many centuries ago Rome was considered the light of the world, shining out over the dark and barbarian lands that surrounded one of the greatest and most powerful empires that ever existed in the history of man. Rome was not a monumentous machine of war, nor was it the embodiment of politics.

Rome was more aptly, an idea. An idea that was strong, yet so fragile.

While maintaining a monarch-like head, Rome was a place where the people who lived there ran their government as they ran their lives. They sent forth people to represent them in the Senate. The Senate was the link between the common people and the Emperor. The job of the Emperor and the Senate was to see to the needs of the Empire, while providing a place suitable to the peoples' wishes, without interfering with their ability to produce value to their society.

It was within this construct that Rome grew in its perceived greatness. Some surrounding areas willingly joined the Roman territories to be a part of its unique "center of the world" status. Others on the other hand chose either to defend themselves from Rome's influence, or to outright attack Rome for what they found offensive about this civilization.

As with any major civilization, greater power led to expansion through military means. The need to control the known world, and press into the unknown seems to be inherent trait of ours throughout history. Power abroad was not only thirsted for by the government as a whole, but by individuals within the government over domestic affairs. Favortism, greed, and corruption of all sorts became the name of the game. Once ruled by statesmen, Rome found itself under control of mere politicians, jockeying for more personal power at every turn. To be sure, there were members of the Senate with a more pure heart, and a desire to provide the leadership for all of Rome and her people. But as time went on, the number of good men dwindled in comparison to that of the politicians. And eventually, after peaking as power of the world, Rome began its descent, eventually crumbling. Rome remained physically, but the idea that is Rome, and what made her truly great could only be heard in faint whispers.

Many centuries later, well after the fall of Rome, the American Colonies rebirthed themselves from British control to become The United States of America, a new and sovereign nation unto itself. Freedom to operate under their own authority, to accept responsibility directly for themselves, instead of from some King 3000 miles away, was the main objective. For all the complications that society, much less a new society, bears, the former colonies now had the opportunity to start fresh. A central government was started for minimist purposes of national defense and foreign policy was created, however most power was conferred to each state to attend to its own need as they saw fit.

Like Rome, and the Greek States before them, The United States placed its representative power with the people. For the people to elect leaders from amongst its own populace, they could all be assured a voice in the process which would make America a great and desirable society. Some of these representatives were mere politicians, seeking to either maintain or expand their power, but in the beginning, Statesmen were the order of the day. Seeing to the construction of a new country, with the Constitution as its base, America held great promise for all who lived there, as well as those who should wish to join the American experiment from lands abroad.

One can argue the politics throughout the decades and centuries of our existence as a country, but one thing I do not think can be argued: America has spent her history becoming less and less free. We still have the opportunities to go from a nobody to a wealthy somebody. We still have the opportunity to travel across this great land of ours without restriction, and put down our roots where we see fit. But something has changed since the days of our forefathers. Lawmakers in Congress have increasingly found themselves justifying their positions. Law after law becomes enacted. Some with pure intention, others with more restrictive malicious intentions. We have enacted laws that are redundant to each other many times over, with selective enforcement. We have enacted laws that merely serve to provide more of the citizens' money to governmental purposes, with no real value to be seen, other than satisfy one group's opinion on how the rest of society should act.

To be sure we have enacted more laws than scenarios requiring them than could even possibly exist, at least in my mind.

Everyone has their own version of their America. For some it is the simple desire to live in their house, earn their own living and to be left alone. For others, it is to see that all Americans are taken care of, be it with healthcare, or for more mundane services we take for granted, like satisfactory water and sewage processing systems, or access to education, housing, food, or whatever one's needs might be.

For me, I blend my personal rights with community needs. I wish to live where I want to, and the choice to determine how I make my money. I believe that the harder I work, the more I should be rewarded. I should not be punished for my productive values. I believe in helping those around me that are in need, by my own volition, not by government mandate. I find local, more personal options to seeing my neighbors do well enough as a good thing. For if my neighbors do well, surely so will I. All that contribute to a better society around them, should share int he rewards such harmony may bring. All those who choose to harm it, shall keep the consequences for themselves. I believe in some regulation, but only enough to keep us from harming each other, and it must be applied equally to all parties.

For being the most free country on Earth, it often seems that in other lands as mentioned by Scott, practice what we call a more socialized government operation (despite having less far reaching regulations over every little thing), that the people there are more free than we are here in America.

I know the world is not black and white, and our ideas of perfection will most likely never be attained, and/or they may change as we grow through experience. I know that in my heart, I am an idealist of sorts, which will aways leave me wanting. But what we live in today, is not the America is was taught to believe in as I grew up.

4 comments:

DeadMule said...

Mike, Were you taught that America exists because of rebellion against the countries that footed the bill for the people to come here and explore in their names? Were you taught that the early settlers tried to enslave the natives who lived here? Were you taught that the early settlers built their wealth on the backs of slaves? Or, were you taught that the settlers came for freedom of religion and because they weren't free? The American dream in its many variations can come true only when we acknowledge our past strengths and weaknesses. A firm foundation matters. Than God for the flexibility of the Constitution. There is still hope for America. We are not yet defeated. But "the time is always ripe to do right." (MLK) Obama isn't the problem nor is he a socialist. Would that we realize that before it is too late.

Mookie said...

Helen,

And thats what I mean by knowing that not everything is black and white. No society that has ever existed has come close to operating a perfect system at any time of their existence.

Just as the Romans took slaves, so too did we. Was it wrong on both occasions? Absolutely. And we can not change our past, but merely learn from it to better serve our future. Acknowledgement of our triumphs and failures is key. Triumph shows us the ways in which we have done right, while failure is also good in that it shows us which ways are not good.

As for the Constitution I believe it provides a firm bedrock of foundation from which to operate. I believe in its flexibility in allowing for ammendments, as time, or the realization of our mistakes, comes to bear the need. I also believe in the firmness of the Constitution's principles (not to be confused with the message that may have been contradictory with the actions of its writers- lke slave owners proclaiming all men free, etc).

In the Declaration of Independence, they proclaimed man's (which today at least, includes everyone, not just old white land-owning guys) right to three main things: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Life: Whether rich or poor, black or white, healthy or infirm, it is our life, and noone should be allowed to take that from us.

Liberty: Quite simply put, our freedom to lead our life according to our own moral and ethical code, provided we do not infringe on another's same right to liberty in the process.
Pursuit of Happiness: Now some people seem to forget the word pursuit in that last item. Many people, democrat and republican alike, seem to think that we have the right to not be offended, not see or hear anything we don't want to see or hear, to have this thing, or that thing, or whatever, according to their own wishes. Well, the thing it procaims truly is that the path you see to make you happy, you have every right to take a stroll down...to go after your goals, and earn them, again, as long as our pursuit of happiness doesn't infringe on the ability of someone else to pursue their path.

America, for all its faults in practice, is still that idea. the land of opportunity. We have our life, and we live it our way, like everyone else, pursuing our dreams and our goals as we see fit as individuals, but as a part of a larger society.

While I am waffling on the idea that Obama is or is not a Socialist, by definition of known practices (some policies he promotes say yes, other policies he promotes say no), this post doesn't even really address him. This is a piece I have been contemplating for years in my own head, but have yet, until now to put it down in more tangible form. I blame politicians in general. I mean we put power into the hands of people who can tax and regulate the life out of every single one of us, and despite complete lack of popularity, or a job well done, vote themselves a raise, give themselves the best money can offer them, without regard for anyone else in the end. And no matter what differences either side of the aisle tries to differentiate with the other, most often, you'll find them at the same cocktail parties and restuarants, together. And after all the campaigning is over and done, they all, with a few differences keep doing the same things, and every election you'll notice we never get any closer to finding solutions to problems that have existed for generations..just so there is something left to debate (that they have plenty of practice debating) the next time around.

The original principles of our founding, in pureness represent the strength of the idea that is America..that shining beacon. But the constant politicking for politicking's sake, and knee jerk reactionary laws for every single situation known to man, we have seen over the past few decades shows just how fragile the idea of America really is.

scotterb said...

In my first year seminar we're starting to read the book "Are We Rome," and think about the similarities and differences between Rome and the US. I sometimes feel like we're maybe like Rome near the end of its days as a Republic, as it morphed into being an empire.

As for the misdeeds of American history, I think the constitution reflects enlightenment ideals (from folk like Locke, Montesquieu, etc.) which were "ahead of their time" when compared to public practice. We've been playing catch up. But your question and essay are really interesting.

As for the larger issue...your post has evoked a variety of thoughts running around in my mind, which I'll have to contemplate before I post more.

Mookie said...

Scott,

"As for the misdeeds of American history, I think the constitution reflects enlightenment ideals (from folk like Locke, Montesquieu, etc.) which were "ahead of their time" when compared to public practice."

Well, that was far more well put than I could seem to conjure up, but expresses exactly what I meant.

I call myself a conservative, more or less. I suppose in many aspects I'm far more a libertarian than anything. But I often avoid that particular label to keep from being grouped in with those extreme libertarians who are basically on the brink of being anarchists. I just want to be left alone to live my life, although recognizing myself as a part of the greater community. I am compassionate to those around me, sometimes to a fault, or in one actual instance, giving the shirt off my back despite my own ability to freeze to death in temperatures under 60! I like to help people, and I think people should help the people around them, and stand up for injustices done to others. While at the same tiem I am very prideful. I have accepted government help in the form of medicaid and food stamps, but only because I wouldn't let my pride be the reason my kids went without the doctoral and food needs. I hated the concept of accepting it, and worked hard to get into a position where we no longer needed it, because I feel every man should do his best to support his family on his own, before looking to assistance.

When I see a lot of people my age, I see both the workers who just can't make it on their wages, and those that specifically refuse to improve their lot in life for fear of losing out on the government assistance programs. I have great compassion for the first group, but the second I am conflicted between feelings of disgust and sorrow. And maybe its because I moved from the small town to the city, that I see more of the latter group these days, and I begin to wonder if somehow I inherited the views of some of my more hard working, old-fashioned ancestors?