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An American specimen

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Throughout the natural world, few creatures in the existing biological kingdoms create such a lasting impression as the varieties of human beings, and none more so than the modern American. Upon venturing out of its natural habitat and confronting a wide variety of new and foreign life, the specimen will regress to instinctive traits sociologically endowed in it. In such an acutely excited state, factors leading to the American Condition can be isolated, identified and examined.

Americans make up such a large and diverse family that only one who has spent much time carefully studying them can distinguish between the different types, from the brash Yankee to the unassuming Plainsman. Yet such regional flavors only serve to highlight common traits shared throughout the family, whether they appear in greater or lesser intensity – and with such widespread traits this study concerns itself. For example, an average American, displaced from his home and suddenly surrounded by his more distant brethren, often adopts a swaggering gaze. Careful background study reveals that the subject is nurtured from a young age on a steady diet of nationalistic jeremiads. The American seldom fails to develop in his mind an idea that adherence to a vague unspoken covenant is not only laudable, but also obligatory. The creature will fondly abbreviate Lincoln’s “almost chosen people” to the final two words. This leads to the subject holding itself poised in a proud, even arrogant, manner.

This divine-right mindset is hardly surprising, considering the American’s spiritual nature. It seems to be endowed with an inclination to belief in God or some indistinct transcendent power, although it lacks a clear understanding of what or why. An apparent need of public approval engenders frequent (and confused) professions of this faith, but in private life, the subject rarely lets himself be shackled by the complicated moral codes accompanying such a declaration of belief. The belief itself – and I call it that for lack of a better word; perhaps “leaning” or “hunch” more closely hits the mark – stems from a mysterious source. It would appear to be culturally or socially inculcated, yet it occurs in such an inconsistently weak fashion as to seem a result of heredity – perhaps the product of recessive genes.

Despite a natural recognition of something greater and grander, the American specimen finds the boundaries of reverence only in its self-image. A fierce sense of pride is predominant. The American has long ago lost the awe of Fitzgerald’s pilgrims, who faced something commensurate to their capacity for wonder. Today, awe is sought in every way but reflection or intercommunication.

Further close examination of the subject reveals a tendency to reject precedent ideas, teachings and ideologies, based solely on the fact that they are old. When at certain times a truly necessary rebellion does occur, the replacement philosophy or ideology will be reduced to its basest terms so as not to prompt confusion among the masses. This sense of unquestioned revolution for the sake of change crops up frequently enough to make the concept of rebellion seem itself an established institution. Does the American realize the irony in the situation, when rebellion has become conformity?

Perhaps this transformation of an ancestral cultural trait into something so conventional marks the American’s diminishing ability to appreciate finer details. The specimen displays difficulty in distinguishing between the reality of the world and the virtual reality of the television, the tabloid, the computer or movie screen. To compensate, the specimen may resort to the all-too common practice of making frequent over-generalizations, even in its self-diagnoses. (I pray the reader will excuse such sordid behavior, wherever encountered.) The American can take comfort in knowing that in this deplorable trait he is not unique among peoples of the world. Such comfort will be short-lived, however, because immediately the responsibility to change, to become more aware, must follow. It is not lack of facts but a personal choice that prevents the creature from grasping subtleties. Knowledge without action is sloth. No longer is the American one of Twain’s innocents abroad; today, he is willfully ignorant.

Recognizing any or all of these attributes without understanding their specific cultural histories can lead an outsider to view Americans as impudent, rude, illogical and corrupt. Yet most any specimen will disprove this expectation, given time. Focusing on individual attributes cannot yield a true understanding of what exactly distinguishes this creature. It is the meeting of all these cultures, not their particular backgrounds, that forms the true substance of an American. Their interweaving makes the definition of such a species possible.

That the American has any sense of national identity at all, given the mixed and mottled stock that produced him, is truly a wonder. Strangely enough, these wide-ranging origins support the American specimen in times of need and yield some sort of common purpose. As he makes his own history, he should be mindful of maturing in the same way he was born – through the meeting of different paths. Producing a unity through the coalescence of different elements is perhaps his greatest achievement.

James Dechant is a junior studying abroad in Rome this semester. Questions, complaints and rude remarks can be sent to jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.