There is a great debate in this country that goes on and on with no sign of being resolved. One reason for this is that the debate is conducted in code, which wouldn’t be a problem if everyone knew what is was, but we do not. We do not know and we resist knowing because that would precipitate a crisis far greater than the one we think we’re in.
In its coded version, the debate is about the size of government, magnitudes of national debt, the future of capitalism, and that unassailable thing known as ‘freedom.’ These are of course important, but they are only the surface of what’s been bothering this nation for more than two hundred years.
What has dogged us is the question of who we are, which brings up two competing versions of what America is about.
According to the one, there is such a thing as ‘The American People’ who are part of a whole, a community and a nation. Among other things, being a People means that we’re all in the same boat. We depend on one another, and if your boat is sinking, so is mine, which compels us to look out for one another. In particular, we feel obliged to refrain from taking so much for ourselves that others have to go without. Because that’s how you behave when you’re in the same boat.
Being in the same boat, we all contribute as best we can to the production of the bounty on which we live and then we bring it to a common table, the pot-luck supper in the church hall where we sit down together and eat, the kind of scene Norman Rockwell liked to paint, thinking he was telling us who we are. In such a community, it would be unthinkable for a small group of people to commandeer most of the food and keep it for themselves just because they were stronger or more clever or luckier than everyone else They would be embarrassed, even ashamed to be caught at such a thing.
According to the other view of what America is about, we are each in our own separate boats and it’s everyone for themselves. You take as much as you can and then you hang onto it, believing that your right to it is more sacred than anything, more risky to criticize than even God. Anyone who questions the fairness of how much you’ve taken for yourself or who suggests you give up some portion of it for the greater good is attacked as a socialist or a whiner or a sponger or even a thief, all acting from the politics of envy. Looking out on the world, those who have much may feel compassion for those ‘less fortunate’ who have little, and they might even perform acts of charity. But that’s a far cry from seeing ‘The American People’ as occupying the same boat.
The idea that the distribution of the national income and wealth might be subject to standards of fairness makes no sense in such a world, as when Mitt Romney declared to Charlie Rose not long ago that it was contrary to the American way even to suggest that some people might have ‘too much.’ In this worldview, there is no such thing. There is nothing wrong with taking as much as you can. On the contrary, it is a virtue to which everyone should aspire.
These two views of what America is about cannot both be true. We must decide which it’s going to be, because we cannot have it both ways. We keep telling ourselves that we can, believing the United States to be the exception to which normal rules of reality do not apply. But we are mistaken. We cannot encourage a free-for-all in which freedom means the license to take whatever you can and also have a society where equity and fairness and community and ‘The American People’ are more than expressions of some sentimental longing for what it means to live as true human beings.
We are warned that to be in same boat is socialism, which we are supposed to hate and fear because that’s what we’ve been told for as long as we can remember. At the same time, it takes no special training to be appalled by the effects of living as if it’s everyone for themselves. Just look around.
So, we are caught between the two, as we have been for most of our history and where we will stay, paralyzed, until we stop speaking in code and decide just who and what we are going to be.
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Copyright © 2013 by Allan G. Johnson. All rights reserved. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson, www.agjohnson.com, and this copyright notice.