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The full "Unifying American Story."

An essay by contributing editor Susan Humphreys.

Statue of Liberty

From Emma Lazarus' sonnet: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." 1

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David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times, on 2017-MAR-21 titled: "The Unifying American Story." 2

He starts by stating that:

"One of the things we've lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history."

He then states:

"For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story."

I don't think there has ever been an American "unifying" story. The story that David Brooks talks about -- and which some believe -- has never been the story of the "others" -- those the Exodus story displaced, wiped out, or attempted to displace or wipe out.

Brooks ignored what happened during the Hebrew Exodus to the:

"Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and Jebusites, and I blot them out." [From Exodus 23:23, New International Version.]

Here in America he ignored the stories of the Native American and the Hispanics living in the South West. They have a very different view of the Exodus story. African Americans have still another view of the Exodus story. The first part of the story of the Jews -- being removed from their native land and forced into slavery -- is familiar to them, but they are still waiting for their full release from bondage.

The Exodus story divides us. It doesn't unite us.

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There is another American story/myth, told by Alexis de Tocqueville. It is the story of rugged, self-reliant, self-sufficient, American individualism. This story unfortunately became a part of the Conservative American character. We see hints with the Conservative drive to dismantle the federal government, to get government off the backs of the people! As I said it was -- and still is -- a myth.

My triple great and double great grandparents traveled to Oregon in 1853 as an extended family group. Included were parents, their adult children and their spouses and children, and neighbors from the same area of Tennessee. Once they had arrived in Oregon, they settled near each other, realizing they needed each other to not only survive but to thrive.

The American story of rugged individualism also ignores the reality that humans are social/pack animals. We must be a part of a family group or gang or other group in order to maintain our mental and emotional health. It also ignores the reality that it took large groups of men working together to build the transcontinental railroads and interstate highways that helped unify America, or at least bring us closer together.

There is a third American story: That is of American Exceptionalism. This has been the story of white, male chauvinists. It carefully ignored and many still ignore the contributions of for example: the Navajo code talkers, the Tuskegee airmen, the women mathematicians involved with the space program, and with medicine. It was the story of white male Industrialists and Capitalists that ignored the stories of the coal miners, the steel workers, the men and women in the factories who built the machines that made America exceptional. It also ignores that many of these capitalists and industrialists were immigrants, or the sons or grandsons of immigrants.

I do agree with what Brooks says near the end of his article:

"We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don't know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don't know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness."

David Brooks needs to read Erich Fromm's book "Escape from Freedom." 3 First published in 1941, Fromm set out to explain why so many Germans willingly embraced Nazism and his concern that something similar was happening here in America. The book was reissued in 1965 with a new forward. I can't help but wish he was still with us. I'd love to hear what he'd have to say about our current situation!

Fromm's basic premises is that the Freedom that freed us from old oppressors also freed us from the primary ties that kept us grounded and secure with our understanding of the world and our place in it. He states on page 30:

"If every step in the direction of separation and individuation (i.e. the freedom of the individual from old oppressors and primary ties and the subsequent growth of the individual as his own entity) were matched by corresponding growth of self, the development of the child would be harmonious. This does not occur, however. While the process of individuation takes place automatically, the growth of self is hampered for a number of individual and social reasons, (i.e. economic conditions, governmental policies, religious doctrines and practices, social and cultural restraints that hold a person back, keep him/her from reaching her/his highest potential) the lag between these two trends results in an unbearable feeling of isolation and powerlessness (i,e, the loss of a sense of meaning and purpose in life and the world), and this in its turn leads to psychic mechanisms, which later on are described as mechanisms of escape." 3

He says people attempt to escape from the "intolerable burden of being an autonomous" (i.e. a self-directed, self-controlled, self-disciplined, self-motivated, self-assured, self-respecting free and independent) human being.

People, Fromm says, will willingly submit to a tyrant that promises them that he alone has the solution to all of their problems (i.e. He will make America and by extension you, Great Again). Folks willingly give up their freedom for a false sense of hope for a better future and security, protection from their enemies!

Brooks ends his piece with the statement, "What's needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be." That is, we need a new Messiah to save us from ourselves.

Will this new Messiah need to create a new Unifying American Story, OR will he/she be able to point out that what unifies us is our diversity. This seems like a paradox, and it is! There isn't one single unifying American story, we are a nation with many stories.

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This makes me think of another American story, that we are a Melting Pot, all blending into one homogenous mass. this is also a myth. We are and have always been a giant stew pot. In a good stew all the parts retain their own unique character; a carrot still looks and tastes like a carrot, a potato looks and tastes like a potato, the flavors compliment, enhance each other. The Melting Pot myth came from those who thought and still think that one size, one religion, and one national myth fits all.

This new Messiah will need to get people to understand that "we are all in this together". As Lincoln put it, "A nation divided against its self cannot stand."

In my opinion, it is the failure to realize these realities -- i.e. our diversity is our strength and our need for, dependence upon each other to survive and thrive -- that has led us to the current mess we are in.

Our founding fathers I think, tried to give us a Unifying American Story, though we have failed miserably to fully embrace it: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Too many seem to believe that some are created more equal than others and thus more deserving of special privileges than others.

Fromm points out that equality in this sense doesn't mean that we are all identical, so that -- as I like to put it -- "one size fits all!:" One Religion, One National Story, One Purpose, One Meaning for the world and all of us in it.

On page 272 Fromm says:

"Democracy is (I would add "or should be") a system that creates the economic, political and cultural conditions for the full development (i.e. physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth) of the individual."

"Fascism is a system that, regardless under which name, makes the individual subordinate to extraneous purposes (i.e. the needs of the nation, Church, God, employer, family or spouse), and weakens the development of genuine individuality."

IF we are to get out of this current crisis, we need to understand what got us into it and Fromm's book can help people here.

IF we are to avoid falling back into another crisis we will need to create the society that embraces and celebrates our diversity and creates a place where ALL people have the opportunity to not only survive (i.e. have their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, community/social relationships, meaningful work -- paid, volunteer, and hobbies -- met) but to thrive (i.e. be proud of who they are as an autonomous self-assured human being).

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Katie Reilly, " 'Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor': The Story Behind the Statue of Liberty’s Famous Immigration Poem," Time Magazine, 2017-JAN-28, at: http://time.com/
  2. David Brooks, "The Unifying American Story," New York Times, 2017-MAR-21, at: https://www.nytimes.com/

  3. book cover Erich Fromm, "Escape from Freedom," Open Road Media (Reprinted 2013-MAR). Available in Kindle and in hardcover or mass market paperback (with a different cover). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store. It is rated by Amazon.com customers with 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Originally posted on: 2017-APR-03
Author:
Susan Humphreys
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