Thursday, September 17, 2009

Books on Understanding America

Several people have recently asked me for a list of books to read about America. I thought of many biographies of leaders (Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson, David McCullough’s John Adams, James Thomas Flexner’s Washington, etc. up through contemporary books on Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Presidents, Industrialists, Philanthropists, Social Workers and Reformers, and so on), as well as philosophers, and religious writers—some of which I have mentioned in earlier posts in this blog, so you can look back at those. I considered several outstanding textbooks, of which I have also quoted from earlier. There are also some fictional novels, historical novels, and historical reviews that will get you thinking like: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Gore Vidal’s Burr, Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and a host of others by his son Jeff, others by Michener and Manchester, Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time..., and I could go one for hours before I even get to the elementary through high school standard reading list. Instead I offer just a couple books that actually aren’t my favorites and in the case of Raintree County I am cautious about even suggesting it (see the blog link I offer on the book below).

On the other hand, these books are quoted so often and read by those who then write some of the books above—and are almost never read (except for the quotes others offer) by most people. I put out a request for others to add to the list of the less read literature that explains America and the United States in particular.

Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

Raintree County, Ross Lockridge

The First New Nation, by Martin Lipset

The Road Not Taken. An Introduction to Robert Frost, Louie Undermeyer

Of course these books barely brush the surface of the evolution of American thought, the American Character and the continuing saga of the “great experiment.” We Americans, in general, are in such a hurry to solve the problem (whatever the problem at hand is) and to keep it pretty simple, and because of our keen interest in things local and surface understanding of things global we assume our success defines our right to transmit our form of government and life, norms, and culture on the rest of the world—yet we rarely stop to study them ourselves. Without a foundation in our history and a conception of the ideas that got us where we are, the problems we face sometimes seem insurmountable. Anxiety and mistrust in our system of government can rapidly expand in this environment. Americans know so much. We area literate and affluent society and the we enjoy the best advantages of the information age. A car bomb goes off in Beirut and my mother knows about it her little community in the California foothills within minutes. After awhile this affects our thinking. Is our society about to collapse under the weight of this glut of information? “This is the worst it’s ever been! We’ve never had so many problems before,” we hear people lament. My question is: what are we so afraid of?

I have recently heard college age youth suggest this must be the worst time in our country’s history to be starting out in life. It is as if they never heard of British Naval impressment gangs who gave aspiring college students the opportunity to see the world whether they wanted to or not. Maybe they haven’t heard about the class of 1861 who were educated at Bull Run and Antietum, or the class of 1932 who did their postgraduate work on the street corners selling apples, or the class of 1943 who had the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima to look forward to. And what about those among the doubters who are minorities? These Americans know today’s headlines but they have only a fleeting sense of the greatness of their history, only the mediated negative impact of the worst of it. I have a college who longs to return to the 1890’s. The system seemed to work better then. My wife’s father used to say the same things about the 1950’s. In both eras though, there was a strict conformity that sat over the land. In the words of Charles Kuralt, “most Americans, blind to charity and justice, regard the nation as a finished product.” But what great changes have been made since 1890 and 1950! What the Vietnamese, Chinese, Haitian, Dominican, and Cuban boat people, former Soviet dissidents, Latin American migrants and many others know and risk their lives for, what many Americans have forgotten, but what history can teach us is that the United States is where problems yield to energy and often solutions. We certainly have our warts and blemishes. And no country is better at publicizing them. I know what Montaigne meant when he said, “The present lies full of the past and pregnant for the future.” I can never be a doubter and only wish the nay sayers about our future would spend a little more time studying the past.

The common thread of the American Experiment and especially of this time in our history is the idea of equality. When you read De Tocqueville you will come across this time and again, as when he said:

Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. I readily discovered the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society; it gives peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the governing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.

Professor Stiles in Raintree County joins yet another spectrum of doubters in American society who equate equality with the lowest common denominator. The “perfessor” explains,

If Socrates were living today, the Perfessor said, he’d be reduced to sitting on a cracker-barrel outside Joe’s Saloon chewing tobacco and telling dirty stories. That’s what America does to greatness. The Greeks were way ahead of us. They never made the mistake of attaching undue importance to the individual.

We need a greater perspective on the idea of equality and a better understanding of the fallacies of the lowest common denominator. Jazz, big band music, comic books, Rogers and Hammerstein musicals and The Cosby Show are classics in their own right. Certainly some of our “cracker-barrel philosophers” have uttered some classic American thoughts.

“Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human sole.” Mark Twain. “Out of our beliefs are born our deeds, Out of our deeds we form our habits. Out of our habits grow our character. On our character we build our destinations.” Vince Lombardi. “Be sure you’re right, the go ahead.” Davy Crockett. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

On area of American thought on equality I wish we could all spend more time considering centers on our pioneer heritage. Not all of American greatness is born on the East Coast. We have always been a westward looking nation. As Archibald MacLeish said, “East were the Dead Kings and the remembered sepulchers: West was the grass.”

One of my mentors, Dr. Frank Teti once declared, “the military is on the landscape.” As a former Air Force officer I have always felt a special stewardship to understand what I have sworn to defend. Sir William Francis Butler suggested, “The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.” I have attempted in my life to be neither. Inside my class ring from the U.S. Air Force Academy, I have the last line of the well know Robert Frost poem Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening. It reads, “And miles to go before I sleep.” Another of his poems, Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight also manifests to me in American simplicity, Duty, Honor, Country. The first represents the apex of duty: promises to be kept, obligations to fulfill. The second poem compliments the first in reminding us of what we stand for by ending on a note of persistent faith. The concern of the compatibility of the military and democratic society is answered with: there is something more important than the individual, and that is protecting the rights of individuals. John Stuart Mill highlighted this principle with the statement,

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

We don’t all have to join the military—thank goodness we don’t—to be better people. Our war is now here at home—to make this country a better place than it is. To study the old books as C.S. Lewis suggested. To discover and celebrate the principles that will carry us forward. To step up and do our part. To step out of the present partisan divides that tear down and work together to build up. Yes, there are differing visions of how to accomplish that building—so go back to the principles—they are universal and apply to everyone, everywhere, always. That isn’t political or partisan. To find them we need to dig into the best books. Add your list here if you like, or email me as you have been doing.