. . .and pick up the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which turns a robust 150 years old this month.
The rag began as an abolitionist publication way back in 1857. While the country has changed tremendously since then, The Atlantic mission — to present reasoned and varied discourse on "the American idea" — has not. What better way to celebrate such a great run than to recruit a breadth of figures from today’s public sphere to wax analytical / philosophical about what this "idea" means to our contemporary society and beyond?
The essays are around 350 words in length, perfect for us modern Yanks with short attention spans. Contributors include John Updike, Ray Kurzweil, Cornel West, Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace, George F. Will, Greil Marcus, Robert Pinsky, Sam Harris and many more. Arianna Huffington and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both politically-oriented immigrants, offer their unique perspective on what it means to be American, while Stan Lee turns in a typically earnest comic strip. Harris cautions against religiosity; Tim LaHaye (co-author of the wildly successful and downright disturbing Left Behind series) advocates for a kind of spiritual monomania.
Each essay is absorbing in its own right, and all stand as a testament to our nation’s plurality of ideas and ideals. There are arguments for and against exceptionalism, with George F. Will cautioning that the very idea of an "American idea" could lead to the exporting of US democratic dogma, with unintended (and potentially dangerous) consequences. And he’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.
Check out a few excerpts, below the fold:
. . .The signers of the Declaration
of Independence assumed that some truths did not have to be proved—that
some truths were, to borrow a phrase, self-evident. It was
self-evident, for example, that the happiness to be pursued was not the
blissed-out buzz induced by drugs or shopping sprees. It was the
happiness of the Book of Proverbs: “Happy is he that has mercy on the
poor.” It was the happiness that comes from feeling good by doing good.
Happiness today has been reduced to instant gratification. We search
for “happy hours” that leave us stumbling through life; we devour
“Happy Meals” that barely nourish the body; we believe the ads that
tell us that there is a pill for every ill, and that happiness is just
a tablet away.
Joyce Carol Oates:
Perhaps the most pernicious of
American ideas is the revered “My country, right or wrong,” with its
thinly veiled threat of punishment for those who hesitate to
participate in a criminal patriotism. The myth of American
exceptionalism begins with the revolt of the Colonies against the
British crown. In 1776, what a thrilling, exhilarating American idea!
But in the first decade of the 21st century, in a vastly altered world,
and considering the higher degree of civilization embodied by
Canada—which waged no war against the British and was disinclined to
rush into war or celebrate the violence of the frontier or declare
itself exceptional—it might be a timely American idea to examine our
America is now a nation of 300
million souls, wielding more influence than any people in human
history—and yet 240 million of these souls apparently believe that
Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his
magic powers. This hankering for a denominational, spiritual oblivion
is not a good bet, much less a useful idea.
Now go buy the magazine. Hell, you should probably just subscribe and help insure another 150 years of Great American Debate.