05.14.18 | Reimagining America

As our nation threatens to pinwheel into identity politics — too much Pluribus and not enough Unum —  perhaps it’s a good time to take stock of the unifying myths that have defined America in the first place.

The very notion of a Unum itself begs the question. Whose Unum? The subject of our very first (6/26/16) Member Monday (double) session was Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States with its reckoning of three centuries marked by the forced assimilation of certain others sometimes left as so much road kill. 

Yet there has been something extraordinarily ennobling about the American experiment which has largely endured ever since our founding fathers put quill to paper. Our Member Monday (5/14) discussion is all about identifying and paying tribute to those core unifying images or, collectively speaking, how it is that America sees itself.

We may start with the notion of Walden-pond individualism i.e. the distrust of society and its institutions and belief that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. Who are we kidding? How far we have devolved from Thoreau's grand experiment in restorative isolation i.e. build a small cabin in the woods, strip away the superfluous luxuries, live a simple life and thereby fully explore the sublime lightness of being.

We are very fortunate, by the way, to have among our Member Monday participants Charlotte (Ripley) Sorenson -- someone who has "walked those woods" and is on a first-name basis with the ghosts of all those transcendental founders: Emerson; Thoreau; Whitman (with the closest of blood ties to the founders of Brook Farm, the famous 19th century utopian experimental community which nurtured the movement). 

Certain myths are implanted in most of us starting from birth and almost become part of our DNA. Others receive a crash course later in life. Sina, ever the ambitious student, learned much about the American imagination via Mark Twain as he lit out on his own adopted Territory. 

May we all start by comparing the source of our own imagination about America, maybe the Disney version of Davey Crockett and The Alamo, or the iconic picture of marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, or Neil Armstrong’s one small step.

Or, perhaps, the whole quaint notion of a solid, honest, kindhearted America was implanted via some Wizard Of Oz populist allegory —after all, Dorothy’s farmhouse landed precisely on the Wicked Witch of the East, representing the corrupt Eastern financial and industrial interests known as Wall Street.  

Then, as it turned out, maybe the wickedness prevailed and the heartland was turned into fly-over territory. After all, when it comes to Kansas, the story itself cautions we’re not there anymore. The truth is what's being lost is more than just an allegorical reference (see Rural Kansas Is Dying).

The point is to be mindful when it comes to choosing the myths through which we see ourselves. On the one hand they may unify and inspire. On the other hand, false notions can also lead to eventual death by hubris.

- Steve Smith.