Living in Germany I see America' faults clearer than I did when I lived there, but I also see all the things America is that other countries are not and will never be. Most people think of the great political achievements or of the great political sins - I think of the crazy, hungry, unstoppable spirit.
|This is the entire final chapter.|
Will America fall?
In the 70's, when hippie rebellion synced into disco decadence, my father loved nothing better at our dinner table than to discuss the Fall of America.
It was a time of changes and he worried about the state of the state. To us kids, he recommended a book that I suspect a lot of fathers of his generation recommended to their children: Edward Gibbon's 18th century classic, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
The parallels between the United States and ancient Rome were not lost on my father. As a young man serving in the US Army in World War II, he witnessed Europe's downfall and America's rise firsthand. He didn't need a book to tell him how quickly entire states could decline and fall, and one question plagued him all his life: What makes a nation successful... or makes it fall?
Gibbon's book provided an answer to the later question: decadence. If bleeding-heart hippies and cocaine-snorting disco kings were set on taking over the country, America would soon be too decadent to lift a finger in its own defense when the barbarians came knocking at the gate.
Worrying about the end of America is coming soon is part of the American character. Always has been, always will be. Conservatives do it, liberals do it. Each for different reasons. On the right, the end will come because we've forgotten values like self-sufficiency, god, family and strong moral values; on the left, it's because a corrupted and authoritarian government is power-hungry and oppressing n on-conformers: the homosexuals, blacks and Latinos, pot-smokers and long-haired freaks with tattoos.
Pietists were a kind of German puritan, and in the 17th Century, Pietism was very popular in Germany. Johannes Kelpius from Nürnberg was the disciple of a rogue Lutheran pastor and astronomer and a Pietist of the strictest kind. When his mentor died, Kelpius became the new leader of his little group of true believers, which he called "The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness."
What made these Pietists different from others was their conviction that with the help of modern technology - horoscopes, celestial charts and telescopes - they had determined that Jesus would return to earth in 1694. This was indeed useful information, as it was already 1693. But that was not all: They also determined that in order to greet Jesus in a manner befitting the son of god, they had to go to America to do it.
So they set sail for Philadelphia, which back then was a small village on the fringe of a great forest, and wandered a bit further on into the woods until they came to an unpopulated valley through which trickled a little river called the Wissahickon.
The next morning, they got to work. They built a large house where they could all live together, in celibacy of course. During the day, to compose hymns or write tracts about the right way to pray, Kelpius withdrew to a nearby cave and meditated. In the evening he climbed atop the roof of the house and searched the heavens and the stars for Jesus.
Jesus didn't show up.
A few years later, Kelpius died at 35, probably from pneumonia contracted by spending all those cold nights on the roof. His group disbanded, left Wissahickon Valley and returned to civilization.
They left nothing behind of importance, really. You can still visit his cave, but they created no traditions, no legends, no heritage that still bear fruit in American culture today, like other sects and utopias did. Except for one thing: The secret of why they needed to come to America.
There's a reference in the Book of Revelations to a "woman in the wilderness," but that sounds more like a justification than an explanation. It's not like they couldn't have waited for Jesus in Nuremberg. No one was persecuting them. They posed no threat to society or the government. They had no intention of founding their own state, they were not a suicide sect. They just wanted to wait for Jesus. They could have done that without taking a dangerous voyage and camping out in the woods in a strange country far from home.
In Germany there was no persecution, but the neighbors were always watching with prying eyes. The pastor, the mayor, the upstanding citizens of the town knew how to communicate their disapproval without actually voicing it. In a well-structured society there is a heavy, oppressive expectation to conform. There was no law against waiting for Jesus, but there was no permission to do it either. In civilized society you need permission. But America was a wilderness, and in the wilderness you can do what you want.
The America we really love - maybe even "the real America" - is the 17th century continent we first found, covered with forests, full of bears, cougars and wild turkeys, where trappers could hunt buffalo without bothering to aim, where droves of passenger pigeons were so thick they could darken the sky, where you could walk for days without once meeting a single soul. Where an American obeyed no one and let no one push him around. This is a uniquely American dream: Others peoples don't imagine their own countries in this way.
It's not just a romantic idea. Our nation could only have come into existence in a wilderness.
It's a mystery why our pitiful American Revolution against England in 1776 actually succeeded. We were outnumbered, outgunned and a bunch of amateurs. In school we learn patriotic reasons why: We didn't fight in red uniforms and in lines out in the open, we fired from behind rocks and trees - this kind of innovative, outside-the-box guerilla warfare the Brits weren't prepared for. Historians point out that the French came to our aid or that the British at home were shortsightedly disinterested in holding the colonies and thus didn't put in the necessary effort.
But a "successful revolution" is not only about the actual fighting, it's about what happens afterwards: Did the revolution bring forth a successful nation? That's an even more interesting question.
In 1776, no one was sure the project of founding a new, democratic state would work. It could have failed at any moment. Probably one of the single-most important event in our history happened eight years later. It wasn't something someone did, it was something someone didn't do: After two terms in the White House, George Washington didn't declare himself "President for Life." Today, we take that simple non-act for granted, but back then a lot of people speculated that he would do it. And he could have done it: He was that popular. Instead, he retired. It was only then we realized that we had succeeded.
A successful state built upon revolution is an anomaly. Most revolutions end in chaos, bloodshed, civil war and dictatorship. The French revolution ended in a bloodbath and brought an emperor to power - Napoleon. Lenin's and Mao's revolutions ended in dictatorship, as did most revolutions in the Arab world, Africa and in South America.
But in America, out of bloody revolution run by a bunch of radicals and tax dodgers came the world's first functioning democratic constitution, and now, over 200 years later, it's still there. Why? Because the revolution didn't give way to terror.
In all those other revolutions, the first order of business was to drag the king and queen into the public square and chop their heads off. And then go after the princes and princesses and all their other legitimate and illegitimate heirs who would otherwise one day, having fled to a foreign country, return with an army and kill the revolutionaries. The first thing a revolutionary thinks after having that well-deserved whiskey and cigar on the throne of the deposed king is: "You know, that riffraff out there, in whose name we did all this, they're still out there. If we could grab power this easily, anyone can. We'd better keep them under control: We need a secret police, and censorship, and guards at the borders."
None of that happened in America.
Kings, the noblemen with their vested interests, all these outdated traditions and ways of thinking that no one could get out from under, all that was far away in England. A few loyalists fled to England or Canada, but other than that there was no backlash. In the French and Russian Revolutions, the lower classes could only improve their situation by eliminating the upper classes. But in America, both the lower and the upper classes profited from the change. In France and in the USSR, also in Cuba and in Iran, the revolutionaries became the new upper class and were immediately seized by the same fear of the lower classes that their predecessors had. In America, the lower classes didn't rebel against the upper classes, both rebelled against a lot of people who were far away. The upper class in England stayed the upper class in England, and the upper class in America stayed the upper class in America. And why not? Everybody was fine with that.
The Soviet Union was afraid its great new idea would be subverted by long-entrenched forces and traditions. Thus, there was no tolerance of other ideas. Any deviating ideology was a threat. The New World, on the other hand, had room for all kinds of ideas. It had more room than we knew what to do with, and no new idea was really threatening. If you didn't agree with the government, you didn't have to become a counter-revolutionary, you could just move further into the wilderness and found your own state. Which an amazing number of people did, from religious sects to Communist communes. The Mormons founded their own state in Utah, a number of radical German groups fleeing repression in their homeland founded "New Germanias" in the West. None of it was ever a real threat to the state. A fruitful exchange of new and even crazy ideas is always be easier in a wilderness.
In 1776, when the Founding Fathers finally got the idea in their heads that they could break away from Mother England and they realized they would have the unique opportunity of building an entirely new nation out of nothing, they were like kids with a new construction set.
In his book "Myths America Lives by", Richard T. Hughes called it the myth of the natural nation:
"At its core," Hughes wrote, "this myth encouraged Americans to ignore the power of history and tradition as forces that shaped the nation ... here was a nation untouched by the hand of human tradition, a nation that had escaped the molding power of history and culture, a nation that had sprung, as it were, directly from the hand of God. At the most fundamental level, therefore, American identity derived not from British history and culture, not even from ancient Greece or Rome, but from nature, formed directly by the Creator."
That old firebrand Thomas Paine put it this way: "We are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time. The real volume, not of history, but of facts, is directly before us, unmutilated by contrivance, or the errors of tradition."
That's the inner wilderness we Americans still have today: A world without the shackles of history and tradition, without the crushing burden of rulers and rule-makers and without the annoying nagging of neighbors, whether they are next door or other nations. It's the unique freedom to create something out of nothing, including our own state, a freedom no one else in the world has.
From time to time, European nations have to solve some minor political problem, like reviewing copyright laws upon the advent of the Internet or tweaking the health system, but the basic questions have all been answered. Not in America.
As soon as the Revolution was won, the Founding Fathers - none of them studied political scientists - had to decide: What are the essential ingredients of a state? What is the job of government, really? Where does the freedom of the individual end? How many rules do we need and are there times when you should break them?
Even today we are asking the same questions: In the amendments to the constitution, in the decisions of the Supreme Court, in every election, in newspapers and in books and movies:
Does the state have the right to define marriage as a bond between man and woman, or does my freedom to do whatever I want take priority? Can the state collect taxes from some citizens to give money to others, or is that none of the state's business? Is a democratic nation defined by its revolution against tyranny obliged to intervene in another state if a tyrant there is oppressing its people? Or must it respect the freedom of a foreign government to rule as it sees fit? These are questions other nations do not ask.
In 2011 an interesting case turned up in court in Pahrump, a tiny town in Nevada. It was bizarrely irrational, rednecky dumb and at the same time somehow sublime: A certain Sam Jones was accused of threatening the Deputy Sheriff with a deadly weapon. In his own defense, Jones claimed it was all a misunderstanding. He admitted that he lowered his right hand to the level of his belt in the middle of a confrontation with the Deputy, but he was not, he insisted, going for his .45, which he carried in a holster there, but for the miniature copy of the constitution, which he carried in the pocket of his jeans. He wanted, he said, to explain to the officer his right to carry the deadly weapon. That's when Jones got Tasered. In court, he complained bitterly that America is becoming a police state.
In other countries, people don't carry around guns in holsters. But they also don't carry around copies of their constitution in their back pockets. In America we do.
We even ask the question, "What makes a state?" in our pop culture.
Take the humble Western, the ur-Western about the sheriff who faces down the rich, powerful and corrupt rancher alone. We love that story, but not only because it's full of masculine heroism and exciting gunplay: At its core, it's about the rule of law. Our hero fights for justice not just because he's in love with the little guy's beautiful daughter, but because he knows that society only has a chance to survive if we all adhere to the same rules. It pits two things Americans love against each other: The freedom of wide-open spaces, where a rancher can make his own rules, against the necessity to tame the chaos, so everyone can live together in a united society.
When we talk about the Wild West, we do it with a kind of nostalgic pride. Our tales of how we replaced despotism with law and taught the cowboy table manners are tales of heroism, but deep inside we're not really sure we're happy about it. A part of us outright regrets it. Sure, rule of law is good and right and necessary, but chaos was much more invigorating. It's what made us Americans. We're afraid the civilization we fought for is depriving us of our life force, our imagination and cunning, and we long for the place where there are no laws, the place America once was.
For our forefathers, politics was about nation-building - building our own nation - and that's how we see politics still. Other countries don't see it that way. Since the days of the Puritans, it's every American's duty to help create and recreate our state. That's where all the utopias, the dreamers and cranks come from, that's why the basic questions of what a state is are reflected in our pop culture, it's why politics is such a passionate chaos and why it's constantly injected with new ideas and more than a little hubris: From day one, every American knows he is part of a grand experiment.
For us to be able to experiment, we need the wilderness.
But we look around and it's gone. America today is a place where you can't fill out a tax form without an accountant, you can't say "I know my rights" because even your lawyer isn't quite sure what they are exactly, and if you look at a policeman the wrong way you can end up Tasered.
That's not wilderness. Is the real America lost?
No, it's not.
The wilderness around us is not what it once was, but wilderness isn't just landscape: We still carry it inside us.
It's in the deep-rooted conviction we have that we can still do and be whatever we want. It's in all the nuts living in the hills trying to carve out their own hare-brained utopias, it's in our irrational love of guns as a symbol of independence, it's in our crazy, manic love of new and untested ideas, it's in the bizarre demands we make of our government to leave us alone: While most other countries expect their states to do more for them, only Americans are constantly demanding "smaller government."
The Europeans, who are so easily shocked by any little crisis, think we will destroy ourselves one day because we appear so unreasonable, irrational, insane. But that's not what will kill us. The day America falls is the day we lose out inner wilderness.
I often think about the question my father posed at the dinner table: Will America fall?
It's a question the French, Canadians or Chinese don't ask. I've often heard Germans ponder, "Should we scrap the euro and return to Deutschmark?" Or: "Will these Greeks ever come to their senses?" They constantly worry about the end of capitalism, the destruction of nature, the end of the world. Those questions, I can imagine at a German dinner table. But not "Will Germany fall?" Fall from what? To what? Germany has gone through five different forms of statehood in the last 150 years, and the Nazi state and East Germany have both fallen within living memory, but no one asks how long their state will survive.
We Americans do. We've been doing it for over 200 years now, nearly every day.
Sometimes the threat to our nation is almost mystical, like when conservative Christians worry that America has broken its bond with God. Sometimes it's economical: What happens to us when China becomes the richest country in the world? How much higher can the national debt rise before the state crumbles? What if the middle class disappears completely? Or political: Can our country even function with Republicans and Democrats at loggerheads in Congress as they are?
Sometimes the anxiety reaches epic proportions: After the 9/11 attacks, I was filled with a black, hopeless fear, and I thought: The barbarians are at the gates. They are strong, determined, violent and ruthless while we're weak, selfish and spoiled. They will keep hitting us until one day the America I love is gone and the terrorists and murderers will celebrate themselves as freedom fighters, martyrs and the founders of a new, glorious state built on our ashes.
But "Will America fall?" is the wrong question. The question we are really asking is: Is America still America?
The demagogic ruffian-journalists of Fox News prove it. The bizarre slogans of our presidential candidates prove it. The huge, frightening and unique change that America is going through now without knowing where it will lead proves it.
Our irresistible arrogance proves it. The carelessness and the carefreeness, the love of the new, the willingness to experiment, the irrepressible urge towards change proves it. The curiosity that stops you from ever considering a society, a trend, a science completed; the freedom to be pursue utopias, crazy ideas and impossible dreams - all that proves it.
The fact that we still scare the hell out of the Europeans proves it.
Because they're right: We are nuts. We believe we're bigger and stronger than we really are, we're constantly ignoring the pitfalls right in front of us, we don't know when to stop and we won't let anyone out there tell us what to do or think. Even if they're right.
On our head-long dive into the future, as we stumble from one disaster to the next, we know there's a price to pay and we gladly pay it: insecurity, irrationality, melodrama and overkill. But we get something for it, too. The hot, irrational love of to our state. Other peoples don't have that love. The feeling: It's yours, America belongs to you, it's up to you to make something out of it, no matter who you are. Europeans think of the state as something basically separate from themselves. They complain about it, they even vote more than Americans do, but the attitude is that the state is very similar to an employer or a landlord. Our state is an opportunity, an empty space to fill, a personal challenge. America is not a machine that happens to run or not run, like a European nation is: America is a state of mind.
That's why Europeans don't understand American patriotism. It scares them. They don't understand how you can love a state, which to them is nothing more than a collection of laws. What they don't understand is: Our patriotism is not only an expression of love, it's the hope expressed again and again that America will not stop.
That's the reason our national anthem is so important to us, more important than any other in any other nation in the world. The "Star-Spangled Banner" was born out of the very question we are still asking: Will America fall?
1814, the year Francis Scott Key write the poem "Defense of Fort McHenry," from which the lyrics were later taken, was the year, nearly 40 years after the Revolution, the Brits tried to win back America one last time. Not that I can blame them: We're the ones who started that war in 1812. Another stupid idea that looked good at first. We don't talk about that war much today. It wasn't exactly a moment of glory. I certainly didn't learn much about it in school - I heard the embarrassing details from a Canadian friend, who was impressively well-informed.
The Brits were busy fighting Napoleon in Europe and distracted, so we took the chance and invaded Canada. But once they noticed what was going on across the Atlantic, it got nasty. Their battle-tested, highly professional army steamrolled us in one battle after the other. They got Canada back, but they didn't stop there. They crossed the border. They just kept coming. Until they conquered Washington D.C. in 1814 and burned down the White House.
If there was any time in our history that we were close to falling, this was it.
Francis Scott Key was a young American lawyer. He boarded a British ship on a diplomatic mission - to negotiate an exchange of prisoners - carrying a white flag. The talks started out fine, but when night came the Brits wouldn't let him go home because they had just started to attack the city. Surrounded by Englishmen, he watched them bomb the Baltimore stronghold Fort McHenry.
In the light of the flames he could see the flag waving above the fort, but sometime during the night he could no longer tell if the fort still stood. He had to wait until morning. When he looked again, he saw the flag still there, sat down and wrote the poem.
We still get teary when we hear that anthem, but it's not because of the patriotic line, "The land of the free and the home of the brave," even though that's an ego-booster. The important line - the line that puts tears in the eyes of so many Americans, even though they may not understand why - is the one just before it:
"Oh say, does the Star-Spangled Banner yet wave?"
That's the question every American has asked for the last 200 years, the question we are still asking:
Does America still belong to us?
Yes, it does.
|Some notes on "Planet America."|
Germany - all of Europe - is traditionally anti-American and has been since the American Revolution. So I tend to be on the defensive when Germans criticize America.
One day, Astrid got mad at me: "Why are you always making excuses? Why don't you just answer our questions truthfully and tell the bad with the good?"
"What questions?" I asked.
Five minutes later I had a list of 30 questions most Germans have about America. Most of them I couldn't answer (truthfully) without research. That list is the basis of this book.
Buy the book.
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