The Idea of America

A Short Essay after watching CBS Sunday Morning’s 40th Anniversary episode

Sunday, January 27, 2019

11:26 AM

It was a good run, really from 1609 until today we tried. Different people at different times taking 2 steps forward 1 step back. From colonialism, to mercantilism and democracy to oligarchy we are what we are in spite of th enlightened angels of our better nature. From Supreme Court decisions to Constitutional Amendments from Wars on “X” to National Security it’s all one big melting pot of ideas and more often hidden agendas. We got Koch Bros., Shel Adelson, Scaife Foundation, Grover Norquist, Steve Bannon, Karl Rove, Newt Gingerich, Dick Cheney, Frank Luntz and David Addington and all of Talk Radio and Fox Network helping us take one step back on a daily basis. Then there’s everyone else with their own hopes and dreams and less hidden agendas, working out in the open under the cold light of day trying to have a “society” here and avoid the chaos and darkness of the Honey Badgers (who don’t give fuck).

I remember once learning about a Canadian Broadcast Corp. project they did for radio with the piano virtuoso and polymath Glenn Gould. The program was called, “The Idea of North”. Eventually a film was made and while I never listened to the audio recording, I did hear bits and pieces of it in the film entitled “31 Short Films about Glenn Gould” where the topic came up and Glenn showed how he directed the editing of the audio recordings like music for the radio version. I still need to track that one down. As for the film version (which I think Gould had some connection to as well), that was very much about:

  1. A particular province in Canada north of 40
  2. People who go to visit that town and stay there
  3. Native rights over the land and how to best share with the Indians

But the title itself (seemingly as innocuous and mysterious as an idea) is what I found most compelling. Playing with that and turning over and over in my head it got caught like a rhyme, an earworm or mindworm of sorts. The “idea” of something that is itself a kind of arbitrary but still vital thing, an ordinal point on a compass, a map, a direction. Something that could lead you to safety or to danger (as in venturing too far North). But the beauty of an artist like Glenn Gould is the “openness” of a title like that and the multitude of interpretations it might have. That’s the work of a true artist. And even more so an artist that can spur other artists with a small choice like that, the “idea” as a title, a topic seemingly vague and open to interpretation.

PBS decided to hint or glance at something like the “Idea of America” during the late days of the Bush administration. Instead using the U.S. Constitution as the “idea”. Host Peter Sagal drove a motorcycle around the U.S. doing interviews asking questions. It’s all there still on the PBS website: The title “Constitution USA” is not open to interpretation but roots everything into the framework of the mythos of the founding fathers, the mental work and emotional work they performed leading up to and following the ratification by each state of the U.S. Constitution. To quote the series blurb on their website:

“Traveling across the country by motorcycle, Sagal is in search of where the U.S. Constitution lives, how it works and how it doesn’t… how it unites us as a nation and how it has nearly torn us apart.”

From <>

Tear us apart? Do they mean Roe v. Wade? Or Civil Rights? Or the Right to Bear Arms? What about the right of the President to declare war unilaterally without an act of Congress? That’s happened a few times too. I dare say the tie between the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. citizen is barely there. No one asserts their rights, we beg for them. Unsponsored illegal immigrants are summarily tried and thrown in jail before they can claim political asylum which is more often legitimate than any assumption of someone seeking seasonal work in good ol’ “El Norte”. But we don’t care, just so long as our cultural assumptions and societal inertia are left unchecked. No, I would argue the U.S. Constitution doesn’t come up very often in the majority of people’s thinking or lives as they are deal with the daily commute, errands and drop-offs required to just get through another damned week. That to me, that daily tactical decision making, survival especially in the bottom 25% (just to pick a strata), that I dare say is the “Idea of America”, the dream that people were sold. Otherwise, why would they stay here, struggle where there is no meritocracy, darned little justice socially speaking, and random justice legally speaking? What stake do they have in a casino where they are the necessary marks that keep the lights on by providing Federal Income Tax and Social Security Benefit taxes to a central Federal authority. What’s the pay off for them? It’s hope. It’s hope for that 2 steps forward occurring each day in spite of the one step back. It’s the stereotype ALL Europeans have of Americans of being child-like and “hopeful” in their outlook and demeanor generally. And if there’s any reason to fight or preserve, or legislate or lobby to preserve that child-like “hopefulness”, to me that’s the true North, the guide star, the core being of “The Idea of America”.






%d bloggers like this: