What is it about us that makes our identity crisis a lifelong malady — a neurotic self absorption — the ultimate infantile narcissism — or is it perhaps a perpetual state of fascination? Why are we still wondrous — or are we?
Are we, as art critic Robert Hughes suggested, “an America whose making never ends,” or as the late Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin proclaimed, permanently on “the fertile verge?”
Our “condition” brings to mind the answer that art historian Ellen Johnson gave to a student who asked her to describe Picasso. “You can’t pin him down; he’s not a dead butterfly.” Are we also not a dead butterfly? Is America really ineffable?
Like so many ineffable entities — tragic accidents, genocides, miraculous discoveries, brilliant beyond belief ideas — our ineffability continues to produce untold volumes of verbiage. Literally and figuratively, our ineffability speaks volumes. Our refusal to settle the identity issue is, perhaps, not a sign of our incurable adolescence, but rather of the fact that we are and always will be a work in progress; in short, perhaps our resistance to establishing an identity carved in stone is our greatest strength.
That said, on the occasion of our annual celebration of independence, I propose that we also pay homage to our interdependence, by committing ourselves to moving beyond self to community and embracing the civic implications of an increasingly interconnected world. In the 21st century our inclination toward exceptionalism and isolationism is trumped by our findings in science and technology. We know from biology that we humans are more alike than we are different; we know from the environmental sciences that our use and abuse of the environment has a resounding global impact; we know by the revolution in information and communication technologies that we are linked inextricably with the entire world, and we know from economic globalization that we are caught in a web of corporate interventions.
Isn’t it time for us to change the ways we think about ourselves in relation to others? In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, speaking on July 4 at Independence Hall, referred to the building of the post-World War II “house of Europe” and envisioned us constructing an Atlantic partnership. He said “we will be ready for a Declaration of Interdependence, we will be prepared to discuss with a united Europe the ways and means of forming a concrete Atlantic partnership, a mutually beneficial partnership between the new union now emerging in Europe and the old American Union founded here 175 years ago. . .. Today Americans must learn to think intercontinentally.”
In the 47 years since President Kennedy made those prophetic remarks, our interdependence has gone further than he could have anticipated in his time. We know now that interdependence is global — by no means limited to a relationship between the U.S. and Europe. By now, a number of declarations of interdependence have been written; though none are official, they all reflect the obligations implied in the realities of interdependence. Our allegiances and our civic responsibilities are both local and global.
If we accept and indeed embrace the realities of our interdependence, we are in a much better position to make civic virtue of the intrusive phenomenon we call globalization that we didn’t ask for — and do not necessarily welcome.
I see the unprecedented consciousness of our interdependence as a unique opportunity to live up to our ample capacities for more mutual understanding and respect. Indeed we Americans — we people of this ineffable America — are not diminished by our interdependence, we are enhanced by it.
We find ourselves now — temporarily — in a position of world leadership. Let’s seize the moment for the greater good of the world. We have in President Obama a leader who is uniquely suited to the job of weaving us into the fabric of the world while maintaining the values of which we are most proud and the skills that we have employed in making diversity and pluralism our way of life. We are not and never will be finished with the task of perfecting ourselves. Our human-ness precludes that possibility.
Let’s use our national propensity for hope and for fixing things to reach across boundaries and join with all nations to make the 21st century better than the last — more peaceful, more mutually respectful and more committed to liberty and justice for all the world’s people.
Publication Date: July 5, 2009