The American Idea

Essays by Atlantic readers

I am 31, and have been living on the global road for ten years.  I am a proud anarchist, and trace my roots back to the freemasons who declared all independence from any authority that does not govern with consent.  I've installed the South Pole, I've led climbing expeditions across the Himalayas, I sold drugs in South Africa, I am a practicing yogi, and my bachelor's degree is in investment banking. I am presently a homeless ascetic, a proud, flag-burning American sleeping under the stars in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  The West is still wild, you pussies.

The American Idea is about Anarchy.  For that matter, so was Jesus.  Both were crucified, for the obvious reason.  True freedom requires us to believe in ourselves, needing no outside law and trusting none. 

Listen well:  your Babylon has no integrity.  Your politicians are bribed liars, your religious fundamentalists are warmongers, momentum behind the debtor's union builds, and Rome falls around you.  A global indigenous renaissance takes place beneath the radar of any economic data, and thank the Goddess for it, you know what I'm saying?  It's about time.  A generation bereft of useful elders comes of age on a planet that is curiously explorable, habitable, perishable, and indeed home.  Meanwhile, elders war for profit.  nice touch, that white man's burden...(liberty or death, punk)

Matthew Ryan Kelley
Boulder, CO


My idealized vision of America is realized in old westerns like Shane, where it’s clear who the toughest guy in town is, but he is governed by restraint, and has the wisdom to swear off force and violence.  He is content to live under the plow and provide for friends and family.  Only after a series of profoundly unjust provocations and constant dangers to his loved ones does he resort to violence in order to restore justice and safety to the community.

The real America may have fit that mold during World War II and for a split second after that, but paranoia has ruled ever since.  It could have ended in 1989 when we “won” the cold war, but instead we continued to ostracize that dangerous superpower off the coast of Florida, and worse, we began to cultivate the next fear that caused our preemptive violence in 2003. 

Ironically, the current administration and those who support it would agree with my idealized vision of America, and amazingly, would think that America still is Shane and that we only invaded Iraq as a last resort.  Shane would be disappointed.

Chris Knief
Madison WI


Warring Against Nature

In Appalachia, the top of a mountain is blown into smithereens, exposing veins of coal.The resulting debris and spoil from the monstrous blast and ensuing excavation is then pushed into the valley below, burying thousands of acres of trees and countless perennial streams. Along a logging road in the Pacific Northwest, only the two-foot high stump of a mammoth Douglas Fir remains, serving as the resting place for a discarded beer can. Did the American idea contemplate an arrogant disregard for nature in its perpetuation of 21st century economic excesses to fund the American Dream? It did not. It was born out an agrarian restraint that revered the landscape, not only for the sustenance it could provide, but also for the spiritual enrichment essential to the complete development of the individual.

Chief Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux said, “The elders were wise. They knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; they knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to a lack of respect for humans too.” The harvest has already turned bitter.

David A. Lipstreu
Newbury, Ohio


The American idea is homage to the noun itself—"idea." A free democracy incubates, facilitates, promotes, fights over, and provides conflict resolution and decision making for "ideas." For every idea there is a counter idea, a modified idea, a ridiculous idea, something sublime. A multitude of media, publications, and organizations overlaid by a variegated population means ideas, ideas, ideas.

Volume, variation, and distribution of ideas is woven into the fabric of America. Keep them coming, change them, laugh at them and cry. Debate them in the halls of Congress and legislative byways of state and local government. Let them collide in a court room. The cacaphony of democracy—ideas.

The tension stress and strain of competing ideas bears down on us. Sometimes it may fuel violent confrontation, but mostly it liberates: enrichment evolves and something akin to the ideal gets a chance. Ideas are ammunition for action and an improved society. Disputation from ideas is common, but exalted; it's America!

Michael H. Miller
Los Angeles, CA


The American Century has ended, many say. What will replace it is not clear. The Age of Globalization? A new Dark Ages of religious conflict? A world inflamed by the gap between the developed world and the fringe-dwellers? America's time alone and unchallenged may be over.

Yet in this shifting world, the American Idea has just as much potency—poignancy even—as it ever had. No other nation seems prepared to champion the virtues of hard work, the moral imperative to liberty, and equal rights for women and minorities as the United States has. Can China take our place as leader of the free world? Barring massive governmental reform, no. Can Europe rise again? Demographics and history would argue it can't.

The world may be a difficult place for freedom and justice, but if the future of the world is to be safer and better than its past, America must lead the way. Despite its many flaws and failings, its strange psychoses, its unusual way of hiding its virtues until they are most needed, America is unique on earth in its ability for moral leadership. The American Idea is not perfect, but it is still necessary.

Will Munsil
Lakewood, CO


The American idea is that fundamental human values (liberty, justice and equal opportunity, for example) are best nurtured by political and economic institutions accountable to people empowered to act freely.  Implicit here, is confidence in our system’s ability to absorb and adapt to change while remaining anchored to core values.

In recent decades, we’ve been challenged by change.  Globalization, terrorism, resource scarcity, consumerism and technological advances are among the forces that test both our institutions and our values.  An information free-for-all makes it hard to discover truth and distinguish between the significant and the trivial.  A simplistic sense of right versus wrong, saved versus damned, good versus evil allows partisanship to overshadow community and impedes the search for common ground around the world. 

The biggest challenge facing the American idea is how to anchor enduring values in this time of rapid and discordant change.  Religious and cultural norms of a simpler past seem unable to secure shared values in the complex present. 

Is the American idea resilient enough to embrace a rebirth of our political and economic systems?  Will the American people push our institutions in the right direction? Our history may be short but our track record is reassuring.

Steve Norris
Denver, CO


As someone who emigrated from India and has lived half her life in the U.S., my appreciation of the American Idea is constant in its presence and constantly evolving in its flavor.

Coming as I do from a culture where platitudes like fate or karma and apathy stemming from lack of individual agency are the norm, knowing that this country unabashedly enshrines the pursuit of happiness is exhilarating. To me, happiness once meant little more than having “a room of my own.” Achieving that modest goal has freed me to grapple with ever more complex, challenging, yet authentic-to-me definitions of happiness.

One such definition is the freedom to reinvent myself. Raised a non-observant Hindu, I have found my spiritual community among Unitarian Universalists. A techie by training and profession, I took up writing about five years ago, and ended up launching an online magazine.

The idea of reinvention – not considering anything as “settled” – extends to society as a whole. I see this in the efforts of those who espouse Intelligent Design and those who passionately argue for the rights of a whole range of minorities.

The essence of the American Idea, then, is that it is an engine of evolution – the personal as well as the social and cultural.

Nandini Pandya
Milford, CT

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