The American Idea

Essays by Atlantic readers

In the 21st century now upon us, there is a real danger that all other centuries will fade away.  The age is so full of information, yet so little of it will survive.  The electronic age could not create an alternative universe to hold our collective memory, but the computer age has achieved just that; the only problem is that this alternative world we possess is disposable by design.  The business model whereby we must vigilantly update all our records only to replace our recording products every few years has left us with a greater instability than most imagine. 

This disposable culture is the latest and greatest American contribution to history.  Imagine finding a library buried in the desert: its books will still be functional after a thousand years.  But what will become of all the CDs and cassettes and memory sticks left over from our epoch?  No matter how much memory they contain in bytes, there will be no way to read them.

And it is not just a material phenomena, but this mode of culture is already affecting our memory.  American culture is an obsession with fads, obsessively tracked to the neglect of history.

What will we leave behind?

James Stotts
Roslindale, MA


Four hundred years ago the founders of our American civilization discovered a physical world that was unimaginably vast. Endless forests, abundant clean water, wild game enough to live on—a wilderness of plenty waiting to be subdued. Later, coal, iron ore, gold and copper, and then oil poured forth from the earth. Deep soils produced limitless crops.  No wonder then, as European settlers spread across the continent, that the pursuit of wealth became the ideal.  Come to America. Strike it rich! Make your fortune. Enjoy the good life!  Spend more. Enjoy your success!

Now we have found that resources are not inexhaustible, and the earth cannot absorb waste endlessly. The world is warming inexorably, and rivers dry up before they reach the sea. Population grows, and we eat our children’s future. Slowly, we are realizing that we can’t all be rich. Can we now learn to live in harmony with the earth?  Can we cut back, husband our resources, and share more equally? Can we learn new forms of citizenship based upon participation and community? Is a new American idea possible in the age of limits?

Greg Studen
Novelty, OH


There are many ideas that we could call "American," but bedrock beneath them all is the belief that ideas alone suffice to define the American experience. We think a nation built wholly of ideas like liberty, justice, and equality can endure and prosper, and this is as revolutionary a claim now as it was when our forebears first made it. Though we understand them yet imperfectly, those ideas bind us to one another when we pursue their fullest and best realization.

Some assert a more concrete basis for our nation: we are Americans because we share a tongue, or a Bible, or a land, and we must reclaim these foundations because they are now in mortal peril. But the first of us chose the ideas they did because they knew something that only the last of us will forget: that race, religion, culture, and the rest are all, ultimately, also ideas—and ours are stronger and truer material for the forging of nations. We will continue to thrive so long as we remember that what sustains America is our fealty to the ideas that began it.

Miles Townes
Arlington, VA


didn’t have to

My birth in Thermopolis, Wyoming’s Hot Springs County Hospital and graduation from Riverton High School weren’t my choices; I grew up proud of Mom’s decisions, but I didn’t have to.

Mamo, my grandmother, said, “An education’s one thing nobody can take away from you,” and “You could be president.” I didn’t have to get an education; I didn’t have to be president: I wanted to own a junk yard. Mom—still making my decisions, then—made me go to college. A year later draft number seven rescued me from academia. For years Mom said, “You had a college deferment; you didn’t have to go.”

Mom and Mamo’s birthplace was a southwestern Virginia plantation house; I visited the ol’ home place once; the only thing the fire didn’t take away was the rock chimney. My red brick hospital overlooking the “World’s Largest Hot Spring”: gone, taken away in another catastrophe: some politician’s vision of a clean skyline above the town of 1,500. My limestone high school held the old gym where I ate every day’s bag lunch: erased, taken away for progress’s sake.

During my 28-year Air Force career I earned undergrad and graduate degrees, but I didn’t have to.

Robert Townsend
Atlantic City, WY


Beyond the First View

I left my unjust but beloved country at the end of the 1970s. I left for many reasons: the interrogations of my husband about his father Aaron, who taught Hebrew to so-called “plane hijackers” who hoped to emigrate to Israel, KGB interrogations about our visitors from foreign lands, an eight-hour search of our apartment for the forbidden poems of Joseph Brodsky, the ever-present threat of arrest. I poured out my first impressions of America in letters that I wrote to my priest Father Alexander Men, the famous Jewish-born Moscow priest, writer, poet, educator, philosopher, and prophet.  In 1991, on the way to his church, Father Alexander was murdered. We still don’t know who did it, although his son is now Governor of the Moscow region. Apparently, his murder must remain unsolved, because it symbolizes the rejection of freedom by the former Soviet people. Americans are different than Russians, I wrote to Father Men. “They don’t pry into your soul, but they don’t let you into theirs, either. Friendship is different from ours.” Father Alexander replied: “To live on a larger scale is the only way worthy of man … Whatever convoluted fate awaits us, it all has a purpose, if only we would find and understand it.”

 New York City was stunning, fantastic, monstrous, thundering with cosmic cataclysms, turbulent with the cumulative energies of its millions of souls, each in pursuit of their separate visions of life, liberty, happiness, and I tried to fit in. New York surprised me with a new sense of myself—I gained time as if it were stretched. “Any breakthrough in love, creativity, beauty, and mystery is a victory over time,” Father Alexander would write to me. “And I would remind you once more of the words from the Bible: ‘time will be no more.’”

One day “the fallen world” of New York stunned me when a black taxi driver began to speak to us in Russian.  He turned in his seat, bellowing “Pushkin! Pushkin!” And then he added in English, “He’s ours! Do you know what I’m saying?” I pronounced my first English phrase for a plumber who came to fix our faucets. When he saw that we were sitting in darkness without lights he went to a store and bought us candles and sweet marzipan rolls. I said to him, “Thank you, you are like a Russian.” But when he asked me, “Are you homesick?” I was too choked up to answer. After our faucets were fixed and he had gone away I sat there and stared at the candles, silently chewing the sweet rolls spiced with my salty marzipan tears. My husband Yakov consoled me, saying: “Now you have a chance to think about one of life’s deepest conflicts—freedom and fate.” And I smiled through the tears of freedom.

The Russian émigrés of my generation came from a country where the “material stimulus,” the taste for possessions, did not exist, where ethical values were derived from literature rather than everyday experience. Now that our children have become Americans, the word “freedom” has acquired a different meaning and sense than we once ascribed to it. Our naïve expectations of America—and the bemusement, disappointment, and love that we felt when we were first confronted with its vexing, paradoxical complexity—are now lost to us behind a wall of time. I don’t hunger for an ideal social system anymore. I enjoy moving in the direction of myself. “The eternal remains under any skies” as Father Alexander wrote, and people everywhere shuttle between good and evil.

Diana Vinkovetsky
Brookline, MA


This is America!

I was in the No Drinking Section of Boston’s Fenway Park, watching a ballgame.  A man in front of me was enjoying a beer, apparently unaware of his transgression.  Suddenly, a security officer appeared and told him he could not drink there.  Taken aback, the man stood and cried out in disbelief: “This is America!”

This episode reveals something basic about the American idea.  We Americans chafe at restrictions on our freedom.  Thomas Paine understood that in 1776 when he wrote that even at best government was but a necessary evil.  Today that sentiment clearly endures.

Yet, notwithstanding the value of this instinctive bias toward freedom, we must recognize its downside.  It fosters an excessive individualism, an unfettered reliance on markets, and an unrelenting distrust of government – each of which impedes our capacity to address urgent societal problems.

How, then, can we use government to our benefit without undermining essential freedoms?  This vital question is not well addressed in sound bites or modern political campaigns.  Yet we must confront it if the American idea is to serve us well in the years ahead.  Somehow, we the people must develop a more textured understanding of the exclamation: “This is America!”

Mark R. Yessian
Boston, MA

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