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Our American Identity Crisis

January 20, 2012

The debt ceiling debate is well behind us, but with the swelling momentum of election season it is once again difficult to walk around in this country without being reminded of the fact that nobody–in Washington or anywhere–can agree on anything. Beyond the typical differences of opinion on how the government should function, the endless Republican debates and incessant media coverage of the election once again casts into a stark light the fact that there is an active debate in this country about the identity of government itself; we can’t agree on what it is fundamentally for.

This worries me.

Rather than launching into my views on what the government in this country should be for, I’d like to emphasize how important it is for us to come to a consensus. Not that I think debate is unhealthy, and not that I think just any consensus will do. But of all the aspects of contemporary political life there are to debate, the absolute function of government should not be one. The fact that our government is increasingly unable to work together¬† is emblematic not just of a new type of Gingrich-championed divisionism, but also of our American identity crisis.

While it is easy to glamorize Europe, it is also easy to envision their distinct cultures. Amid an influx of immigrants, amid warring political parties and economic classes, European countries seem capable of maintaining a unified cultural identity. And while this isn’t about fetishizing smaller nations as easy places to live where everyone agrees with one another, a certain degree of cultural unity cannot be discounted entirely from how they influence respective political processes.

America is too large for such unity. Division is built into the very framework of the country, which would be one thing if the states themselves had overriding cultural distinctions. The closest we have come to this phenomenon is a rough generalization one can make about red and blue states, as if that encompassed all there could be about American culture. We are spread out and fragmented, as isolated as early settlers in a vast open plane.

But what’s so bad about rugged individualism? Isn’t that, in itself, a viable American culture? I think so. In the same way that progressives want to equalize opportunities for everyone, conservatives want everyone to be able to retain what they have earned; both are policies concerned with fairness.

There is a danger, however, in individualism: when people decide to isolate themselves, or to stress the individualism of what they are doing above all, there is an abdication of responsibility involved. The individual has no imperative to contribute to a society or community, and he is not motivated to do so by the powerlessness inherent in being a single voice.

American culture right now, if anything, is this abdication of responsibility writ large. We have abandoned any notion of a shared identity, cultural or otherwise, with anyone outside of our immediate geographic area. As a result, we have no investment in each other. We are all looking out for ourselves.

When we don’t take control of our culture, we pave the way for mass-media to sell us theirs. When we abdicate responsibility for our society, it paves the way for the kind of deregulation that caused the financial collapse, the kind of corporate infiltration into government that sparked #OWS. When we decide that government is meant to serve us, when we decide that we have no responsibility to serve it or each other, we allow those at the top to control our culture. Ironically, it seems, the best way to ensure that government properly serves us is to serve it ourselves.

We should not be surprised at corporate lobbying, Rupert Murdoch, Citizen’s United, Bank of America’s foreclosure mess, or the 24-hour news coverage that indoctrinates people with almost ideas. We gave up our responsibility to each other long ago, and in the vacuum of our inaction, the powerful have done what they like.

Still, the thing about America is that it is difficult to make generalizations. There are cultural and political groups working hard to bring people together under a shared American identity, and therefore a shared responsibility. It is those groups we should jump in with in the coming election and beyond.

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