READER MAIL: AMERICA. “Hi Eve: Well, maybe this is so obvious a point that e-mailing you about it is gratuitous, but the biggest difference of this country to me is the idea that it’s a country of mind, not ethnicity. Natives and immigrants alike purport to subscribe to a set of beliefs rather than one ethnic stream of ‘Frenchness.’ It’s that adherence to certain beliefs, in my view, that creates a dynamic culture in which, for better or worse, Americans of all stripes are always screaming about their individual rights, always debating the most mundane issues as if they were matters of high principle. It can make us preening and self-righteous and egotistical, but it also makes us dynamic; it was not long at all, for instance, before slavery and its contradictions became a major divide in American life as we argued how it would fit in with our beliefs, and ultimately, of course, it couldn’t. The abortion debate is another example; we don’t debate it, like the nations of Western Europe, as a medical or ‘common-sense’ matter, but as a rights issue, the rights of women versus the rights of fetuses. This streak in us often makes our politics and news tiresome, as everything seeming like a repeat of some previous issue. It makes us very impractical at times, with our tendency often to wait to act on important issues, like entering wars, until they’ve reached a crisis stage and can be viewed as a national crusade that in some way reflects our beliefs. But, as the Founders intended, it also works off much of the steam and keeps us peaceful. The resignation of Nixon, the battle for Florida in 2000, would have been events in many countries that created riots and demonstrations, possibly even civil war. Here, the tradition of debating our beliefs and our essential common faith in our institutions, despite all the grousing on the Left about the Supreme Court in 2000, for instance, nonetheless maintains a social order to which the majority ascribe. Instead of sparking a guerilla movement, the worst thing the election of 2000 produced was Michael Moore bitching on his book tour.

“This is a rambling e-mail, maybe too disconnected, but the more I see these things play out, the more impressed I am with this aspect of our country. I remember visiting Zimbabwe a few years ago and meeting some former revolutionaries who had studied in Ohio in the late 1960s. I asked them what they thought about the racial divide in America. Their take — both are black by the way — is that Americans both black and white are more alike than they often realize, that they shared a sense of entitlement, a conviction about their own individual rights, that created a common national character, sometimes aggravating but also charming, that stood out from other countries. I’m sure that’s true.”

My one caveat: Slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829; Bolivia, 1831; throughout the British Empire, 1834; USA, 1865. One chilling aspect of US slavery was the fact that slaveholders often did acknowledge that it went against American principles–and they didn’t do anything about it but fret. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” is… well, it’s a good quote.

About Eve Tushnet

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