Dream(ing) America II
Bill Long 2/12/05
Two Additional Thoughts
As I "Dream America," I see a land more and more eager to preserve its past, but I am wary of the interpretive grid or spectacles that we will be given in which to view this past. A focus on our past is relatively new in America; America hasn't truly yet discovered the power of history to define and even determine ourselves as a people. I look forward to the raging debates in the future over our past.
(2) Vulnerability in the Midst of Plenty
When I think about America, however, I not only think of the way we are increasingly trying to recapture (and manipulate) our past. We are, in the present, a land where very large numbers of people are very vulnerable to reversals of fortune. On the one hand, this is not a newsflash. If Job could be reduced to penury, and he was the "greatest man in the East," so could any of us. That isn't my point. My point is that as I live (and age), I recognize signs of vulnerability all around. Maybe it is just that I have developed a fresh view of my own mortality and thus see potential losses wherever I turn, but I don't think so.
I see illness strike people and make them lose their homes or their businesses. I see peoples' choices constricted because of financial exigency. I see people living on the emotional edge and barely able to function on a day to day basis. Much of our life is spent staving off the potentially devastating demons of illness, divorce, financial need and emotional/psychological weakness.
I think that America is both afraid and longing for a debate over issues of security--and not HOMELAND security. I think America is ready but scared to talk about the way that we as a society ought to try to address felt and real vulnerabilities in life. Maybe most people feel that we deal with them adequately; I would venture to guess that if people had a voice to speak, they would say that maybe we ought to (re)open a debate about national health care, about preserving, rather than ending, social security as we know it, of seeking other ways to relieve the anxiety that daily racks the hearts and minds of millions of our fellow citizens. When I "Dream America," this thought is almost a nightmare.
I saw on the U of Oregon campus today a poignant reminder of the connectedness of my first two points. Right in the middle of campus is a preserved and restored home, the Collier home, built in 1886 and owned by the first physics professor at the university. It now houses the history of music department (there being no history of physics, I suppose, because physicists don't think they have a history), but it stands quite "inefficiently" in the midst of the attractive brick edifices that make up much of the U of O.
But on the side lawn, between the Collier House and the administration building, Johnson Hall, is something you almost miss, a reminder of our vulnerability. On the lawn is a small flowering dogwood tree, planted in memory of Kathy Medrano in 1978. The small plaque commemorating Kathy only says that it was placed there in her memory by Jan Medrano, her mother(?), who worked in the President's office from 1967-1998. I paused for a moment this afternoon as I was walking across campus to reflect on history and vulnerability, both of which were right before my eyes.
Whereas the first two ideas really have an ethical dimension to them, I think the last idea is simply an observation about our lives. Ever since the (re)discovery of California in the 1950s and 1960s, when Americans in droves crossed the country to live in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley and the temperate Bay Area, Americans have been on the move. I remember studying some of the early history of Connecticut a while back. I wanted to understand the generations of Jonathan Edwards' family (he was a famous Congregational theologian of the mid-18th century) in America, as well as the history of some of the older Connecticut towns. It was not unusual to find that many Revolutionary War veterans could point to five or six generations of ancestors from the same small town in Connecticut. Indeed, my own family tree, which goes back to the 1630s in Massachusetts and Connecticut, shows that we didn't "branch out" beyond Connecticut until after the Revolutionary War (when we went all the way to upstate New York!), and it was not until 1967 that we ventured to the West Coast.
But now it is usual, and almost de rigeur, for ambitious people to have lived in at least five or six states by the time they are 40. I don't know if this is a good or bad thing; it simply is. Whether this leads to greater homogenization is debatable. Some think, for example, that migration patterns to the Pacific Northwest in the last two decades (mostly from CA) have led to a decline in the more progressive spirit that characterized this region at one time. But now we will be quibbling. In any case, we seem to want to keep moving, until that is, we put down our feet and say, paraphrasing God in Job 38--"This far will I go and no farther!"
One could endlessly "Dream America," I suppose. Too bad Charles Kuralt is no longer with us to show us ourselves as he travelled from place to place. But our longing to tell America's story, through its people, its picture, its threats, its ideals will forever appeal to us. So, that is MY America. How about yours?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long