Foreword to The Idea of America

“In the beginning, all the world was America.” — John Locke

“The Garden of Eden was a perfect place,” my friend Manuel explained. “Man had free will. He could live in harmony with nature and God — and everything would be fine. But if he defied God, the stain of original sin would be on his descendants forever.”

Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Ever after, men and women have been tarnished; every silver lining has a cloud — and a correction follows every bubble market.

When America was discovered, some people thought it might be a kind of Eden. Explorers recounted their tales of naked savages, snakes, and low-hanging tropical fruit. Maybe it was Eden, but gone to seed.

Whatever it was, many people thought they could make a paradise out of it. Adventurers, entrepreneurs, religious zealots of every stripe — all made their way to the New World intent upon turning it into the Eden of their dreams. Five hundred years later, America is what they made of it — both a paradise, and a complete mess.

But if Americans have a special gift, it is a talent for ignoring irony and ambiguity and going on with their special mission: getting rich. Most Americans look at the country as if it were an Enron financial statement. Sure, many of the assets are fictitious and the liabilities are understated. But like Merrill Lynch, we are all bullish on America.

“Proud to Be an American,” says one bumper sticker. “One Nation-Indivisible,” says another. America was, of course, founded on the opposite principle — the idea that people were free to separate themselves from a parent government whenever they felt they had come of age. But no fraud, no matter how stupendous, is so obvious as to be detected by the average American. That is America’s great strength — or its most serious weakness.

After Sept. 11, 2001, so many people bought flags that the shops ran short. Old Glory festooned nearly every porch and bridge. Patriotism swelled every heart.

Europeans coming back to the Old Country reported that they had never seen anything like it. A Frenchman takes his country for granted. He is born into it, just as he is born into his religion. He may be proud of La Belle France the way he is proud of his cheese. But he is not fool enough to claim credit for either one. He just feels lucky to have them for his own.

America, by contrast, is a nation of people who chose to become Americans. Even the oldest family tree in the New World has immigrants at its root. And where did its government, its courts, its businesses, and its saloons come from? They were all invented by us. Having chosen the country — and made it what it is — Americans feel more responsibility for what it has become than the citizens of most other nations. And they take more pride in it, too.

But what is it? What has it become? What makes America different from any other nation? Why should we care more about it than about, say, Lithuania, or Chad?

Most Americans, if pressed for an answer, would reply, “Because America is a free country.” What else can be said of the place? Its landmass is as varied as the Earth itself. Inhabiting the sands of Tucson as well as the steppes of Alaska, Americans could as well be called a desert race as an arctic one. Its religions are equally diverse — from mossbacked Episcopalians of the Virginia Tidewater to the holy rollers of east Texas and the Muslims of east Harlem. Nor does blood itself give the country any mark of distinction.

The individual American has more in common genetically with the people his people come from than with his fellow Americans. In a DNA test, this writer is more likely to be mistaken for an IRA hitman than a Baltimore drug dealer.

America never was a nation in the usual sense of the word. Though there are plenty of exceptions — especially among the made-up nations of former European colonies — nations are usually composed of groups of people who share common blood, a common culture, and a common language.

Americans mostly speak English, but they might just as well speak Spanish. And at the debut of the republic, the Founding Fathers narrowly avoided declaring German the official language — at least that is the legend. A Frenchman has to speak French. A German has to speak the language of the Vaterland. But an American could speak anything. And often does.

Nor is there even a common history. The average immigrant didn’t arrive until the early twentieth century. By then, America’s history was already three centuries old. The average family missed the whole thing.

If Americans weren’t united by blood, history, religion, or language — what else is left? Only an idea: that you could come to America and be whatever you wanted to be. You might have been a bog-trotter in Ireland or a baron in Silesia; in America, you were free to become whatever you could make of yourself.

“Give me liberty or give me death!” said Patrick Henry, raising the rhetorical stakes and praying no one would call him on it. Yet the average man at the time lived in near-perfect freedom. There were few books and few laws on them. And there were fewer people to enforce them. Henry, if he wanted to do so, could have merely crossed the Blue Ridge west of Charlottesville and never seen another government agent again.

Thomas Jefferson complained, in the Declaration of Independence, that Britain had “erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People and eat out their Substance.” Yet the swarms of officers sent by George III would have barely filled a mid -sized regional office of the IRS or city zoning department today.

Likewise, the Founding Fathers kvetched about taxation without representation. But history has shown that representation only makes taxation worse. Kings, emperors, and tyrants must keep tax rates low; otherwise, the people rise in rebellion. It is democrats who really eat out the substance of the people: The illusion of self-government lets them get away with it. Tax rates were only an average of 3% under the tyranny of King George III. Among the dubious blessings of democracy are average tax rates that are 10 times as high.

“Americans today,” wrote Rose Wilder Lane in 1936, after the Lincoln administration had annihilated the principle of self-government — but before the Roosevelt team had finished its work — “are the most reckless and lawless of peoples” but, she immediately continued, “we are also the most imaginative, the most temperamental, the most infinitely varied.”

But by the end of the twentieth century , Americans were required to wear seatbelts and they ate low-fat yogurt without a gun to their heads. By the beginning of the twenty-first century , they were submitting to strip searches at airport terminals and demanding higher taxes to protect freedom. The recklessness seems to have been bred out of them. And the variety, too. North, south, east, and west, people all wear the same clothes and cherish the same ideas. Liberty has been hollowed out in modern America, but it is still worshipped as though it were a religious relic.

– Bill Bonner

This introduction can be found in the Spy Briefing Club exclusive, The Idea of America.

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