Visionary and Moral Tales

Book cover
Hellfire Nationby By James A. MoroneYale Univ. Press. 576p $35

So far, the 21st century has witnessed a remarkable resurgence of anti-American feeling around the world. Despite a brief burst of sympathy for the United States immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, alarm about American conduct has increased markedly abroad. It is a mistake to attribute this apprehension solely to the policies of the Bush administration. Two timely new books show that there are aspects of the American character that are bound to make other nations nervous. They also show, however, positive aspects of the American character that the nation’s critics, both domestic and foreign, may overlook too easily.

The first of these traits is that Americans are utopian. In various, often conflicting ways, but nearly unanimously, they believe that the world is perfectible; and they dream of making it so. This is the theme of Jim Cullen’s work on the American dream. The second trait is that Americans are tempted to believe that both their own imperfections and those of the greater world not only can be overcome but should be confronted vigorously. This is the dominant theme of James Morone’s book on the American sense of sin. To Morone, a professor of political science at Brown University, a constant quest for redemption prevents either the individualistic or the communal motivations of American life from proceeding too far. I would add that the ingrained American sense of sinfulness is a healthy check to an equally vigorous national self-confidence.

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Much contemporary fear of the United States is motivated by the thought that the dream is invariably one of empire and the sin is necessarily one of arrogance. Cullen and Morone counter that notion with portraits of a reassuringly complex American character.

Cullen, who teaches history and literature at Harvard University, begins with an adequate synopsis of the causes of American dreaming, followed by four important variations on the dream. Both the Puritan experience and the vision of the American Revolution encouraged the conviction that ideals are actually attainable. So far, there is little new in this analysis. Of vital importance and potential reassurance to America’s critics, however, is Cullen’s insight that the particulars of the American dream vary from dreamer to dreamer. The vision of an American overseas empire is not shared by all, and in fact contradicts some important expressions of the dream. Meanwhile, Cullen describes four of the most basic ways of dreaming: the visions of upward mobility, equality, home ownership and the lush lifestyle of the West Coast.

While each of the four quests can manifest itself anywhere in the United States, Cullen insightfully sees specific geographical origins for them all. Most important is his assertion that the South, the scene of America’s most serious inequalities in the form of slavery and Jim Crow, has provoked the most heroic efforts to establish equality. That observation made me ponder the significance of the fact that both Thomas Jefferson, the most articulate white spokesman for equality, and Martin Luther King Jr., Jefferson’s greatest African American counterpart, were both Southerners. Cullen makes a compelling case that the South has been much more responsible for the equality movement than it has been given credit for by scholars obsessed with the sin rather than the redemption of racism.

Morone traces Southern and other American reform movements to that desire for redemption. According to both authors, the effect is a reminder that Americans do not necessarily live in the unrealistic belief that they have already achieved utopia themselves and now need only to spread it abroad. In fact, they keep striving for perfection, tend to be quick to notice shortcomings and often struggle to correct the national course. This character trait should give pause to those who think the post-9/11 course of the United States is already firmly set.

Cullen is unexceptional in his analysis of the dream of upward mobility, traditionally represented by Lincoln’s Midwest, and in his discussion of the dream of home ownership, which is likewise very much western in origin as well. However, the dream of the coast, which for Cullen finds its exemplar in the culture of California, provides him with truly original insight. This is the American ideal most likely to alarm critics of military assertiveness. Since the California Gold Rush, some Americans have believed that everything can be achieved at the cost of nothing. For Cullen, the appeal of this notion can be traced through the nation’s fascination with Hollywood and the perceived lifestyles of Hollywood symbols of celebrity and wealth. For Morone, this aspect of the dream is what leads moralists to campaign against American decadence.

Both the coastal dream and its critics deserve attention, because ever since the Reagan presidency, the United States has achieved a series of military and strategic victories that a certain myth regards as costless. Consider the popular understanding of the invasion of Grenada and the two Persian Gulf wars. Disregarding the relatively small number of casualties in each, some Americans see their country as headed for inevitable victories through the righteousness of their cause. It is right to worry that such feelings can provoke extravagant notions of exactly what the United States is now capable of achieving—for instance, in the reconstruction of Iraqi society.

At the same time, when American wars run into difficulties, as was the case in Vietnam, people quickly search their consciences and ask whether the trouble is rooted in the possible injustice of the cause. Morone is particularly adept at showing how this trait, noticeable as early as the Puritans, can lead Americans to reverse ill-advised conduct. He argues that this preoccupation with sin has two manifestations. First, Americans believe that they must redeem themselves. Second, but only second, they believe that they must reform others. When Americans feel guilty or uneasy about their own conduct, they withdraw into themselves for a while. If carried out robustly, this type of retreat can lead to the abandonment of foreign adventurism. And in its extreme forms, it can lead to isolationism and the abandonment of justifiable international obligations. Similarly, an unchecked desire to reform others finds its extreme expression in rampant interventionism. Morone implies that a balanced sense of the two traits is needed to keep America both healthy in itself and healthy in its conduct abroad.

Both authors ask whether religious liberty is still essential in the United States today. In answering affirmatively, each gives important new justifications for that freedom. For Cullen, the essential religious issue is that the particulars of the American dream are so unsettled. No one is really sure how to settle it, and there is no clear consensus as to when it has been violated. Therefore, as many voices as possible are necessary in any conversation about its meaning. For Morone, the issue is not so much that the dream is unclear as that its expressions ultimately and inevitably fall short. Correctives provided by alternative dreamers can prevent one particular expression of the dream from becoming too much of a good thing.

Cullen finds in fiction the best symbolic analysis of why the various expressions of the dream need liberty. He presents F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, in the popular imagination a symbol of American excess, as ultimately changing into a Christ-like figure. Gatsby dies for another; his demise occurs at three in the afternoon; and his identity is revealed by his father on the third day following. That such a sinner could become a redeemer is a reminder to Cullen that any expression of the American dream is inadequate, because it longs for that which defies human understanding or manifestation. It is just not possible to reduce it to any single concrete expression—the coast is always beyond the reach of any voyager.

One last insight is drawn by Morone. He shows how the Puritan persecution of heretics, other denominations and witches was motivated as much by the Puritans’ fear of their own susceptibility to these creeds as it was by fear of those who already professed them. They dreaded their own susceptability to persuasion! He then shows the same twin anxieties at work in the abolitionist controversy, the quest for the middle-class rectitude of temperance and for women’s rights during the later Victorian period, the social gospel movement of the earlier 20th century and the individualist reaction that marked the later part of that same century. In each case, Americans have sought to convert perceived “wicked others” before the “others” contaminated them. This creates a paradoxical desire to have that “other” both close and far away at the same time. This helps to explain the ferocity and polarization of the cultural wars that have arisen since the 1960’s, as well as any wish to destroy, at least as plausible public figures, those opponents who cannot be converted. This trait may also explain why other nations would be justified in fearing becoming a target of the United States.

The American ambivalence about how to deal with the sinful “other” may justify a much more timely fear of American conduct overseas than the myth of simple American imperialism. On the one hand, Americans seem to believe that the manner in which Iraq and other Islamic states have proceeded during recent generations is morally wrong and needs to be replaced by Western-style democracy and liberalism. On the other, the United States is so afraid of the Islamic peoples that it takes drastic steps to limit their influence on the United States. Americans want them to learn about democracy but seem anxious about letting them come to the United States to do this. It is indeed reasonable to worry that if Americans notice no substantial reform among the Iraqi people within a relatively short time, they might abandon that nation, leaving the process of rebuilding it incomplete.

Morone believes that when the Puritans settled New England, their sense of individual responsibility and thrift was accompanied by a strong sense of responsibility for the collective welfare. Eventually, however, these split and went to war with one another. To that split Morone attributes all the cultural conflict that followed. But Cullen’s four versions of the dream suggest that the fragmentation is much more complex than that.

These two books need each other. The split described by Morone may indeed have been the primary one, but Cullen has shown that much greater divisions followed. In the end, I favor Cullen’s greater sensitivity to the notion that the American dream defies reduction.

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