4/20/12 - the unifying purposes of america

In today's excerpt - Jane Jacobs, the brilliant historical analyst and author whose work Death and Life of Great American Cities revolutionized urban planning, postulates that there have been four great central, unifying cultural purposes in American history. In succession, these have been independence, manifest destiny, reform, and—after the trauma of the Great Depression—full employment:

"In the founding period of the United States, a time when the Copernican, Newtonian, and Cartesian Enlightenment had succeeded both medievalism and the Renaissance, the cultural purpose became independence. Not for nothing was the charter of reasons behind the war of separation from Britain called the Declaration of Independence, and July Fourth called Independence Day. An accompanying cult de­veloped around liberty, as symbolized by both the Liberty Bell and the aims of the French Revolution. Independence and liberty were succeeded by the related freedom, indeed by two conflicting versions of freedom: the political freedom of states' rights, offshoot of independence, and the social free­dom of abolition of slavery, offshoot of liberty.

"In the decades after the Civil War, and the bloodletting that seemed briefly to resolve the conflict between concepts of freedom, there was no obvious American cultural consen­sus on the purpose of life, although there were contenders, such as the Manifest Destiny of America's push westward, which had already risen to its height in the 1840s with the Mexican War, the annexation of Texas, and the purchase of California and New Mexico. Manifest Destiny was extended at the turn of the century by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Caribbean and the Pacific with the Spanish-American War, which was taken by Americans to mean American rule over the Western Hemisphere.

"The start of the twentieth century and the decades imme­diately before and after were a time of reforming ferment as Americans sought to perfect their society by eliminating child labor, extending the vote to women, combating corruption and fraud, embracing public health measures and their enforce­ment, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, outlawing monopolies as restraints on trade, initiating environmental conservation through national parks (a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt's), improving working conditions and protecting the rights of labor, and pursuing many other practical reforms into which their proponents threw themselves with ardor as great as if each of these aims were indeed the purpose of life.

"The reforming spirit carried into the Great Depression years, with President Franklin Roosevelt's promotion of the Four Freedoms, linking economic aims (freedom from want) to human rights (freedom from fear) and his practical mea­sures for making the links tangible, among them his success­ful advocacy of collective bargaining under the Robert F. Wagner proposals that became the National Labor Relations Act, and his institution of a regulatory Securities and Ex­change Commission (SEC), making rules for public corpora­tions' disclosures and reining in speculative manipulations in corporate stocks. Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin's wife, for her part, channeled her lifelong experience with smallish reform movements into advocacy of the United Nations and, most notably, into that body's formulation and acceptance of a declaration of universal human rights, her chief legacy and monument. Among all these and other contenders for the American purpose of life, one seemed to win out, less with fanfare than with simple quiet acceptance: the American dream, the ideal that each generation of whites, whether im­migrant or native-born, was to become more successful and prosperous than the parent generation. ...

"After the war was over, during the euphoria of victory and the minor booms of the Marshall Plan and the Korean War, a consensus formed and hardened across North America. If it had been voiced, it would have gone something like this: 'We can endure meaningful trials and overcome them. But never again—never, never—will we suffer the meaningless disaster of mass unem­ployment.' ...

"From the 1950s on, American culture's gloss on the purpose of life became assurance of full employment: jobs. Arguably, this has remained the American purpose of life, in spite of competition from the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and maybe even from the War on Terrorism, in which postwar reconstruction was linked with contracts for American compa­nies and hence jobs for Americans."


Jane Jacobs


Dark Age Ahead


Random House


Copyright 2004 by Jane Jacobs


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