Making Up America

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I have been a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" for 16 years. During that time, the audience for the show has tripled. Obviously, this wasn't my doing, but I am often referred to as a "popular commentator," which should give pause. What are 7.7 million people thinking when they listen to the rants of a guy with a Transylvanian accent who didn't even grow up in the United States? What does that say about the United States?

Not only do I have a weird accent, but I spent the first 19 years of my life without American television, American products, or the American language. My first sentence in English was composed in 1966 in Rome, while waiting for a visa to the U.S. My friend Julian and I composed this sentence: "Why don't you kill yourself?" We were so proud of this question, we took it to the streets and asked various Romans: "Why don't you kill yourself?" The only people who tried to make sense of these words were a bunch of guys loitering by a fountain near the train station. They thought we were asking them how to get to the self-service machines at the station, those things that dispense soft drinks. Ever since, I have associated the idea of "self" with a self-service machine. You put in a quarter and out pops a self.

This knowledge was invaluable later when I realized that America was the place where millions of immigrants had come to reinvent themselves. Making up one's "self" was as close to a founding myth as America had. Those who came here shed their Old World selves in a hurry. They shed religious superstitions, class distinctions, and servility.

By the second generation, very little remained of their ties to Old World families, or the ethnic specifics of the old country. Sure, nostalgia and sentimentality for some barely remembered ancestral hearths continued and continue to tug occasionally at Americans' heart strings. However, time was America's most valuable commodity, and few new Americans had the luxury of laying back long enough to feel sentimental. They had to make a new home, establish new families, inhabit the new continent, make a place for themselves in society. The chief characteristic of a new American self was its forward-looking ability, also known as optimism. To look backward was to turn into a pillar of salt. An American was, above all, a self of the future.

By the time I got here, this process of "self-making" had been going on for at least 200 years, long enough to be forgotten by all but the most recent immigrants. Americans several generations removed from the Old World were no longer bothered by the question of who they were. They were Americans, which is to say, people who identified with their landscape, who thought American, bought American, and felt secure and powerful enough to define themselves as such. In its short history, America had become the richest and most powerful country in the world.

The sense of well-being engendered by American identity was dependent, however, on always looking forward. This imperative didn't refer exclusively to the Old World, but also to America's own history. In order to move forward, Americans had to forget not only their roots but also the history of America's own struggles: the vanquishing of Native Americans, slavery, labor struggles, unpopular wars and opposition to them. Maintenance of optimism at all cost was the price Americans had to pay for might and prosperity. The number-one ingredient in the melting pot of a successful American identity was amnesia.

Not everybody signed on the dotted line of forgetting. Throughout American history, there have been eras of intense reaction to progress at all cost. In the last three decades, the citadel of American identity, surrounded by its deep moat of amnesia, has withstood some mighty challenges. Minority groups have begun to redefine themselves by their "roots," a process that began with African Americans and has spread to everyone who might claim a collective difference-group identities based on ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. All these groups are making new selves with as much energy as the first self-makers.

But is this a real stand against amnesia or just another step in the forward-looking story of America? Superficially, the call to some African- or Native-American past may hearken back to the idealized glow of an ancient history, but closer examination of these roots shows them to be mostly the elements of a sturdy myth meant to get things going for underprivileged groups.

There is nothing wrong with inventing a mythology to create a power base. The claim made by minorities that the dominant culture has erased their past is true. And precisely because it is true, there remains very little of that past that is retrievable. And this, in my opinion, is a good thing-because it leaves room for myth-making, and for a fair power struggle.

Which brings me back to why 7.7 million radio-listeners pay attention to a Transylvanian immigrant whose first sentence in English was "Why don't you kill yourself?" My position has always been that making oneself up is a sacred American right, represented in the Declaration of Independence by the "pursuit of happiness." What all Americans are nostalgic for is the freedom to invent themselves.

What I do is tell stories. Some of these stories are about how strange America is, which pleases and startles Americans who no longer see themselves as strange. These Americans are usually well-heeled, secure, middle-class, and middle-aged. They appreciate my "humor."

I also tell stories about the helplessness of humans caught in the technological juggernaut. These dark tales are indulgently tolerated by all but the most poetic of my listeners. While everyone feels trapped, many people think that they have no choice. They shrug their shoulders and refuse to look into the abyss: it's un-American to despair.

Other stories of mine concern oppression and rage at callous authorities. These, too, have the ear of many people who feel the institutional weight of faceless corporations bearing down on them. But then, again, this must be "humor," because it is un-American, in the nineties, to blame the engines of our prosperity for grinding us into dust.

Some other stories I write appeal to the liberal guilt of people who think very little about the world outside the border of the United States. I remind them, uncomfortably, of suffering in obscure countries, suffering that could be alleviated by a little attention from our mighty super power. Liberal guilt is a wondrous thing, responsible, I'm sure, for many good things, including the survival of some animal species.

The art of storytelling is the art of invention: in making audible the process of imagination, I give people hope. There is still some imagination left, they think, therefore there is still some juice in the original American self-making machine. I reassure people that it's still okay to be American in an age when that idea is under attack. If it takes a Transylvanian accent and a few weird strands of paranoia to get that message, so be it.

Imagination is today's most valuable commodity. Most people no longer feel in control of their time, which is being taken from them at a terrifying rate. Godlike corporations control the destinies of millions from invisible locales. (A mortal caught in a terrifying voice-mail loop will never know just where he is calling.) The media is a bottomless maw for "content," which is extracted directly from the people it captivates, like an endless plasma transfer between vampire and victim. The victim of this transfer (or the energy lost) is imagination.

The minorities' claims to difference are being swallowed by advertising quicker than they can be produced. (The United Colors of Benetton appropriated in a single whoosh most of the images that it took a resistant culture 20 years to produce). The raw resources are no longer inert matter wrenched from below ground, but people and their lives.

The Information Revolution means just that: the new industry is people's attention and time. People are both the source and the recipients of this information, which is now stored in computer memory, but uses people as transfer switches. Imagination cannot survive the machine's demand for efficiency, but without it, we will no longer be able to look forward, to invent ourselves. We will no longer be Americans.

Oh, and I tell some heartwarming stories too, about quaint customs of faraway European tribes. These stories cater to nostalgia for roots. Of course, I make them up.

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