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National Purpose, “Going, Going, Gone”

FDR Speech
President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering his “Day of Infamy” speech, December 8, 1941.

When I ask friends whether the country is “going or gone” they usually look at me quizzically and ask “what do you mean”?

Admittedly, the question is both pessimistic and unnatural, as it presupposes that the USA is, indeed, on a trajectory and that this trajectory is headed, at best, nowhere, and at worse, to oblivion. Actually, the phrase comes from baseball and is always full of optimism and progress, when a hit ball heads toward the upper deck while the broadcaster follows its course with the expression, “going, going, gone.”

That expression is probably the most “optimistic” in all of baseball, as a home run may well represent the epitome of singular accomplishment in the entire sport. (The one exception is a no-hitter, but who is the “greatest” name in the sport, Babe Ruth or Nolan Ryan?)

On a “trajectory” itself implies something that few observers seem to acknowledge in American cultural momentum: is the country on a “path” or headed in a direction, like a home run, that is clearly discernible and even predictable to the average citizen?  Even a cursory coverage of the media, TV, radio, print, and despite intense coverage and opinion from all sides, one rarely gets the feeling that the whole edifice (races, genders, regions, religions, etc.) is united on a decided and deliberate “course.” On the contrary, one cannot help appreciate that “something, somewhere” is definitely “off-course,” but, at bottom, what is the “main course,” or are the “sides” all that are on the menu?

Where are we going? To put it another way, if we’re supposed to be on Interstate 95, what are we doing on “Circle Drive,” downtown Peoria?

Which brings up the central point of this essay: what, if any, “purpose” does American society have, both together and given the diversity of the “separate but equals”? Is there anything remotely connected to “purpose” that is able to encompass the multiple divides into a whole and deliberative unit? Literally, the term “purpose” is defined as “an object or end to be obtained,” synonyms being “intention, resolution, determination.”

Central to “purpose” is “national,” since we are addressing the whole versus its separate parts. Within this notion is the difference between “nation” and “country.” The first is sociological, “a group of people that has a common history, language, and culture.” “Country,” by comparison, is mostly political, “the area or region controlled by its government.”

Which is the USA? Which should it be?

A related question involves what part of nation/country are we addressing: its inside or its outside, i.e., its domestic or its foreign policies? Or, are such distinctions “arbitrary”?

A brief glance backward might add substance to the questions. As put in another essay here (“America Needs an Enemy”), the single greatest incentive for “nation” (or unity) occurred when the threat was “existential,” whether it came from within (Civil War) or without (foreign). In this regard, perhaps the single most “unified” moment came the day after Pearl Harbor (December 8, 1941), when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed December 7 a “date which will live in infamy.” Perhaps equal in this regard was Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, March 4, 1865, when the Civil War was over and Lincoln promised “malice toward none, charity for all.”

In the midst of the Cold War, January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural speech has gone down in history as possibly the greatest “nationalistic” or unifying declaration of all. Noting that “Liberty” was the single most prominent identification of American political culture, JFK challenged his nation and the world that the threat was both total and final:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of Liberty.”

At the close, Kennedy raised a question that appears completely contrary to anything remotely relevant in our contemporary political culture: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Within this perspective, today’s America might just as well reverse the lessons of its greatest leaders: against Lincoln, malice “for all” with charity “toward none”; against Kennedy, asking what your “country can do for you.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to escape the conclusion that today’s America is a “country,” not a “nation.” This is not, necessarily, an “indictment” as a “description.” With due regard for the several “sociologies” (racial, gender, area, religious, etc.) that comprise our “country,” nationalism is, decidedly, not high on the list. The culture is nearly total “domestic” and self-absorbed in its directions and certainly not “existential,” minus contrived “threats” (Trump as Hitler). On the contrary, it is almost wholly divisive, internalized, and “ideological” in its political behaviors.

Lincoln’s famous dictum of 1858, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” is as true now as it was then.

Perhaps this is both intentional and welcomed. Perhaps it may even develop a better society, at least sometime in future centuries. But a country without a decided “purpose,” conceived in its infancy and developed over time cannot – by definition – save its national identity and that of its allies in a global system still defined by nationalism, sovereignty, and war.

While the world appears the same since time began, America, by choice, has, once again, turned inward.

We might as well say: Come on in, terror and China, we’ve been expecting you.