Tuesday, November 17, 2009

God Bless America!

My son brought home a school assignment to interview someone on "What does America mean to you?" And as usual, I surprised myself with my rather Norman Rockwell-esque answers. (And you'll see our friend Hank featured prominently in Question 4 as "anonymous conservative detractor of Kim"!) So here you go! It's funny, I really do get choked up about the place!

1. What is your definition of the American Dream?

Well, I think our society defines it too much as material things – two cars, a big house, etc. Which I guess in itself is a deficiency of the American dream, isn’t it? But deep down, I guess I still believe in it, believe in its possibilities – that the dream is about pursuing what we value, and determining our own values and not necessarily accepting those of our parents, our church, our society. You know, ultimately, I guess it’s about progress – about believing things will be better in the future than they have been in the past. And sometimes that’s a convenient fiction, and it deceives us, but I still can see and hope how it does spur us on to achieve and strive and hope.

2. What is the best feature of American life? Why?

Our choices and freedom. They come at a huge price, I think, of a lack in our feeling of community and responsibility and our tendency to focus on material, immediate gains, our tendency toward an unfocused, empty individualism. But over a long time, I think we can achieve more than people who have their choices made for them, who are led down certain paths – even if those paths are good or comfortable, I think they’ve missed something and they’ll always have to wonder how things would’ve been different if they had other choices.

3. What do you envision for your future in America?

Sometimes I have no idea, and things come in these weird cycles, where the pattern’s only visible after the fact. When I was a teenager, I was an atheist, and I thought that one day I’d make my living by writing weird, rebellious, violent novels. Then as I got older, I became a Christian, and I completely forgot about writing those novels, weird or otherwise. And then I stumbled back into the fiction writing, and my novels are unbelievably violent sometimes, but they’re always informed by a faith and a gentle kind of hope that I never would’ve anticipated when I was younger. So if I had to guess today, I’d say I’ll keep on writing novels, maybe with greater success. But really, I can’t say. That goes back to the excitement and thrill and mystery of having so many choices and opportunities.

4. Why do you choose to live in America rather than any other nation?

Wow, that’s a really weird thought, because in the abstract, I’d say sure, I’d think of living somewhere else. Why not? I’ve been all over, and I like other places, and some conservative people I know would say that I hate America, because I sometimes criticize its government’s policies – so why not move away? But when I think of my friends from high school who are expatriates, I feel sorry for them, like they have no rootedness, no sense of belonging, nothing that they can show their kids and say, “See, this is where I grew up, this is what I value, and now that’s a part of you, too.” My gosh – if you moved somewhere where they don’t speak English, even if you raised your kids to speak it, you’d face the possibility that one day your grandkids wouldn’t, and you wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. What must that feel like? I’d feel so sad and isolated. Maybe that’s it: of course I don’t always feel proud of my country – sometimes I feel ashamed, sometimes I feel proud, sometimes I feel confused, but I always feel like I belong, like this is a part of me. It’s very much how you feel toward your parents as you get older – you see how they’ve made you who you are, even as you try to establish your own identity separate and distinct from them, and you just can’t deny that connection.

5. How has your American Dream evolved?

See above on Question 3. “Evolve” is the right word – you’d never be able to explain why you were making a duck-billed platypus, if you were setting out to design an animal and fitting parts together, but in retrospect, looking at how it’s now fitted and adapted to its environment, it makes a kind of sense and you see how it works. So if I’d tried to deliberately become a novelist after high school, I probably would’ve gone to school to get an MFA in Creative Writing and I’d probably still be working at Borders and kind of frustrated and disappointed. But I did what I did, with totally different goals and plans in mind at the time, but it somehow moved me down different paths to a goal I had in mind, even if I envisioned totally different ways to go about it.

6. Do you believe the American dream is available to everyone?

Well, see above on the first question. If you define the American dream as “Having a ton of stuff,” then no – there isn’t enough stuff in the world for all of us to have two cars and a big house and a bunch of other stuff. If it’s about finding fulfillment and opportunity and freedom – then I don’t see an intrinsic reason why some would be excluded.

7. What does it say about America that it has its own dream?

I’ve heard Europeans phrase it exactly this way – that they love England or Russia or wherever they’re from just as much as we love America, but we love the idea of America, whereas their love for their country is more of an ethnic or tribal kind of affection or familiarity. We are, deep down, more than any other country, a voluntary association and not an ethnic one (even though in Question 4 I alluded to a lot of those feelings now seeping down to my subconscious). We think this is not just a great place or a great nation, we think it’s the right way to be – and I think this gets us in trouble when we try to nation build or export democracy or other disastrous policies, but I see where that urge comes from: it’s essentially democratic and evangelistic. Of course we want to economically exploit other lands, like the British Empire did, but we also want to make them into us – and if we succeed, they’ll want to be free and break free from us. Makes us great empire builders, because we’re so enthusiastic and so convinced of our moral rectitude, but it also makes us terrible empire builders, as we sow the seeds of our own undoing.

8. How would your career be limited if you were not in America?

I haven’t lived other places, so I can’t be 100% sure. I suspect I would’ve had to commit to a career choice earlier on, and I suspect “World’s Greatest [Only] Theologian / Zombie Novelist” would not have been on the list, because that’s just not something you train for or plan on. So I’m very grateful I lived somewhere where I could stumble around and find my own circuitous, convoluted way to a fun, fulfilling life.

9. Overall do you think America benefits you in a more positive way than some other countries might have?

As much as my European friends love their countries, when they talk to me, I always sense a sort of bemused envy, so I’m going to have to guess “yes.” Also, I think it’s a matter of being faithful to one’s ancestors. Every American is the descendant of people who sacrificed and risked everything to come over here. So if I say now that it wasn’t worth it – wow, I’m really disrespecting and devaluing everything they went through.

10. Has your American Dream been fulfilled? Has it changed? Why?

See above on Questions 3 and 5. Or, to quote the ancient Athenian lawgiver Solon, “Call no man happy until he’s dead.” I have achieved some goals I thought I had, just not in the way I thought I would. I have found more goals along the way – like being a professor and having children – that I wouldn’t have guessed as a youngster. Will there be more? Will there be disappointments? Probably some of both. So long as I’m free to pull myself up and proceed, take stock and reevaluate what I want to do, then I’d say the dream continues. Maybe that’s part of it, too – the dream is not really a matter of being fulfilled, but a matter of continuing it and passing its vision and potential on to future generations.


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