Americans and Illusion

As a nation, Americans have generally been more optimistic than other countries, but how much of that optimism has been based on facts, and how much on the embracing of various illusions?

Some illusions are deep-rooted, such as the ideal of the United States as “the land of the free.” Well, yes, if, at the time of the revolution, you happened to be a male, white, and a property-holder, but not if you were black and in the American south. Not if you were female, and little more than a chattel of your father, husband, or other male relative.

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain more than 30 years before the U.S. did, and it didn’t take a brutal Civil War in which between 620,000 and 750,000 died. And even after the Emancipation Proclamation and two Constitutional amendments, it took another century, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for most blacks to even have decent chance at voting. Women didn’t get the right to vote until almost 150 years after the Declaration of Independence.

Illusions have also cloaked American political personalities from the beginning and have continued to this day. Franklin Roosevelt concealed, and the press abetted that concealment, the severity of his disability, as well as his several marital affairs. . Dwight Eisenhower had a public image as a genial, avuncular man, but in private was cold and calculating. John Kennedy was portrayed as a healthy vital young man with a solid domestic family life and a beautiful wife. The wife part was true – although even she hid her chain smoking – but Kennedy was having affairs continually and was actually a sick man racked with a bad back and Addison’s Disease, which required continual cortisone treatments, a condition so severe that when he underwent back surgery in 1954, he actually received the last rites. Yet Richard Nixon was perceived as far less healthy, despite his living to the age of 81. Such illusions haven’t always been favorable. Gerald Ford, possibly one of the most athletically gifted of American Presidents, was portrayed by the press as clumsy, because he had a terrible slice when he played golf and because he once stumbled on camera, but that illusion helped defeat him for re-election, combined with his pardon of Richard Nixon, enabling the genial, honest, and well-meaning Jimmy Carter to be elected, who was, unfortunately, also cloaked by an illusion, that as a governor, he’d been a good manager, when in fact he was an excessive micro-manager.

There’s also the American self-illusion that we happen to be a peace-loving people, except that, paraphrasing Citizen Kane, we’re peace-loving on our own terms… as are most nations. Despite the protection of two large oceans, we’ve managed to get involved in close to a hundred armed conflicts over the last three centuries, including fifteen large-scale wars. We’re also the most gun-toting nation on the planet with over three hundred million firearms in private hands. To me, that doesn’t exactly square with peace-loving.

Then there’s the illusion about having the best medical system in the world. Again, if you’re talking about medicine for those who can afford it, there’s no doubt we do have the most high-tech and advanced system, but if you’re poor – or even rich and ill-informed – it’s another story. We definitely do have the most-expensive health care system in the world and the most technologically advanced, hands down, but the best?

Then there’s the illusion of opportunity. While a century ago, it was truer than now, study after study shows that the odds of an individual’s economic improvement over a lifetime have dropped significantly over the past forty years. Most people who were born at the bottom of the economic ladder will stay there, and most born at the top will stay there. Although the United States is supposed to be a land of opportunity where young people can expect their quality of life will be better than their parents, a U.N. sponsored study shows that the U.S. isn’t even in the top 20 countries when it comes to opportunities for young people, ranking twenty-third on a list of 183 countries based on 18 indicators that measure progress for youth ages 15 to 29. Eight of the top 10 countries are in Europe, plus Australia and Japan. Now because, our standard of living is still higher than in most countries, it doesn’t mean young people are starving, but it’s another indication of an illusion – most young people aren’t going to live comparatively better than their parents did. The same perhaps, but not better.

And one of the problems with all these illusions is that people cling to them, rather than recognizing them, because you can’t change things without recognizing reality.

It’s one thing to have ideals, and to strive for them, trying to reach them, and another to profess that we’ve attained the ideals and that all is well when we’re falling short.

3 thoughts on “Americans and Illusion”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Economic mobility, and not involuntary (government-run) redistribution, would address many inequities. But it requires participation on the part of those wanting better, and being ill-prepared is no more an excuse in the workforce than it is for a student in a classroom.

    The GI bill may have done something for mobility, but I’m not sure that much else the government can or should do (other than avoid becoming an obstacle or creating dependency) could compare.

  2. darcherd says:

    Ensuring education in early childhood is another thing that governments can do with some degree of effectiveness. Study after study has shown the positive impact of programs like Head Start, despite constant pressure for its funding to be cut.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    I would argue that US citizens are NOT peace-loving. I would also argue that while many adherents of Islam call it “The Religion of Peace” and adherents of Christian allege that they endeavor to be “Like Christ” – they are wrong.

    Self-deception and rationalization are part of the human experience, both in individuals and in groups.

    Too many people say words and then act differently. It isn’t hard to see – if you pay attention. The trick is to pay attention and to maintain the attention. Endurance of mental and psychic effort is just as hard as the physical and much less appreciated.

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