Vanity Fair magazine ran their annual essay contest shortly after 9/11 asking the question: What is the true character of the American people? Nearly twenty years later we again find ourselves loathed by much of the planet, perhaps for many of the same reasons. Here’s my essay from then, eager to hear what you think now…
Dear Rest of the World:
In case you still care, the character of the American people can be likened to the experience of eating lunch at the top of Frank Lloyd Wright’s never-built mile-high tower. Captured in a blueprint seven meters long and first unfurled in 1957, “The Illinois” was our master architect’s grand vision, a pyramidal structure with logarithmically spaced levels rising a jaw-dropping 528 stories into the Chicago skyline.
Glass-walled, nuclear powered elevators were envisioned to ferry more than 50,000 people daily to business offices, private residences, stores, schools, a hospital, with parking for 15,000 cars and 75 helicopter pads helping folks get to where they needed to go. A taproot foundation drilled hundreds of meters down into the bedrock off Lake Michigan would anchor the building’s billions of kilos, stabilizing the tapering tower against its own monstrous mass, and the gale force winds surging past vibrating windows more than 1,500 meters above the Windy City streets.
Now imagine eating lunch in the revolving restaurant up top, the monumental structure relieving stress points by swaying gently to-and-fro beneath your All-American ass. You might feel a little seasick at first, a creeping sense of vertigo that makes your meal slightly less appetizing as the Midwestern vista of surrounding metropolis, patchwork fields, and bright blue lake blending seamlessly into sky slowly sweeps a full 360 degrees around you.
Boy, the view sure is breathtaking, but is the air a bit too thin? The gross national product of entire nations has gone into erecting the edifice below, yet the natural tendency is to look up, not down, and wonder why, like it or not, you got fries and a coke with that. But you didn’t come all the way up here for the service, now did you? Then again, neither did your waiter, who’s already bringing you the check …
As Americans, we’re surprised and genuinely upset whenever anybody reminds us how much we’re hated. Unable to imagine a human reality different than our own, we find it equally inconceivable that the rest of the world doesn’t embrace our freedoms and lust for life, our creativity and competitiveness, our seemingly limitless wealth and resources, and the endless opportunities these Americanisms afford.
We figure that ignoring our inevitable contradictions and hypocrisies is a small price to pay for a guaranteed seat at the table of the 21st century, when all you have to do is play ball, and every once in a while remind the unfaithful how much fun we’re all having. In movies, on TV, America has always been the Good Guy, a repository of dream and springboard of opportunity for the émigré multitudes seeking a better life on our shores.
An international amalgamation of race, ethnicity, and class, we homogenize our uniquely American diversity into what we consider the universal desire for wealth, security, and influence, logically culminating in something akin to the luxurious, decadent excess of eating a cheeseburger on top of the world.
Instead of accolades or emulation these days, though, our flags, boats, and buildings burn as few things help radicalize and unify the world’s disenfranchised, disparate voices than anti-American fervor. Perhaps the misunderstanding is simply a matter of perspective: As Americans, we often forget that a price has to be paid for our indulgences, and somebody has to pay it. Within our uncontested position of economic and military power, we lose sight of others’ sacrifices, so obsessed are we with our own.
Whether we personally strive for material gain, power, notoriety, anonymity, or a path of least resistance, we tirelessly indulge in the maniacal pursuit of pleasure, American style. Blindly hedonistic, we often worship extravagance to the point of working ourselves to death to get it, a tendency that fuels our convictions, contradictions, and frequently maligns our image abroad.
American billionaires often exemplify these contradictory qualities, wearing blue jeans and driving a Chevrolet not to play down their status or inversely accentuate it, but because such everyman kitsch is comfortable, and gets the job done. The idealized “cheeseburger in the sky” is therefore part mascot, part temptation, part offering, part trophy, and part religious sacrifice.
We struggle to be the biggest and the best, all the while lavishing others and ourselves in the luxuriousness of commoditized comfort and the aesthetics of mass-market hysteria. Devoid of a singular identity and often confused by our own multiplicity, all we can really know and trust is our materialism, which somehow unifies us by acting as a projection of our adventurousness and our greed, setting the world an example as tantalizing as it remains unattainable and ultimately meaningless.
If many of our material aspirations seem vapid and often wasteful, then our principles that allow and actually facilitate their existence nonetheless remain eminently admirable, shining a much more favorable, lasting light on our national character. Mindful of the many mistakes of history, our founding fathers wrote into law the stuff once only dreams were made of, laying down a viable system of personal liberty, governmental checks and balances, and separation of church and state.
Although many Americans still struggle against inequality, the inertia of racial prejudice and class conflict have gradually been defeated by the spirit of our founders and the laws we continue to debate and uphold. So why the apparent disparity between the America Americans see, and the America the world likes to hate? Why that anger?
Clearly the animosity must go beyond simple jealousy for the wealth not all of us have, and contempt for the values some of us lack. Why is our mile-high cheeseburger so satisfying to us, yet now more than ever before so anathema to the values and sensibilities of a restless world we continually try to democratize and capitalize through trade, charity, or force?
Somewhere between “our” America and “your” America is where the hatred begins, and the true character of the American people ends. As a capitalist democracy we protect the rights of our own citizens, while yes, our government has been known to support dictatorships, ignore genocides, and participate in a slew of international nastiness that for reasons of either feigned ignorance, perceived necessity, or both run counter to the very principles that have made our country great.
This double-standard probably upsets you, but the responsibility for reconciliation and cooperation must flow both ways: To understand us you need to get to know us, see us for who we are as a people, and not as a series of foreign policy decisions. The effort should prove far easier than you may believe, yet challenging in ways you never imagined. After all, we’re fundamentally a nation of immigrants from countries all over the world, including your own, comprising a demographic far more complex than the “two Americas” our bipolar political system would have you believe.
Instead, the true character of the American people can better be described as the everyday interaction of the many races, religions, and cultures that actually reflect the hopes of every nation and every people on the planet. Our many Americas and seemingly endless social combinations are uniquely “American” in how we actively pursue and often attain the good life.
You may think we want subservience, or world dominance, when we’re actually far too distracted with our cheeseburgers and our skyscrapers — real or imagined — to really care. That means we’re probably better described by what we want than who we are, by how we actually live than what we or our leaders say. We are shocked by your hatred because we live your dreams, and want to make our own dreams a shared reality.
Conceptually bold, technologically sound, Wright’s monster metropolis in the sky was pure genius except for those damn elevators: As a building gets higher, more and more of its usable floor space is consumed by the infrastructure below, until the elevator shafts and service ducts progressively reduce the livable surface area to zero.
Engineers claim to have since solved the problem, but the unforgiving physics can never change, the fight against gravity, the risk of over-extension, the sacrifice of practicality and even common sense for the fleeting exhilaration of actually making something like this happen. “No one can afford to build it now,” the 90-year-old Wright acquiesced at the time, “but in the future no one can afford not to build it.”
Perhaps the old geezer was right: As human beings we instinctively reach for the unknown, exploring new lands, ideas, and technologies as a natural expression of our life force. As Americans we have the privilege to indulge these instincts, setting an example the world either hates or emulates.
Meanwhile, the blueprints for “The Illinois” still lie in the vaults of Wright’s architectural firm awaiting the inevitable, since the character of the American people will demand nothing less than we one day build it. Our simple hope is that you can join us then for that cheeseburger at the top of the world.