Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What has Become of America?

Last night Andrew Keen declared this to be "the great question of our age" on his Great Seduction blog. He seems to have committed himself to this position after reading Thomas Friedman's column for last Sunday's New York Times, which began with the following thesis (sic) paragraph:

Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America.

Regular readers probably know by now that I believe that taking any position on the basis of Friedman's assertions is risky business. It is not just his inevitable self-confessed "totally unscientific polling" that bothers me. We all do this from time to time. What most impresses me about the guy is his uncanny talent for misinterpretation, whatever the source of his data may have been.

Regardless of the source of the inspiration, however, I can appreciate Keen wanting to pursue this "great question," particularly since he is not, himself, a native-born American. However, before jumping feet-first (as Friedman is wont to do) into a question of such magnitude, I would suggest that it is necessary to cultivate a bit of background knowledge; and, speaking of knowledge, if we really want to go back to basics, the best place to start may well be with Plato's "Theaetetus." Recall that this is the dialogue in which Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge. Theaetetus tries four times; and each attempt is deftly reduced to a pile of empty words (not unlike most of Friedman's texts) by Socrates. So, by the time we get to the end of the dialogue, we are no closer to a definition of knowledge than when we began. However, Socrates reminds Theaetetus that the experience has not been a waste of time:

Then supposing you should ever henceforth try to conceive afresh, Theaetetus, if you succeed, your embryo thoughts will be the better as a consequence of today’s scrutiny, and if you remain barren, you will be gentler and more agreeable to your companions, having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know. For that, and no more, is all that my art can effect; nor have I any of that knowledge possessed by all the great and admirable men of our own day or of the past.

However, while we may not have concluded with a definition of knowledge, through Socrates' "art" we discover that defining the concept of knowledge is problematic because it is so tightly coupled to three other fundamental concepts:

  1. memory
  2. being
  3. description

After my last reading of this dialogue, I even tried to diagram the nature of the coupling; and it is this coupling that justifies my approaching the question of what has become of America through Plato.

This takes me back to Keen and his approach to the question. That approach was triggered by a single sentence in Friedman's column: "We are not who we think we are." Here is how Keen reflected on this assertion and began to develop a methodology:

Oh dear: we are not who we think we are. So what, exactly, do Americans think that they are? What are the illusions that they hold in common? What deludes Americans?

It's such an illuminating question that I'd like to come up with my own equally illuminating answer. So, tomorrow, I'm flying to New York City to hook up with a film crew. And, on Wednesday afternoon, we'll go out onto the highly unrepresentative streets of Manhattan to discover the lie/truth about who those poor deluded Americans think they really are.

At this point I have to give Keen credit for recognizing that "America" is such a socially-constructed concept that the only way to address the question of what has become of America is through the question of what Americans have become. Furthermore, in the interest of data collection, one could narrow the domain at bit further by choosing to consider, for example, only those eligible to vote in the November election. Still, if Keen (or anyone else) wants to start talking methods, then the quest for useful background material will have to leap a couple of millennia forward; and, for my money, the best place to leap would be into the first three chapters of The Interpretation of Cultures, the collection of essays by Clifford Geertz. Geertz' approach to anthropology is refreshingly consistent with the thinking behind "Theaetetus" (and his attention to the concept of interpretation makes him, in many respects, an "anti-Friedman"). One might even say that his methods are oriented around those four tightly-coupled concepts:

  1. Being: What is an American?
  2. Memory: What do Americans remember about "American experiences" (their own and those of others)?
  3. Description: How do they talk about what they remember and who they are?
  4. Knowledge: What do Americans know?

Furthermore, we learn from Geertz that any pursuit of that last question comes not so much from what American say as it does from what they do. Thus, any data mined out of conversations on "the highly unrepresentative streets of Manhattan" is likely to be more deceptive than informative. Much of the interpretation of a culture involves a shift of focus from what people say to what they actually do, which then requires teasing out the motives behind what they are doing.

A final observation is that there really is no such thing as a "normative American" (given how diverse the population is). In other words the streets of Manhattan are as "highly unrepresentative" as a strip mine in Montana or the Googleplex in Mountain View. This leads me to seek further background material from, of all people, Henry Miller. Specifically, his Air-Conditioned Nightmare collection, along with its follow-up volume, Remember to Remember, addresses the question of what Americans are by seeking out some really interesting outliers. Thus, the interpretation of the American culture may be better informed through those outliers than it would be by more "representative samples," such as those collected by, for example, The Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University. I realize that such an approach flies in the face of the reasoning of political pollsters; but I also believe that those pollsters are responsible for getting the Democratic Party into its current conundrum, where it has still not settled on a Presidential candidate. Perhaps the most important thing about the four questions is that Americans do not describe themselves as "representative norms" and that, as a result, every American has some personal set of "outlier characteristics." This would expose the folly of Friedman's "totally unscientific polling," the conclusions that ensue from his flawed methodology, and, I am afraid, Keen's efforts to follow up with a similar approach.

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