Thursday, October 25, 2007

American Idea

Georgia O'Keeffe:
Red Canna, 1923
University of Arizona Art Museum

Atlantic Magazine is having a contest:

Yes, I wrote an essay: 200 words exactly.

In a word, the American Idea is enterprise. As our nation formed, enterprise meant adventure: settling a new world, facing new races, boldly going where none had gone before, as in the expedition of Lewis and Clark. This creative urge informed exploration of all sorts, culminating in an American on the Moon. It spilled over into the arts-- Jackson Pollock's drips, Georgia O'Keeffe's erotic flowers, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West and John Coltrane's sax. The American enterprise is, a la Shakespeare, of great pith and moment.

Enterprise, though, is a two-edged sword. Melville's Moby Dick has Ahab. For each instance of American innovation, revolution, zeal, or progress, there is aggression, intolerance, greed, or religious superstition. In the eyes of the world, the American idea is as likely to be arrogance or imperialism, as it is to be enlightened leadership or the beacon of Democracy.

The ultimate test of the American idea, our ideal, rests on inspiration. The deism of founders Franklin and Jefferson offers a guide for future enterprises. By serving a spirit of benevolence and of goodness, overcoming fears, we might meet the challenges of global conflict, global warming, and global health. As never before, our enterprises need wisdom.


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