America the Community

By Stan Hartman


There is so little that is close and warm.
It is as if we were never children.

—Wallace Stevens

Those are some of the saddest lines in the whole of American literature, yet they also point to an aspect of America that’s most deeply joyful— the sense of real family, and in a larger sense real community. This is something some of us may never have experienced, but many of us have, and when we do experience it we know it’s good, and true, and beautiful, no matter how seemingly fragile and fleeting. As Krishnamurti once said, “Its fragility is proof that it is imperishable.” Without it the United States will certainly perish, though it might survive as a physical and political entity that has lost its soul, and therefore any reason for surviving.

The clearest example of America as a community I’ve ever seen was the two days or so after nine-eleven, which in a larger sense were also a revelation of the world community, united with us. It’s true that the veneer of civilization is very thin and can easily be stripped back to reveal the barbarity beneath it, which happened on that day, but the opposite happened immediately afterward. There was a deep oneness in grief in this country, born of unselfish caring for those who had died and their families. The leaders that America had just chosen (or not), though, who almost bragged about not doing “the vision thing,” didn’t have the awareness or inclination to call attention to this unity and thereby strengthen and extend it. “Where there is no vision the people perish.”

For two days following nine-eleven terrorism had already been defeated in a spiritual sense, by the unity of the world community, and needed only forward-looking leaders who could help people sustain that unity and expand on it, calling not only for the capture of the perpetrators but also for a truly reflective investigation into what had led people to want to do such a thing.
Without this curiosity, we began just another endless conflict like the war on drugs, and other enemies— war after war after war, drawing away the attention we need to direct toward more creative responses, like really examining the roots of terrorism and what we can do to address the human needs being expressed there.

This need for reflection before action, especially when gripped by fear, is something self-righteousness will only blind us to. There is no excuse for what was done on nine-eleven and the continuing terror throughout the world, but there are reasons for it, and to ignore them only makes such events more likely in the future. Looking for them doesn’t mean condoning them. There’s no moral way to excuse the violent “Jihad” as righteous; its flag should be emblazoned with the entrails of innocents. Instead of responding intelligently, though, America’s ignorant and arrogant “leadership” called for anger and revenge, and stoked the fires of retaliation with a constant call for fear, saying in essence, “We have nothing to fear but not being afraid.” What a fall from the voice of another president of what’s been called the greatest generation: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

After nine-eleven the public turned from something beautiful they had in common— caring for and grieving the loss of people who were strangers to them in one sense but family to them in a deeper one— to divide themselves more deeply than we’ve seen in forty years. We also divided ourselves from other nations that had just offered deep friendship in a display of what the world community could and some day has to be. Not since that reach upward in the 60’s of the younger generation— disorganized and naive and angry as it was during another catastrophic war— toward something more meaningful and valuable than “security,” had there been such deep division. The sixties, like today, were a time that needed deep reflection from those on both sides of the war issue, and a coming together in a common focus on the real meaning of community and the relationships that compose it. It degenerated instead into violence and political civil war, the antithesis of community. In a very real sense, America has been plagued since its birth by civil war.

At the beginning of the last century historian Frederick Jackson Turner worried that America would be great as long as it had a frontier, then would decline. It made a strange kind of sense to me when I first read it, and the truth of it seems to have been borne out by experience if you look deeper than the surfaces of things. What followed the fading of the frontier was our own Civil War, which has never really been settled but has simply taken new forms, as internal conflicts always do when they’re not really resolved. Since then America’s material power has increased, but its moral influence, its power to inspire respect from other nations, has declined, except in times of the “great” wars, when it unified in response to an enemy.

America was born in response to an enemy and held together through its revolution by the threat from this enemy, the family it divorced itself from to assert its right to be an individual among nations. Even before it became a nation it treated the frontier of wilderness, its greatest resource, as an enemy, not simply a responsibility and opportunity. It isn’t surprising that it would also treat the native peoples who lived in harmony with that wilderness as enemies, though they made enemies of each other as well.

Now we’re the greatest national power in the world, the last external enemy who could seriously threaten our survival having been defeated by its own internal conflicts. We’re still being irritated by external enemies, but they’re small ones by comparison, like gnats that can make us miserable but not kill us. It seems that whenever we’re not at war we feel an enemy gap and a challenge to stay focused in the face of it. If we— and I mean not just America but all nations— keep looking for enemies to focus us, we’ll be missing the point of our real needs and the hope of finding ways to truly fulfill them.

Throughout our history we’ve looked for threats to focus and unify us and there have been plenty to oblige us. Today we treat even some of our troubled children as enemies, and sentence some of them to death, to the horror of the rest of the civilized world. We’ve used enemies as substitutes for the frontier we can’t evolve without. They’ve challenged us as the frontier once challenged us, and in every case except Vietnam we’ve “successfully” met the challenge, though Iraq is another defeat already to anyone who can look at it objectively. Vietnam always haunts us in the periphery of our vision, because it’s proof that our will and judgment as a nation are not infallible or all-powerful, especially in the face of our internal conflicts, which weakened us again, inevitably, in Vietnam. Our civil war still cries out for resolution and will emerge again and again in new forms until it’s truly resolved. How can we settle another nation’s civil war when we haven’t truly settled our own? Whether it appears as a war between North and South, black and white, rich and poor, idealist and traditionalist, homeless and secure, accepted and abandoned, male and female, young and old, it will continue until its root causes and needs are understood and fulfilled.

My belief is that this can be done only by recognizing and exploring the truly final frontier, vaster than space itself, which lies within us. It’s a frontier which has always been with us and always will be, but we can’t dominate it as some think we have the natural earth. It requires a new way of meeting and being, without the will to dominate and control. This new way is not truly new, however. It’s also a part of our heritage, though a quieter part.

Before we mock the present weakness of our last great enemy in the world, we should ask ourselves if the dissolution of the Soviet Union was not a warning rather than a triumph. To those who can see them, the roots of our own potential dissolution are everywhere around us, but even more importantly within us, within our ways of relating with ourselves, with one another, and with the spirit common to us all which is the only hope for our survival. America is the great social laboratory of the world, the testing ground for the next step in evolution, a super-national world based on the family of humanity, not on the warring of the tribes of nations and ideologies. And beyond this planetary unity lies an even greater unity, beyond the scope of the focus here, though alive within it.

Psychology has laid some groundwork for this way of relating to ourselves and others, but it’s not a strong enough foundation by itself to hold what needs to be created, especially when it ignores the spiritual core of human nature. Neither religion nor science alone can provide an adequate basis for it. If we’re to build the foundation of a better world before the present one collapses around us, we need to use all these tools and more to accomplish what’s being demanded of us. This foundation can’t incorporate sectarian rivalries within the domains of religion, science, business, education, or any of the other realms plagued too long by selfish competition which is really a mask of fear. The house we need to build won’t stand divided against itself, and no other house will stand for long in the winds of change rising relentlessly in the world. Our need is not for more competitiveness or uniformity, but for unity, and if we fail to find it we’ll see the disintegration of all that’s built on less worthy foundations.

The noblest expressions of our nation emerged from its childhood and adolescence, and in many ways we’ve betrayed that nobility we exhibited to all the world in our origins. With the significant exception of times of war we’ve submerged in the enticements of the wealth our creativity has forged for us, and wonder why we suffer the malaise we do. Our standard of living, as measured by the possession of things and tools and leisure and intellectual knowledge, has increased beyond the dreams of ancient kings. But humanity is not always served by these things, but can also be swerved by them, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot put it. Another of our great writers and exiles put it differently, but to the same point, when an acquaintance of his, caught up in the trivial fashions of the day, complained that America, unlike England, had no ruins. Henry James’s answer to this was that America was full of ruins— the ruins of hopes.

Is it any different today? Are we not still distracted from distraction by distraction? Have we not created great industries to serve such distraction? Are we not still a land littered with the ruins of hopes? And do we not still too often betray the nobility our children feel the deep need for, within them? Why do we wonder why so many of them are full of rage and despair, looking desperately and sometimes disastrously for heroes? Don’t we also share their pain on some level, when we’re honest with ourselves about how spiritually lost and invisible we are so much of the time, our real desires covered by short-lived gratifications and unthinking consumption?

I see no hope for such troubles but more and deeper honesty and sincerity, with ourselves and others. All wars are the same civil war, fought within every individual, between the forces of fear and the spirit’s urge to gratitude, and can’t be won by fighting at all. It’s a conflict that has to be resolved, not won. The only true victory possible is over enemy-mindedness itself.

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