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What is the American Way of Life?

What is the American Way of Life?

By Richard Reeves - May 13, 2009

NEW YORK -- This is how they got young men into the military in Honduras in the 1980s: They would show Kung Fu movies in local theaters and then surround the building with trucks, scooping up the audiences, young men, of course, and driving off them to army camps and basic training.

We are more subtle with our volunteer army: We pay bonuses, offer college tuition and run television commercials. Great ones! You see a lot of them if you watch sports on the tube. Watching a professional basketball playoff game last week, I was taken by a U.S. Army ad showing action scenes around the world as young men and women in uniform recited "The Soldiers Creed."

That begins: "I am an American soldier." It ends: "I am a guardian of freedom and of the American way of life!"

I wasn't ready to sign up -- not that they're looking for a few good old men. But it made me think about things, particularly that last line. What is "the American way of life"?

There are, I found, a lot of answers out there. In fact, Rush Limbaugh, Pravda and "The Simpsons" all agree that the American way is being eroded or never was any good anyway.

Under the headline, "Did Obama's Election Permanently Change the American Way of Life?" on his Web site, Limbaugh put up a conversation with a listener from Lincoln, Calif., last month. "I get. I get it," said the leader of the leaderless loyal opposition. "So the question is: Does Obama's election change the American way of life? (snorts) Forget the election. ... Look what the hell is happening! I mean, yeah. (sigh) Folks, do you realize Obama has even created czars? I mean, if we want to start comparing Obama to the Russian revolution, he's got czars! Only the Russians had czars. For every cabinet level he's got three czars that run herd over the cabinet-level people."

Just before that election Pravda (snort), the ex-voice of the ex-Soviet Union, headlined an editorial: "The American Way of Life Is Dead." The onetime trumpet of "godless communism" called the America way "godless consumerism." Its conclusion read: "The American way of life, a system unsustainable by any stretch of the imagination, was facilitated on two facts: cheap gas and a valuable currency, the currency then morphing into cheap credit."

This is the song they sing on "The Simpsons":

"If you cut every corner things are never all bad

"Everybody does it -- even Mom and Dad.

"If nobody sees it, then nobody gets mad --

"It's the American Way."

The phrase, it seems, goes back to writings of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, who used it in the 17th century. Presumably he meant freedom of religion, although he was known to ignore it when it suited his purposes. Probably the most famous use was in Superman comics, where the "Man of Steel" was introduced as a champion of "Truth, Justice and the American Way."

In 1981, upset by the creed of the right-wing Moral Majority, producer Norman Lear and other liberals launched People for the American Way. The original mission statement read:

"Our purpose is to meet the challenges of discord and fragmentation with an affirmation of 'the American Way.' By this, we mean pluralism, individuality, freedom of thought, expression and religion, a sense of community, and tolerance and compassion for others. People for the American Way will reach out to all Americans and affirm that in our society, the individual still matters; that there is reason to believe in the future -- not to despair of it -- and that we must strengthen the common cords that connect us as humans and citizens. We work to ensure access for all Americans to economic opportunity and justice."

So, you pays your taxes, you takes your choice. There are, and should be, as many definitions as there are Americans. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is probably the best of all.

Contemplating all that, my own definition is: "Do what you want to do. If you screw it up, pay the price and try again."

Copyright 2009, Universal Press Syndicate Inc.

Richard Reeves

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