Ever Forgetful and Free
If you had to find the “Every-American,” someone who represented all the tics and traits of our national character, you wouldn’t want to waste you time on Esuyawkal Bimrew. Not yet, anyway. Edgy, over-eager, ever smiling—already the twenty-six year old immigrant from Ethiopia embodies some cherished clichés of the nation’s mythic personality. Though well educated by African standards, he jumped at the chance to leave family behind and seek his future in America. He landed a cashier’s job in a mini-mart—getting off at 2 a.m. every day, just hours before a morning class at Community College.1
For Esuyawkal, the American dream is no irony. He doesn’t swagger, but he seems to believe a little too much in himself. He also believes in hard work and the idea that America promises the good life for those who struggle. His thickly accented speech becomes even more garbled when he’s excited—but still conveys enough passion to convince anybody he’s as American as the next guy. But, when he starts talking about home, family, and all the warm memories of the life left behind, he outs himself. To become a real American, Esuyawkal will need to forget all that.
Deep memory is simply out of bounds in America. It’s the void that defines us. Just as certain memories shape a personality in fairly predictable ways, so too the absence of memory forges a particular kind of character. Make that absence a cultural policy and you get Americans.
And cultural policy it is. Like no other nation, we have made self-invention the centerpiece of a national creed. But self-invention requires the belief that we have not already been shaped by a past invented by others. So Americans dismiss the notion that history is a window into the self. Instead, we adopt a tactical amnesia, wiping the slate clean of origins so that we may be the authors of our own identity. Our magnificent ambiguity, all the ugliness and beauty that twine in Americans, we owe to this amnesia.
From the outset, Americans have understood that forgetting was an indispensable step in bringing the new nation into being. In the Eighteenth century, the French immigrant J. Hector St. Jean De Crevecoeur wrote that an American was someone who leaves behind “all his ancient prejudices and manners, [and] receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced.”2 For writers of the early republic, reinventing one’s self was a political imperative, essential for subordinating divisive European tribal loyalties to the new America.
But the lure of self-invention has never been just political; it intoxicates because it promises personal liberation. Jay Gatsby would not have been nearly so great had he not been so driven to escape his childhood, his home, his father, and even his own name. For Gatsby, freedom from the past was the power to become something commensurate with his own lustful dreams
Even the memories we do permit valorize forgetting. The past we honor is not the accumulation of experiences that sculpt a common sensibility or stylize an approach to life. What we remember is generation after generation looking to the future, to the new, to us. Our mythology begins with the immigrant’s struggle—but not because the experience of survival teaches us something about the art of life; we affirm the journey because it reminds us there’s always an arrival, a future worth the effort. The most we remember of life aboard the Arbella is John Winthrop’s vision of the shinning city on a hill they were to build once ashore.
Our famous optimism, then, is more a function than a disposition. Americans learn early that success is the past’s only legitimate lesson. To remember failure, moments when progress was checked or fortunes reversed, is paralysis. Contrast the “mature” cultures. People shaped by a finely tuned awareness of their own turbulent history tend to make a fetish of sobriety. Survival, not adventure, shapes their imagination. And survival argues for caution, tried-and-true methods—or doing nothing.
Amnesia, however, is liberating. It frees us to be brash by disarming the key component of wisdom. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said FDR, leading us out of crisis; “fools rush in where wise men fear to go” sang Ricky Nelson, prodding us into grief. Without memory to retard us, success in anything depends only on vigorous effort. Acting, working, striving—simply trying—becomes our most important value. Tell us “Just Do It!” and we know exactly what you mean: don’t over-think, just push and push and push until the thing (anything) is done.
So we’re pushy—an obnoxious, willfully ignorant, kind of pushy. What makes us so damn galling is not just that we don’t know stuff, but that we seem to take pride in not knowing. The wise will always forgive ignorance so long as it’s coupled with humility, a willingness to be taught. But for Americans, humility looks too much like servility.
Still, we are a smiley people. We seem to think everybody loves us. Viewed suspiciously, the smile could be a gimmick, an enabling gesture: phony smiles strive to disarm without confronting whatever ill will threatens to get in the way. Perhaps we smile to signal our perpetual readiness to leave the past behind, roll up our sleeves and get started on whatever needs doing. Every first meeting, we believe, every fresh handshake is invested with a boundless potential for friendship and good.
But the smile wouldn’t be so convincing if it weren’t also sincere. Being happy is another cultural policy. Mostly, we just don’t see a good reason to be unhappy. This, too, is amnesia. In the same way that memory enables wisdom by schooling us in the ways the ancients thought through timeless problems, it also compels people to wrestle with all that is tragic in life. Not surprisingly, one of the venerable truths of American culture is that it lacks a tragic sense of life.
Of course, it almost wasn’t true. Our one shot at gaining a tragic sensibility came with The Civil War: the industrialized slaughter of six hundred thousand brothers, the sad, lonely, brooding presence of victorious but ill-fated Lincoln, the corpse-like poses of Mathew Brady’s imagery. The Civil War cut a deep gash in the American psyche. In the thick of it, the usually optimistic Whitman confessed, “A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me.”3
But the gloom didn’t last long. Not that the scar ever really healed; we just numbed the pain with happier thoughts. Rather than letting the war teach us that good and evil are codependents lodged permanently within the human heart, we hammered our troubled memories into something more glossy and inspirational—the familiar faith that, with courage and sacrifice, good will always triumph. It was a better fit for Americans: “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” is just what we do.
No wonder the rest of the world thinks us self-righteous—and supremely arrogant. They see it everywhere, from the clichéd camera-toting tourist shoving “natives” around like props, to smug political leaders justifying war on the basis of our historic duty to free other nations from the worst in themselves. Why, they wonder, do Americans think they’re so much better than others?
The irony is that, strictly speaking, Americans don’t think they’re better at all. Self-righteous, yes—but better, no. It’s a subtle point, often lost on others—especially people whose own sense of national identity is shaped by memory. Those cultures tend to believe their identity is something stamped on them by time—that they have inherited the qualities and character bred into the tribe through centuries of common experience. Their “history” is gauzy memories of the primordial or divine forces that supposedly forged their clan into a unique—and usually better—form of human.
In the nineteenth century Americans flirted with similar nonsense, but it never took hold. The lore of pioneers and cowboys that Frederick Jackson Turner dressed up in pseudo-science celebrated rowdies and primitives (a race of children), not advanced culture or superior breeding. And whatever they thought on the side, there’s not an ounce of eugenics in the words of Jefferson or Lincoln we’ve chosen to canonize. Instead, Americans believe we came into being with the stroke of a pen. Our myth of origins has us forged by visionary language, abstract values such as freedom, equality and pluralism—words we embrace as the iconic seeds of character. That’s the paradox of our self-righteousness. We hold sacred the belief that nobody is better than anybody else—and that makes us pretty special, doesn’t it?
So, indeed, we are “ugly Americans.” And that’s an insult we take some pride in. Ugliness authenticates us—we know it’s the world’s way of acknowledging that we’re animated by a truly noble creed, one that transforms character into a mission: the belief that self-creation is a birthright, and amnesia—freedom from the past—the surest way to claim it.
1 Esuyawkal Bimrew is a fictitious name (drawn from actual family names) of a student in Los Angeles, California. Other references to him are authentic.
2 Crevecoeur, J. Hector St John De. 1999. “Letters from an American Farmer.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition Shorter. Eds. Baym et al. New York: Norton, (p 295).
3 Whitman, Walt. “Year That Trembled And Reel’d Beneath Me.” Leaves of Grass. New York: Penguin, 1980. p 252.