The American Enigma

I am worried about America. This is my home. I have traveled through the lower 48 and lived from Staten Island to Santa Cruz. I am the third generation born here; the first to attend college. In light of the shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana and the horror of Dallas, I am worried about what this country has become.

When I travel overseas people often ask, perplexed, what is going on? They want to know. Actually, the ones who despise America don’t ask. It’s the others, people who regard us with fondness, longing, and secret envy.

What is going on? I tell them it’s not American Empire but American Enigma. We have always been different, a mixture of frontiersman and Philadelphia lawyer. Abolitionist and states righter. We are outgoing yet private, disciplined yet fun-loving. Hitler derided us as “playboys.” Churchill thought we were crazy. When an aide complained about us, he replied, “They may be crazy, but they’re the only Americans we’ve got.” He was right.

It’s time for us to realize we are the only Americans we’ve got. No one else will save us. But how do we “make America great again”? One side in the soap opera of presidential politics would have us militarize, arm, and isolate ourselves. The other would have us surrender our few remaining rights to corporate and financial interests. Neither side puts it in those terms, of course, but that’s the reality. I reject both.

The violence of Dallas was particularly frightening, and “shots fired” from that city is a familiar phrase to many. Has so little changed since 1963? We live in a country of gated communities–armed camps–where the hatred is palpable. Firearms give it tragic expression. But we cannot accomplish anything if our cities are turned into Kosovo or Beirut. Some believe that is precisely the point: to bring the security state, created and perfected on foreign soil, home.

I am less cynical but do not dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand. The ones that are historically grounded make the most sense to me, since violence has been part of our psyche from the beginning of our history. De Tocqueville noted it years before the Civil War and expected “great calamities…to ensue” from the mixture of European immigrants, African slaves, and native Indians. How could it be otherwise?

Still, we have a choice. We can choose peace in the midst of hate. We can act against our baser instincts of fear and revenge, not just because there is no other choice, but because it is the right choice. We can choose our better selves.

How do we do this? By acknowledging reality here and now, not harkening back to days of glory or painting an idyllic picture of class and racial progress. The Dallas police chief, for one, called it by its name: evil. “My name is legion, for we are many” (Mk 5.9).

What do we do with evil? Shed light on it and then turn that light on ourselves, which will be painful. Aristotelian scholar D.J. Allan has said, “One lesson of our age is that barbarism persists under the surface and that the virtues of civilized life are less deeply rooted than used to be supposed.” We are finding that out right now.

For masthead photo of Miller Caravan, go to toperfect. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli, or treat yourself to Nine Lives. Look for “Rocky the Friggin Squirrel” on YouTube this summer. Note to self: Welcome to the world, Giovanna Deanna Brancatelli, July 6, 2016!


  1. Many of us are wondering what has gone wrong. Our country is fractured along so many lines — race, income, political leanings, etc., etc.

    At root, I think we have become intellectually lazy.

    Schools (including colleges, from my personal teaching perspective) do not demand nearly enough of our students. Parents also do not demand enough from them — or from each other, witness the number of single-parent homes.

    The Kardashians have thus become more important than reading, thought and reflection. Among other things, this yields election results based on God-knows-what candidate qualities, and the pursuit and retention of political power will continue to prevent any honest attempts at reconciliation and taking the steps that America truly needs to become what we once were – a beacon of liberty and leadership in a fractured world.

    1. Thank you for the reply, Vic. I have been traveling out of the country but had an interesting conversation with Korean professors in Kenya. Essentially, they are worried about America, which they look to for leadership, and are afraid of a Trump presidency. They believe Trump “represents the worst of America,” not the best. Regardless of how one views Trump, the more important sentiment was that they (Koreans, the world) look to America for leadership and light. The buck stops here, or it should. We should remember that.

    2. I’m late coming into this discussion. But your comment about schools not demanding enough struck home, as my almost-31-year-old daughter recently began medical school in Texas and reports that the younger students seem to want things handed to them instead of doing the work to investigate and learn. Medical school isn’t supposed to be easy. College isn’t supposed to be easy. Life is hard even with the good times: reading, prayer, fellowship, contemplation, and empathy need to be an integral part of our lives to help us find value and purpose, that we can then use to discern what is true and good in the world around us.

      Thank you for your insight.

      1. Thanks for the comment. This is a difficult problem, but at least part of it is due to teachers, publishers, IT consultants, and behavioral psychologists coddling children from the start–certain children. They do it to further their own ideological ends. It’s unfair and unjust to the children.

  2. A realistic and thoughtful description of the state of our country today – and the lack of choices that populate the usual mechanisms for change. Is there a hero in the wings? Is that hero, possibly, each of us? I fear most for the generation that was inspired by the process and is now disgruntled and uninterested. This is the generation that, as children, watched the Twin Towers fall. It marked the official final day of their childhood. Will this election mark the final day of their desire to participate in the government of the country that is the envy of the world? Instead, perhaps it will shine light on the true American values that built and nourished our country.

    1. Sadly, it seems that every generation has one of these tragic events that mark its transition to adulthood or at least the death of innocence. Ours was Dallas. Then came Challenger, 9-11, and now Dallas again. It’s wearisome.

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