An Unusual People
Worth Thinking about, Not Only on the
Fourth of July
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
America has brought to the world fantastical, revolutionary changes. Ours is a unique, dynamic culture, a great human experiment that often brings out the best people have to offer. In that it’s July, the month when some of us still celebrate America, we’ll bypass the politically correct negatives, which so many like to whine about, and go straight to the marvels that have arisen from this nation—things like moon landings, automobiles, and refrigeration that we churned out over the last century like wieners from a sausage grinder and with such an effect that we changed not only our own country but the world (by the way, it’s worth noting, we didn’t invent slavery, we ended it).
The list of marvels is long, so much so that it makes you wonder if this nation and her people weren’t touched with a magic stick (whether we always use that magic respon-sibly is another question). If you’re still not getting this, consider what has arisen from the USA and the monumental changes that have ensued worldwide as a result.
There’s the automobile. It revolutionized transportation and indivi-dual freedom, as did the airplane, which has connected far away societies and made their cultures accessible. More recently, American inventions like the personal computer, and its application over the internet, have done the same, and like the automobile in a way that greatly enhances personal potential, a trend that the totalitarian government of China fears, as it restricts the internet and imprisons those who use it too freely.
Yes, some Americans are fat and loud (consider the impression you make in foreign countries—will ya?—so the rest of us don’t have to answer for you when we travel), but for some reason our country has been the fulcrum upon which the world has been leveraged into a new dimension of achievement, exploration, and political freedom. This is simply a fact.
Consider the American invention of electricity, the light bulb, the electric motor, and a thousand other practical applications that flowed from Franklin’s late-night kite flying experiments. Contemplate the telephone and what it has done for the world, and then television, the ability to broadcast moving images nationwide and around the globe, or from Mars. Same goes for the phonograph, the CD, the microchip, satellites, washing machines, cell phones, space exploration, the polio vaccine, lasers, rock and roll, jazz, blues, and (my favorite) baseball, which the Japanese, Cubans and Dominicans love as much as we do. Think about motion pictures, the creation of which, sometimes credited to Louis Lumière, a Frenchman, was brought to the world earlier through Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope (though many lay claim to the invention), and the difference between Lumière and Edison exemplifies the difference between the optimistic entrepreneurial culture of Americans and the lack of it elsewhere.
"The cinema is an invention without a future," Lumière said. Edison had another idea. The rest is history. And while a variety of crude motion picture devices surfaced internationally in those days (late 1800s), American movies developed into a business and art form that has molded the world.
Consider the Beatles and their cultural influence. But they’re not American, you say. Nevertheless, all of their influences were, from Elmore James and Carl Perkins to Elvis Presley. That American style music, born of the deep South, took root in Britain via the phonograph, radio, and television and circled back to us, and around the world, through everyone from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones.
Some choke on such praises—some Americans. I say, tough. A little Norman Rockwell-Readers Digest style spin is long past due after all the negativity.
And what’s so special about Americans? The truth is nothing, not genetically, so it’s hard for most of us to get all jingoistic when we’re the same as everybody else. Perhaps the greatest inventor of all, Nikola Tesla, for example, was not an American by birth but a Serb born in Austria-Hungary who became an American. His invention of the radio (popularized by Marconi), and other mind-boggling marvels that have since been suppressed, changed the nature of communications. Any American accomplishment or invention, for that matter, cannot be said to derive from some inherited attribute intrinsic to our people; everyone here, except Indians, traces their roots to somewhere else, and so America’s triumphs are those of humanity, one reason perhaps why few people trumpet the revolutionary influence this country has had upon the world—because we are the world.
America, at the same time, is a collection of regions and peoples. Montanans are distinct from New Yorkers, though the lines are blurring. In the West, inventions often take on a whole other quality than the those emanating from the likes of Tesla and Edison. And so we move on to an even more profound examination of the American character. Who, for example, was the first man to jump on an angry, frothing thousand-pound bull. Imagine the man’s thought process (or lack of it). He sizes up the raw power and monstrous size of the animal, its capacity to break every bone in his body, or send him to the grave, and he decides he’ll jump on its back and take a ride. As Bill Murray would say, I wanna party with that guy. Not only that, but others decided they might like to die in the same manner and it turns into a great American sport.
If you’re missing the significance here, substitute some other culture and large four-legged beast. Do Africans jump on rhinos or wildebeest to see who can stay on the longest? Do Asians hop on water buffalo and ride until they’re thrown off? Do Canadians get all liquored up and say Step aside, I’m gonna ride that moose, eh? (Do Canadians ever get liquored up? Maybe for the Calgary Stampede).
So riding huge life-threatening beasts is, or has become, an American pastime (some say bull riding began with the Minoans, some say in Mexico, along with rodeo) as is charging folks twenty bucks to watch, another home grown invention right up there with airplanes and computers.
Now, if you’re foaming at the mouth as you read these truths about America, and some of you are, realize it’s because you hate your country. You hate to be confronted with positive things about the land of your birth. Fine, get on a soap box with a Frenchmen and whine about it (by the way, the French are generally fond of America, more than some Americans, that’s my experience).
But whining’s not what this is about, not on the Fourth of July. All that other stuff can wait until Michael Moore’s next work of deliberately misleading fiction. Besides, with all the inventiveness, creativity and problem solving stored and ripened within our collective identity, it’s only a matter of time until we invent our way out of the problems we really do have.
By the way, did I mention the lightning rod, the steamboat, cotton gin, sewing machine, telegraph, typewriter, zipper, cylindrical and offset printing press, roller skates, the hydrofoil, smoke detector, xerox, dishwasher, escalator, air conditioner, polaroid camera, electric guitar, fiber optics, video tape, radio astronomy, Hubble Telescope, skyscraper, space probe, atomic warfare (oops), civil rights, conservation, Habitat for Humanity, and the U.S. Constitution that changed not only America but much of the whole world...
The list goes on—no bull.
Be happy about it.