I’m posting this photo totally gratuitously, for the sole purpose of enjoying the memory of that cheesy speech in Atlas Shrugged when Francisco D’Anconia reveals his big pimp-bling dollar sign and describes America’s blessed gall and using her initials to represent the currency.
When I was in Toulouse the French elected Sarkozy over Senegolene Royal as President. The election made for many great opportunities to discuss politics with my friends. Granted, I was in business school with a bunch of young twenty-somethings, so it makes sense that my demographic frame of reference was more focused on fiscal policies than social.
Most interesting was the criticism Sarkozy received for acting too “American.” He smoked less than your average French, and touted the health benefits of foregoing constant cigarettes. He ran for exercise, rather than walking. This garnered by far the most aggressive criticism. People were offended that Sarkozy would partake in such “individualistic” activities, as “ungraceful” as running, rather than fall back on the more graceful, contemplative strolls preferred by the French.
At the same time, a French boy I rather liked accused me of always wanting “more.” “This is the American thing,” he said: “the thing that Americans want is always more.”
I spent an inordinate amount of time considering these two things. Is it better to be an individualist, to forego thoughtful chats and graceful promenades, in favor of raucous, head-clearing, efficient runs? And the notion of “more” is no where more prominent than in my own family. Why would you stop at one piece of cheese if the second will be equally delicious? Why work only one job, when holding two will bolster your purse and keep you out of trouble longer?
The thing I loved so much about France was that people tended to be satisfied. There is something *so elegant* about not wanting more. Money, sex, chocolate…there are reasons why I’ll occasionally *choose* against more but I always, always want more.
In most of Europe a glass ceiling looms, chilling effort past a certain point. There aren’t viable suburbs like in the States, so it’s not as though you can expand indefinitely and enjoy ever-more space to breathe. There’s also a hefty tax policy disincentivizing real ambition. In Europe you work to be able to afford your wine and cigarettes. Fashion is cheap and current and fewer people yearn for a fat Cadillac than is US status quo.
Ultimately, people came to the US. We are a culture of self-starters. No one is here by default; we came because we were dissatisfied with what we had. We wanted more for our families, for ourselves.
There is something quite noble about the wanting more, but consider the elegance of being satisfied. I have never, not for a second in my life, felt “satisfied.” I have levied stern punishment on myself for not working to satisfaction: I move nearly every semester; I allow myself to fall into less-than-thrilling relationships; I allow contentment to get dragged down the track like a carrot, maintained by me always just out of reach. Is this American? I don’t think so. The thing I hope I learned in Toulouse is to be happy, even if not still.
The American Dream has always inspired me the most. I love this country so much that it puts tears in my eyes. We may well be the last free Republic in the world. But we have not put in the requisite intellectual exercise and political acrobatics necessary to maintain that. Freedom is intact (somewhat; ask those victims of racial profiling in the airport whether they believe civil liberties are alive and well), but our infrastructure is — physically and metaphorically — crumbling.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that continuing down this Boumediene-esque road is not an option. The baseline must be that we want more for ourselves. If 300 million Americans each jealously guards his own baseline, we will maintain what More we have so enjoyed til now. If, instead, we treat noncitizens — no, terrorists! — as citizens then it is clear we’ve forgotten what it means to be here.
I am afraid that we are staring down the barrel of rapidly-recoiling rights. The Golden Age of the Internet is already yellowing at the corners and it’s becoming perfectly clear that Americans have traded in the Sarkozy-esque head-clearing, individualist run for a thoughtful, consider-your-neighbors stroll. I am terrified that what many politicians are considering is how best to restrict our liberty — to conduct strip searches and maintain records of what we’ve learned — without provoking us to react. This is like the threatened-stick flip side to my proverbial carrot. This is not what more we came to find.
To those who forget why we are here, I ask that they remember and cherish the American Dream. But to those who believe that the very next step is to trample the civil rights of entire demographics of Americans, I ask that you remember that if first they come for the gypsies, and you say nothing, then when they come for you there will be nothing more to say.