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The Invention of the American

October 23, 2011

The Invention of The American


Americans are different I think.  There is a particular American personality that can be explained by the invention of the American.  The American myth is that this continent was a refuge for people fleeing oppression, seeking freedom.  There is truth to this, but not much.

We have to understand the kind of people who came here.  Many like to believe they were refugees from the burdensome social and cultural norms of the Old World and persecuted Christians wanting to worship as they pleased.  Others claim most of these settlers came only to make money.  To profit off of the bounty of timber and furs and land available here.

Many of these newcomers were one jump ahead of a prison cell, people whose reputation had run out seeking a new identity, debtors running away from their debts.  And the religious refugees were extremists often turned out of countries more for their trouble making than their beliefs.  Today we would call them cults and hire people to rescue our children from them.

All of this is true to some extent, but misses the point.  What came to America were the five percenters.  The five percent rule was discovered by Chinese Communists during the Korean War when they were swamped by allied pows.  They discovered that only five percent of their prisoners had the will to actually do anything.  All the others would just sit and wait and if they located and put under close confinement the five percenters, they really didn’t have to worry about the rest.

I believe this is true for all human beings.  The vast majority will stay in their rut no matter how bad it is.  They fear change so much they will live in familiar misery. It is a very small minority who protest, complain, rebel.  America was ‘settled’ by European five percenters.  They pre-dated the Enlightenment, that great move away from dogma and toward truth as it is evident in the world, but you might say they were of the same type.  For whatever their reason, the white wave that broke over America were the restless, the malcontent, the doers.

But this doesn’t explain the American personality completely.  What it needed was given them by the new world’s native people and this was the importance of the individual.  Perhaps you could say the whole concept of the individual and his personal sovereignty was given to our forbearers by Native Americans.

Individuality was a relatively new idea and still rare in Europe where common people were still considered property.  You were defined by your class and the position in society your were born into strictly.  Your personal character, your merit or lack of it had little do with anything.  Of course this was changing, even in Europe, but it took the American tribal peoples to teach the newcomers the American notion of the individual.

The people our restless ancestors met were free in a way even the malcontents couldn’t understand.  The whole notion of ‘chiefs’ was an European effort to explain the native culture by old country terms and notions.  Mostly the natives had no all-powerful leaders to be followed blindly.  They were not obligated to follow orders from anyone.  Men of power in the group achieved their position through their own deeds and the reputation they built.  It reminds me closely of existentialism in that an individual is measured by his deeds, not his family or wealth.  Of course there were exceptions and aberrations, but this was a common aspect of Native American culture.  No one had the power to force you to do anything.

When a VIP came to meet the natives, while his retinue of Europeans were bowing and scraping, the native walked up to the VIP and started a conversation, man to man.  Even for the immigrants were the restless and daring cream of Europe, this kind of individual freedom was beyond their experience, not to be hoped for.  I don’t know if they realized this was possible, given the tightly bound cultures they grew up in.  It seems to me that this fortunate culture clash hasn’t had its importance recognized.  It is at this sparking point between the five percenters of one continent and the free individuals of the other that the American began.





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