THE MEANING OF AMERICA – What Made America Different?
Part two of a four part series by Avery Slom for the ASPL blog
When I was just a young lad in the latter half of the last century, my parents would often tell me to eat everything on my plate because kids were starving overseas. I couldn’t imagine how eating my last bite of meatloaf would help them, but I complied because my parents were ‘old school’ about spanking, so not doing so could lead to unpleasant complications. I think a lot of kids of my generation were given the same instructions under the same implied threat.
The reason my parents told me to clean my plate was, I now realize, two part. The first was that they had both grown up in lower middle-income families during the Depression. Food wasn’t something you wasted. Nothing, in fact, was to be wasted. I recall my father taking a hammer to bent nails to straighten them so they could be reused, and my mother always washed used aluminum foil, neatly folding it and putting it away in a drawer, for the same reason.
The second reason had to do with instilling in me an appreciation for how good I had it. I had food. Others didn’t. Our family also had a car, a TV, a house with heat in the winter, and all sorts of things they assured me that many people did not. I should be thankful for all that. It took some time, but I eventually understood that these things should not be taken for granted. Even dry meatloaf was certainly better than not having any food at all. But how could that happen? I mean, all you had to do was go to the grocery store, right? (I wasn’t overly aware of the world beyond my neighborhood at the time.)
The reason my family had all these wonderful things, it turned out, was because we were Americans, and America was different from most other countries. That was the lesson I think they were trying to teach me, anyway, and it came with a rather pretentious implication. Americans were just a bit better than everyone else. Americans were somehow smarter, more deserving, harder working, or morally superior to people of other countries.
Except, of course, we’re not. We’re all members of the same species. Our genetic differences are trivial, and they certainly can’t account for why people from the U.S. would be better off than people from Poland or Mexico or Morocco or anywhere else. After all, the ancestors of the majority of people born in the U.S. came from other places relatively recently, a great many only within the last few generations, so the idea that Americans are somehow intrinsically better is absurd.
I didn’t fully appreciate this obvious fact as a kid, but I think I always wondered why it was that the United States seemed to be more prosperous than some other places. Part of the reason, I figured, was geography.
My father was drafted into the Army during WWII before he even graduated from high school, and he served in Italy. This made surprisingly good sense since his parents emigrated from Italy around 1909, and he spoke Italian like a native. The point, though, is that between him and all the WWII movies on TV at the time, I knew about the war and understood that we didn’t suffer the devastation that most of Europe and Asia did from it. This can probably account for a lot of why the US might have some advantages over much of Europe. We didn’t have to rebuild nearly as much, but the same held true for places like Brazil and Mexico, and they weren’t the economic, cultural, or industrial powerhouses that the U.S. was. So what was it? What made America different?
The Meaning of America Blog Series:
- PART 1 — When America Fears
- PART 2 — What Made America Different?
- PART 3 — America Was Meant to be Different
- PART 4 — The American Idea