Who the **** do you think?

May 28, 1999

As the 'American century' closes, the nation is engaged in a new bout of self-questioning, writes Harvey Kaye

Do Americans ask questions of themselves and their fellow citizens more than do other peoples? I regularly reject discussions of national character (except at dinner parties). But consider the following and let me know what you think (kayeh@uwgb.edu).

Whether it is a consequence of the culture wars, the end of the cold war, postmodern scepticism, the impending millennium, or the cultural contribution of the generations of Talmudic-trained Jews who made America home, the US seems awash in questions.

Walk into any bookstore, you discover innumerable titles like 1001 Questions on ... or The Kids Book of Questions on ...

Drive along any boulevard, you see billboards like those of the Dairy Association on which celebrities ask "Got Milk?". Or turn on the telly, you find shows like Jerry Springer with their guests shouting, "Who the **** do you think you are?" Generation X has given way to the (more quizzical?) Generation "Y".

Intellectuals, too, have taken to introducing their concerns in queries (remember Francis Fukuyama's The End of History?). Most focus on the state of the nation. On the right, American Enterprise kicks off 1999 with "Is America Turning a Corner?: Startling New Trends in Crime, Illegitimacy..."; Insight magazine, seeking political consolation after the 1998 elections and Clinton's acquittal, asks "After three decades, has the conservative movement triumphed?"; Commentary anxiously poses questions about "Clinton, the Country, and the Public Culture"; and renegade radical David Horowitz, apparently eager to revive McCarthyism, publishes silly lists of "Who is Left?" in Frontpage magazine. Meanwhile, on the left, the editors of Social Policy entreat "What's Left?".

On a grander scale, pundits, professors and theologians nervously ponder America's prospects. Conservative First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life runs the controversial "The End of Democracy?" series on morality and the state. And Jim Wallis, Christian-left publisher of Sojourners, advances an alternative vision of religion and civic society in Who Speaks for God?

In more secular terms, journalists Donald Barlett and James Steele survey America's growing inequality in America, What Went Wrong? and America: Who Stole the Dream?; sociologist William Domhoff provides a new edition of Who Rules America?; and journalist William Greider offers a power-structure expose in Who Will Tell the People?

Looking abroad, World Press Review devotes an issue to foreign attacks on Uncle Sam: "Arrogant? Violent? Bigoted?: Bashing America", and the muckraking Mother Jones focuses on "What Happens When America Conquers the Globe?: AMERICA (the brand)".

On an even grander historical (meta-historical?) scale, scholars earnestly enquire into America's "meaning". American exceptionalism tops the charts.

Instigating fresh exchanges, Byron Shafer edited Is America Different? Yet another Englishman, Graham Wilson, a professor at Wisconsin, has recently got into the spirit with Only in America? Introducing The Next American Nation, conservative-turned-liberal Michael Lind recalls a post-civil war Senate speech to enquire "Are We a Nation?" Writing in the neo-conservative policy journal Public Interest, Wilfred McClay harkens back to our founders and asks "Is America an Experiment?" And pragmatist-philosopher Richard Rorty organised a conference at the University of Virginia to debate "Does America Have a Democratic Mission?" Reflecting on multiculturalism, in The Good Citizen ethicists David Batstone and Eduardo Mendieta solicit opinions on "What does it mean to be an American?"; and in Is America Breaking Apart? social scientists John Hall and Charles Lindholm render a critical yet reassuring Weberian reply.

Given the historical echoes, I wonder if questioning was not built into the very foundations of our "imagined community". In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Jean de Crevecoeur laid the groundwork with: "What, then, is the American, this new man?" And in The Federalist Papers (1787), Alexander Hamilton chauvinistically endowed us with a powerful and enduring Enlightenment challenge: "It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

I started to imagine an interrogative history of the US, including: abolitionist Sojourner Truth's legendary "Ain't I a Woman?" (1851); labourite Samuel Gompers' "What Does the Working Man Want?" (1890); populist William Jennings Bryan's 1908 campaign motto "Shall the People Rule?"; the House Un-American Activities Committee's "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"; and John Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country".

Amused colleagues, students and family members eagerly added to my collection of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): MAD poster-boy Alfred E. Neumann's "What, me worry?"; comedy-team Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's baseball routine, "Who's on first?..."; Bugs Bunny's "What's up doc?"; and Dallas's "Who shot J. R.?" I would go on, but I have to compose some questions for my students.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change & development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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