Does America have a set of shared values? Perhaps not, writes pop historian Baldwin, in a time when “the pulse of the nation often sounds as if it is emanating from two separate heartbeats.”
Hearts in red state and blue will probably be quickened by at least a couple of the ten tropes that Baldwin identifies as shared, galvanizing, unifying beliefs—but which of them? Emersonian self-reliance? The dissenters’ city on a hill? A neoconservative might decry as impossibly Bolshevik Thomas Paine’s repudiation of monarchy as the most dispensable of all the world’s political institutions. A liberal might recoil from John L. O’Sullivan’s notion of manifest destiny, even though its original formulation was benign and even progressive on its face. Historians might take umbrage at Carter Woodson’s charge that African-Americans, though central to the history of the nation, have been systematically ignored, even if the work “of such Progressive historians as Frederick Jackson Turner, V. L. Parrington, and Charles and Mary Beard.” And garden-variety isolationists will hop up and down over Baldwin’s inclusion of George C. Marshall and the plan that bears his name as expressive of any particular American ideal, particularly if it boils down to helping the French. All that said, Baldwin conjures up a neat trick: in identifying ten ideas that contain certain contradictory aspects and even pointed dilemmas, he emphasizes the very point that Americans have forged a delicate union even when they do not necessarily agree with each other on every matter of discussion—an idea that could stand sturdier legs in a time of division and exclusion. One of Baldwin’s exemplary Americans, the playwright Israel Zangwill, coiner of the image of America as melting pot, did a nice job, after all, of urging that the nation was “the promised land in which the best human ideals shall ultimately find solution.” And who could disagree? Well . . .
A readable exercise in civics, and surely more inclusive than, say, William Bennett’s or Lynne Cheney’s published views on what those best ideals might be.