American History And Culture
Culture contributes much to the establishment of a country's way of life. Unique customs and ideas shape the thought patterns and value systems of a society. In the United States, political and social discourse has largely been formed by the notion of what it means to be a middle class American. Politicians regularly play to the idea that the vast majority of this nation's citizens include themselves among the middle class. The American middle class is far-reaching and amorphous. Middle class individuals range from those earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to those barely making ends meet. Middle class values and aspirations are the key note of American character. Any politician that ignores the middle class does so at her or his peril. Political issues gain traction because of their perceived middle class appeal. The Democratic Party has pursued health care reform and national health coverage because it is seen as a quintessentially middle class issue.
The high costs of healthcare, and its perceived control by corporate and special interests, represents an anti-middle class element in American life. Politicians continually claim to be redressing grievances and restoring a balance in favor of the vast majority of Americans i.e. In favor of the middle class.
The politics of middle class life finds expression in many other aspects of American society. Much of modern mass entertainment is based on the idea of popularity and general appeal. Hollywood markets its films and television programs based on the number of persons such offerings will reach and how much money they will generate. Box office receipts are widely used as a marketing tool. The message is that if a movie earns more than any other it must be better than any other. Universality is another middle class concept that plays a central role in entertainment. Television, in particular, has emphasized a peculiar mixture of the lurid and the ordinary, with programs that combine sex, news, athletics, and the lives of ordinary people - the more "ordinary" the better.
Entertainment that appeals to the largest number of people must, by definition, be middle class. In such fashion, entertainment helps to further define the attributes of being middle class. All people in a specific demographic must like to listen to certain kinds of music. They must also like to buy and use certain kinds of products. Music and film help to create a common mass culture that is a hallmark of American life. Deviations form these constructs are decried as elitist and even outright "un-American." An entire nation watches as amateur contestants compete for places on American Idol. An entire society aspires to the kind of celebrity entertainer status that marks the pinnacle of "middle class" success. At this level of monetary reward, millions of dollars in income fail to remove their earner from the ranks of the middle class. It is the tastes and the actions that are middle class, not the economic underpinnings.
Sports are possibly the ultimate leveler in American society. In the contemporary United States, athletic events are largely spectator events. Tens of millions watch on television as favored teams play for championships. Particular sports attain popularity and become identified with cultural imperatives. NASCAR, for example, has come to be seen as the ultimate embodiment of middle class patriotism. Moreover, it is associated with a particular "earthy" form of middle class society and culture. The more physically brutal football has long since superseded baseball as the national pastime. A current vice-presidential candidate is lauded as a "hockey mom" - another sport noted for its often violent confrontations. The "hockey mom" replaced the earlier "soccer mom" - a term that has come to signify the mother concerned above all with her children. Soccer moms and dads exemplify a trend within modern society in which parents with otherwise little time to spend with their children focus on athletic and other events as a way of building the relationship.
Again, the focus is on raw physical activity as a motive force in American life. Americans today must be busy - busy at all times - but not necessarily in intellectual or cultural activities. Action itself is culture.
Multiple reasons led to European settlers choosing to come to America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century. Some of England's colonies were essentially religious in origin while others were commercial. The religious persecution that inspired the settlement of much of New England, and also Maryland, was highly variable. Persecution, in the case of the Puritans, took more the form of separatist tendencies than any attempt to establish a free society or safe haven for co-religionists. The Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies were notoriously intolerant and hard line. The Puritan divines imposed a strict order on their members and demanded that religious sanctions imply in all matters. Religion defined the Puritan community in much the same way that deviance from Puritan belief denoted the heretic. So important was unity of belief, that even those who differed significantly from accepted doctrine attempted to show themselves a part of the "united front" that was the new order being established in America.
While some Europeans came in the hope of establishing new societies, others came merely to better their lives within the existing structures. Yet, it was the circumstances of the colonial economy that helped set the stage for what were also new types of society. Much of the South depended on the cultivation of cash crops, like tobacco and rice, while the Northern colonies supplied raw materials and foodstuffs. In many areas, slaves were imported in large number to make up for insufficiencies in labor. Profit became as much a "religion" in these colonies, as the doctrines of fundamentalist Protestantism in New England.
Indeed, economic rights played a central role in the American Revolution. The colonists had longed chafed under England's mercantile restriction. According to then current theories, the colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country. Colonists were forbidden to trade with other nations, and barred from producing most finished goods - provisions that compelled them to import British manufactures. The reaction to the Stamp Act, and episodes such as the Boston Tea Party, revealed the colonists desire to free themselves of these restrictions. Economic ambition became encapsulated in movements to restore or recapture local control over affairs. The cry of "taxation without representation" became a rallying cry for the independence movement. During the Revolution itself, newspapers attacked British motives as being entirely dependent on maintaining and enforcing British economic hegemony.
Having reached a certain level of development and maturity, the new Americans believed it was time to govern themselves.
The form the new government took, that of a democratic and republican government, reflected the realties of political and social conditions. Embodying the ideals behind the realities, the Constitution enshrined the principles of private property and self-determination within the context of an essentially paternalistic and capitalistic society. The framers sought to create a government that would, on the one hand, preserve the autonomous action of the states while guaranteeing the continued control of the educated and propertied classes. Too much power in the hands of the Federal government was believed dangerous to free enterprise and private property. From the beginning Americans were being thought of as self-interested groups that adhered to a collection of common goals and principles. The United States Constitution was a complex arrangement of checks and balances. No one branch of government would gain the upper hand. The Framers recoiled from the idea of divine right absolute monarchy as practiced in Europe. Such a situation was too open to abuse. At the same time they banned the awarding of titles of nobility and the creation of an actual, legal aristocratic class. Like John Locke, the Founders held firmly to the notion that property preceded the existence of government. As such, property was sacred and not subject to direct control by the state. The Bill of Rights spelled out these principles in specific terms. The body of the Constitution had not sufficiently underscored these ideas. The Bill of Rights identified the realities that would make possible a democratic and republican society. Freedom of speech, the press, and religion meant that Americans opinions could not be manipulated by government. The most deeply held convictions, religious and otherwise, would be protected form government "establishment" and legislation. Even the Second Amendment appears as an attempt to safeguard the rights of ordinary citizens - by force if necessary.
Right of conscience was an essential part of the new American system. Religious belief lay at the heart of these protections. The First Amendment prohibited Congress from establishing any religion in the United States. It also prevented Congress from making any legislation in regard to religion or religious belief. Adherents of all faiths were to be permitted to practice their beliefs without interference. To most the First Amendment decreed a perpetual and complete separation between church and state. In a free society, the federal government was to possess…