Chalif: Upholding American Values

by Eric Chalif | 11/5/12 11:00pm

At a Dartmouth Film Society meeting last week, we were asked to name classic American films. My first thoughts were of those famous, old masterpieces "Citizen Kane" and "Gone With the Wind." Then I thought of movies featuring a pure, historic American setting like the gritty, flat brush of Texan oil prairies in "There Will be Blood." People brought up such iconic, innovative movies as "The Graduate" and "Annie Hall." The difficulty that we had in generalizing a definition of classic American cinema stems from the complexity of the word "American" itself.

The word "American" conjures an eclectic mix of stereotypes. Baseball, football, Levi's jeans, SUVs, the diner and barbecue are all as American as apple pie. Some things that were not American are American now (our country, after all, has grown out of a melting pot of immigrants), and some things that were once American are not anymore. Slavery was written into the U.S. Constitution but is now regarded as against the core principles of what it means to be American.

These principles usually evoke such concepts as liberty, freedom, justice, equality and democracy. Altogether, they work to propel the American Dream of the self-made person the belief that anyone, regardless of his or her race, religion or background, can climb to the top of society and be successful. America values the dignity of individual labor. From Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison, from the Wright Brothers to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, we admire American entrepreneurial ingenuity. We also take pride in our communal achievements, such as overcoming Nazi Germany and landing men on the moon. Most importantly, America was founded on the hope of leaving legislative and judicial decisions to the people, rather than to a monarchy or select nobility.

Today, on Election Day, we should all ask ourselves: What does it mean to be American in the 21st century? We pride ourselves on being a patriotic people, yet only about 55 percent of our population (and only about 44 percent of 18-24-year-olds) even bother to vote. Is our patriotism continuing despite a lack of deep pride in America itself? And is our faith in democracy challenged by a distrust of our politicians and government?

Candidates should exemplify our understanding of the evolving American character, passionately arguing their convictions without simultaneously undermining them by labeling any opposition as "un-American." However, since 9/11, it often feels as if dissent is treated as horribly as it was in the 1950s, when a House Committee on Un-American Activities was established to officially sanction how one should be allowed to think and behave. Today, as in the 1950s, "socialist" ideas about reversing the rapidly widening gap between the haves and the have-nots are immediately labeled "un-American." Obamacare, for example, is ridiculed under this socialist taboo. Obama himself has been accused of being intrinsically un-American in the most essential way people deny that he was even born in the United States. Unfortunately, America is suffering from a loss of cultural, religious and ideological tolerance.

The strength of American values arises from its very ambiguities and internal contradictions. We espouse the value of free speech as codified in the First Amendment except when such speech is deemed harmful to the country. America believes that its citizens should be able to succeed as a result of their own hard work, but also tries to care for those who cannot. America was founded on the belief that leaders are chosen by the people, yet the Electoral College system was devised to put a check on popular opinion. America prides itself on being a melting pot of immigrants, yet today we aggressively patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent immigration.

Such contradictions underscore the true merit of American values the ability to reconcile differences to create something greater than any one strategy. Recently, however, the political landscape of the United States has become so viciously partisan as to disturb any chance of achieving a balanced harmony between clashing concepts. It took a major catastrophe Hurricane Sandy to refreshingly see a Republican governor work together with a Democratic president.

There have been times in our history the Civil War, Watergate, the Supreme Court Gore-Bush decision when we have nearly failed to reconcile disparate American values. Yet each time the country resiliently rebounded. As I head to the polls for the first time today, I am hopeful that the fundamentally bipartisan nature of American values will continue to be a source of inspiration the world round.