Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#1, April 24, 1998


by Marylaine Block

You could spend a lifetime trying to make sense of Americans. Because we don't make sense, really - if we were a store you'd have to call us Contradictions 'R' Us. Our only homegrown philosophies are transcendentalism, which is warm, fuzzy, idealistic, and hopelessly vague, and pragmatism, the philosophy of "Does it work, dammit?"

We love the idea of government by the people, and despise the actual government (especially around April 15), and we organize ourselves equally around our student body presidents and our class clowns.

We love the idea of E Pluribus Unum, making one out of many, and when we are united, you do NOT want to mess with us (World War II comes to mind). But just as often we turn one back into many, which is why in a town of 600 people you can find four or five churches, each convinced members of the others are pushing the down button on the eternal elevator.

The bald eagle, with its look of steely strength and purpose, is a good symbol for us when we're united. But when we're all charging off in different directions, a better symbol might be Doctor Dolittle's Pushmi-pullyu, the donkey-like creature with a head on both ends. Like that unfortunate creature, we head one direction full speed ahead, then make a jerky turn and go running off in the opposite direction, with the other half fighting every step of the way.

These warring impulses are the kinds of things that interest me. I got an M.A. in American studies just because I wanted to understand more about our history and literature, our heroes and our crackpots, our myths and memories, our politics and our jokes (which so often are one and the same).

Making sense of us is a lifelong project for me. A while back I was invited to be the American correspondent for a British online magazine, writing a column called My Word's Worth which explained Americans to the bemused Brits. The O.J. trial was going on then, and their basic question, though expressed ever so politely, was "Are you people stark, staring bonkers?" When that magazine changed format, I moved that column back home (<http://marylaine.com/myword/archive.html>) and began explaining Americans to Americans.

That's why I call this new column Observing US. I want to talk about who we are, how we got here, and what we could become.

Why me? Like a true American, I say, why not me? We are nothing if not people with the courage of our confusions.

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing