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

#18, October 28, 1998


by Marylaine Block

Yeats was not thinking of the United States when he said “That is no country for old men,” but he WAS describing us. I don’t know any other country whose history and beliefs have been so shaped by the virtues and flaws of young men. The qualities we admire are those of young men —- risk-taking, individualism, cockiness, disrespect for tradition and authority.

Like the man of la Mancha, we are brought up to dream the impossible dream. Our motto has been that of the Construction Battalion, “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.”

This is not surprising, since this country was settled by so many young men who left their homelands forever to seek their fortunes where their future seemed limited only by their own abilities.

It took young men (Jefferson, age 33, Madison in his 20s) to cast off the dead weight of the past and say to England, since you govern us badly, we will govern ourselves.

It took the energies of young men to turn forests into fields, to fight the natives who claimed the land, to explore and map the territory —- Meriwether Lewis was 29 when he set off for Oregon.

It was reckless young men who drove our expansion by pushing into lands owned by the French and Spanish and Indians, then fighting wars to keep the land they’d claimed. The restlessness of young men powered our westward expansion, and our move from farms to cities.

It was young men’s preference for what COULD BE over what IS that turned deserts into air-conditioned cities, and rivers into complexes of lakes and dams and irrigation systems.

It was the “why not?” of young men’s imaginations that pushed our technology (Edison got his first patent at age 17), and young men’s courage that tested out our planes and rockets (though John Glenn apparently never lost that daring). The shoot-em-up imaginations of young men have stocked American movies and TV screens with action adventures and fantasies of other worlds, while other bright young men are now rewriting the rules of journalism on web pages like these.

But our faults are also the faults of young men —- an unwillingness to ask directions, or clean up after themselves. Because they are impatient, and want solutions NOW, they will do a quick fix, but won’t stick around long enough to ask whether it worked.

Our rugged individualists, so good at seeing immediate advantage for themselves, are not so good at recognizing the consequences of their actions for everybody else. Seeing our soil and water and forests not as a common heritage but as sources of profit, they use it up, muck it up, and walk away.

Clever young men have also been quick to see loopholes in our laws, opportunities to make money preying on the weak. Our folklore is rich with half-admiring stories about sweet-talking young scoundrels—Yankee peddlers, snake oil salesmen, riverboat gamblers.

Young men who have made it big with the work of their hands and imaginations have scant sympathy for those who remain resolutely poor, believing it must be their own fault. So the lame, the halt and the blind, as well as the children, are pushed aside.

That’s why our history has also been characterized by a rearguard action of the old, creating laws to restrain the wildness of young men, and spending our tax money to tend the victims they leave behind, like the folks who lost their life savings to the savings and loan con-men

If America is the most vital, creative country in the world, it is because of the driving energies of young men, and the freedom we give them to dream big dreams.

But though daring young men seized our country, it is worth remembering that it was women and older men who built the schools and churches and communities, created safety and order, and passed civilization on to our children and to the future.

If we are to survive, we need to temper the ambition and individualism of our young men with the connectedness of women, the long-term view of the elderly, and the right of our children to a future.

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