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

#2, May 6, 1998


by Marylaine Block

Retired CIA agents have one.

Pipefitters have one.

So do chemistry teachers, bald-headed men, left-handed golfers, and people named Jim Smith. In fact, the odds are that all of us have at least one.

I am referring, of course, to national organizations.

Whatever else Americans may be, most of us are members of something. It is an oddity about America, considering how many of the stories we tell and the movies we love - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, High Noon, Silkwood - are about lone men and women fighting for the right though the world is aligned against them. The Marlboro Man, alone against the vast sky, was an advertising icon because the image was already part of our mythology about who we are.

And yet we don't actually do things that way very often. When we want to accomplish something, be it save ourselves or save the whales, we're far more likely to join an organization. There, we listen to each other and give each other courage, to man or cross picket lines, to blow the whistle, to NOT pick up that bottle. We brainstorm for ways to promote our cause, and we divvy up the work. We trade ideas about how to do our jobs better, pooling information, publishing journals and newsletters, sponsoring conferences and workshops. We lobby for more laws or fewer of them to advance our cause.

Americans have always been this way. Over 150 years ago, deTocqueville commented enviously on the American gift for "spontaneous association," a talent virtually nonexistent in France. As we moved west, we joined together to build houses and raise barns. We worshipped in churches of every known denomination, and if we didn't like those, we started our own congregations. We formed anti-slavery organizations and societies to prevent cruelty to animals. Immigrants formed aid associations to help their later-arriving compatriots.

And oh, have we organized for causes. We may stay home on election day, but NOT because we are apathetic. We work passionately for the Wilderness Society or the Performing Arts Animal Welfare Society. We join political groups of all stripes. There's even an Affinity Group of Evolutionary Anarchists. How about that? Government, NO! Robert's Rules of Order, well, OK.

It is also true that throughout our history we have joined together in groups like the Know-Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, and militia groups. I suppose if you think the world is controlled by scary Others, you need the comfort of people like yourself. God knows, those UN troops and helicopters are enough to scare anybody (except maybe Serbian war criminals).

But while much of our organizing is about changing the world, a fair amount is purely social. Why else the Antique Doorknob Collectors of America, or the International Connoisseurs of Red and Green Chiles? Sure, these associations have practical purposes too - we can show each other our treasures, and trade or sell them. I suspect the real charm, though, is getting together with people who share the enthusiasms our friends and family regard as slightly daft.

The internet, of course, has made this kind of organizing even easier. In thousands of listserves, we meet and bicker amicably about Mark Twain or Martha Stewart or Barbie dolls.

As for getting together for sheer inspired silliness, I don't think you can beat Americans. Where else would you find the Dicks of America, proudly joining together to award the coveted title, "Dick of the Year"? It takes Americans to create the Church of Monday Night Football, and the International Association of People Who Dine over the Kitchen Sink.

Whatever Americans decide to do, in fact, from sublime to ridiculous, you can bet we'll be doing it together - even if it's celebrating our gloriously lonely heroes. Welcome to America, the natural home of the John Wayne Fan Club.

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