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

#28. February 17, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Have you looked at a best seller list recently? Or for that matter any time within the last 50 years? I guarantee you the nonfiction bestseller list for that year includes books on how to change your body, your attitude, your love life, and even other people, alongside of books that tell you how to win friends and influence people, win through intimidation, and satisfy a woman every time. All you have to do is follow the simple easy instructions, and voila, 30 days to thinner thighs.

If after 30 days you still look more like Roseanne than Pamela Anderson, there are always new diet books -- hundreds of them are published every year. If those don't work, there's still hope: books on how to LOOK thinner, and make the most of what you haven't been able to get rid of.

And we will buy them, because despite age and experience, we keep on believing we're not stuck with being who we are; we can always reinvent ourselves.

That is, in the United States. People in other countries don't buy hundreds of self-help books. Only Americans sincerely believe that we can always reinvent ourselves, an idea at least as old as Poor Richard's Almanac. Jay Gatsby, who carefully created a mental image of the rich, casually sophisticated man he wished to be, and then made himself into that man, is a uniquely American character.

Other societies, with their entrenched social classes and strong attachment to place, lack both the social beliefs and the institutions for advancement that allow poor kids in America to believe they can grow up to be anyone they want to be. In other societies, who you are determines who you can become.

Americans have never accepted that. When our ancestors left their homelands, they also left behind arbitrary limits on their futures. In the old country, the children of subsistence farmers were destined to be subsistence farmers themselves, but in America, education or luck or talent or sheer chutzpah could turn them into doctors, businessmen, judges, comedians -- in fact, anything they wanted to become, including president. (Looking at that picture of young, awestruck Bill Clinton shaking President Kennedy's hand, could you doubt that was when he began his own remaking?)

When we move away from people who know us well, we also move away from their ideas of who we are. We can rewrite our past, and redefine ourselves. Runaway indentured servants who went west could call themselves printers or carpenters, and who could say otherwise? Women with illegitimate children could move to another town and declare themselves respectable widows. Outlaws could remake themselves as sheriffs and businessmen. Because so many of us remade ourselves in this fashion, it wasn't polite in America to look too deeply into people's backgrounds, to ask, as the old song went, "What was your name in the states?"

The reason Americans have never really believed in "soaking the rich" is that most of us hope and believe we too could be rich someday. Maybe by becoming a stockbroker, a CEO, the next Dave Barry, or the creator of the next "Yahoo." Or just maybe by Looking Out for #1. And if we make it big, we'd like to keep our money, thank you

Hope springs eternal, but self-help books sell at their briskest pace in January when we make those resolutions to become our more perfect selves. Even in the darkest, dreariest of winters, we never stop believing we're only one step away from our brand new self.

So if you want to write a bestseller, think about telling us "How to." Not How To Change Your Life and Everyone In It, or How To Argue and Win Every Time, or How To Date a Beautiful Woman, because we've already bought those. But even if they didn't work, we're ready to buy the next Life's Little Instruction Book on how to be implausibly happy, healthy, beautiful, successful and rich. (Like Lewis Carroll's White Knight, we are always willing to "believe six impossible things before breakfast.")

You see, for Americans, "Be all that you can be" has never been just a recruiting slogan. It's our philosophy of life.

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