Surely no other civilization -- if that's the right word for this American experiment, hurly-burly and adventure -- has labored so hard to make labor obsolete, or at least the kind of labor that demeans: the dull, rote, repetitive, unthinking kind that corrodes the dignity of the individual.
Whether it was the Shakers in their neat little colonies full of music and workmanship ('Tis a gift to be simple, 'Tis a gift to be free . . .) or Jefferson at Monticello, Americans long have been fascinated with labor-saving devices. Inventing and perfecting remains our favorite form of labor. Natural-born tinkerers, we seldom think of such work as work at all, it's so much fun.
Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments that can be made in this country against even the most entrenched of institutions -- whether slavery or the welfare state -- is that such a system will result in the creation of a permanent, dependent underclass.
In American society, independence is a good word, dependence a bad one. We are all for community, but flee the collective. We are happy to help others stand on their own, but resent freeloaders. We associate work with freedom and self-respect, not servitude and shame. Which is another reason slavery, the curse and bane of American history, could not last. Neither will any collective effort that denigrates the individual, not in this country.
The idea and reality called class exists in America, too, but we resist acknowledging it, which may explain our remarkable social mobility. For myths shape reality much more than the other way 'round. Our myth is called the American Dream, and it holds out the hope of equal opportunity, not egalitarian results. Maybe that's why, though ours is not a classless society, it is also not a class-bound one. May it never become one.