Despite our pledge of allegiance as one nation indivisible, America is continually painted as a nation divided. In politics there are conservatives and liberals. In the "culture wars" there are post-modernists and traditionalists. In financial controversies we hear about the haves and the have-nots.
In the last election there were the red states (George W. Bush) and the blue states (Al Gore). Some see the division as between Middle America and the two coasts. Other dichotomies are cited as rural and urban, small town and big city, religious and secular.
But what so irritates our enemies is that we remain "one nation under God," whether we are believers, agnostics or atheists, high brow, middle brow or low brow, rich, middle class or poor, Republican or Democrat. It's not a perfect blend, nor any longer the melting pot, but more a stew, whether made with meat or strictly vegetarian, whether stove-top or microwave-ready.
If you tuned into the congressional debate over the estate tax (or "death tax" ) last week, you'd think the split was made up of a tiny percentage of super rich at the top and everybody else at the bottom, those who buy designer originals at Bloomingdale's or knockoffs at Target, those who wear worn jeans as a fashion statement and those wear them because they work in them.
While it may help to draw stark contrasts when pushing political policy differences, what's emerged since Sept. 11 is more of a general consensus, with subdued hostility between different groups. It's harder for the heartlanders to hate New Yorkers or for the bicoastals to hate them back.
David Brooks, who writes about this changing sentiment in the Atlantic Monthly, says, "The old hostility came to seem merely a sort of sibling rivalry, which means nothing when the family itself is under threat." The crisis made us look again at what we held in common. No matter how or why our ancestors got here - and lots of historical recollections of the trip are awful - we're glad they made it for our sake. That's why few Americans want to return to their mother country except for a visit.
Money, the love of which is the root of all evil, has its virtues, because it's linked to work, upward mobility and expanding possibility. Abe Lincoln put it this way: "The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him."
Philanthropy magazine expands Lincoln's description. The step after accumulating wealth leads to giving it away. Philanthropy tells a story of a woman who grew up in Boston's housing projects, who wanted to work her way up and out. She was determined to become a millionaire and she succeeded at the age of 44. After selling hundreds of brushes from door to door, the woman and her husband established a foundation to help those who suffer with life-threatening diseases. From rags to riches to philanthropy updates the Horatio Alger dream.
Researchers and writers at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington identify an increase in the quality of life for Americans as we become more of a post-nomadic culture. They cite the growth of "meatloaf" communities - comforting small-towns that boast local recreational and cultural assets - in New England, eastern Ohio, northern California, Oregon and small cities in the South. In these communities, high-speed telecommunications make it possible to work and live a more cosmopolitan life without sacrificing security and community. Families find an expanded base for employment and enjoyment.
America's transition from an agrarian to an industrial to an information economy has not been smooth, but better working conditions are the result. The best jobs are increasing, the worst are decreasing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. William Frey, a demographer, documents a less restless America: In the 1970s, more than 20 percent of Americans moved each year. That's down to 15 percent. Most boomers, he suggests, are likely to "age in place." Hometown may not be the place to leave.
A new Harris poll of 2,000 Americans finds that 84 percent feel a surge of pride when they hear the first notes of "The Star Spangled Banner." The leading American symbols include not only the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the English language but even McDonald's. Hamburgers, apple pie and hot dogs rank as "typically American food." The three most important components of the American dream are living in freedom, financial security and democracy. It ain't perfect, but it ain't bad.