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Arguing with George William Curtis

June 27th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Jake Meador

I'd never heard of George William Curtis before this past Saturday. A quote of his popped up on my friend's facebook wall, in what I assume to be a strange way of pepping himself up for the US/Ghana World Cup match. Apparently, Curtis - a contemporary of Emerson's who shared his transcendentalist beliefs and New England roots - once wrote, "A man's country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle." It strikes me that this quote goes a long way in explaining how America sees itself - and by extension how we see physical things like bodies and land.

Central to American identity are the abstract values - to reference Foucault again - of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Unlike most other nations, which are defined by the "land, mountains, rivers and woods" that Curtis dismisses so glibly, Americans have always tended to identify ourselves with "principles," as Curtis terms them. Historically, of course, it makes sense. We couldn't really identify with the land in the way Europeans did because then we might have to face the ugly reality that we stole all of it, which doesn't do much for our self-image as benevolent, freedom-loving individuals. Besides, it's hard to cobble together an identity based on physical features when your population consists of immigrants from all over the world. We couldn't identify as explicitly with our land because of our unique historical context. So in the end, Americans had no choice but to rely on abstract values as their chief identifiers - it's all that was left to us.

But is it possible that in this use of the abstract as primary identifier we have the seeds for both the raping of the land and the devaluing of our bodies? Within this view of the world, who you really are is something abstract. The importance of the physical is merely incidental, like the box that a gift comes in. The box may be necessary, but it's importance is derived completely from what lies within. Further, is it possible that abstraction as identity leads to a completely arbitrary, impermanent, and malleable sense of the self? Consider the radical shifts in American culture in the past 100 years - isn't that just a natural consequence of defining yourself with something intangible? Just look at the word "freedom" and how it's used by different groups. It's no surprise that America is polarized and politically dissonant, what else can you expect when everyone is free to define the source of our identity?

To put it most starkly, perhaps our current land crisis (and all it entails - the destruction of food culture, of ecosystems, the bland generalized cultures that result from a lack of commitment to a particular land) and our body crisis (and all it entails - a devaluing of sexuality seen in various forms of the sex trade, the marginalization of the family as creator and incubator of culture, the depression and eating disorders resulting from body image concerns) are simply the natural consequence of America's abstraction-as-identity philosophy?

I'll turn it over to the Mere O readers here, what do y'all think? How has America's tendency to view itself based more on principle than on land shaped the way we view our land? And what about our bodies? Is our view of the body shaped by this same tendency?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).