Restless Nation: Starting Over in America

Reviewed by Richard Walthers

The power of myth to shape and determine culture has long been recognized, but the power of the American dream is far stronger than most realize. Even before it began calling people to these shores from all over the world in a consistent stream for the last several hundred years, the American dream was the old world’s myth before America was discovered. As Alfred Kazin wrote in A Writer’s America "the genuine substance of that myth was not just a new continent, abundant land, but the magic of its actuality, the consummation of a dream, a second chance for mankind."

James M. Jasper’s new book, Restless Nation - Starting Over in America, delves into how this second chance for mankind has played itself out in the United States since the first English settlers arrived. Jasper acknowledges that the American dream was born in Europe. This dream is so deeply imbedded in our culture that it is the cement that binds a diverse set of social and environmental issues concerning poverty, equality, justice, preservation and land use into a concretion of problems that has resisted solution.

I think the inculcation of this sacred myth into our national soul is at the root of so many of these problems. From its inception to the present, the United States has been a violent, young male oriented boomtown. Jasper demonstrates how our national penchant for restlessness has created many of our social and environmental conditions. He uses literature, art, history and economics in a very creative way to illuminate the true nature of the American character. There is an easy flow to the way in which he interweaves these disparate disciplines, with stories and histories that make this a worthwhile book for anyone who wants to understand the peculiar American pathology - movement - that is behind our careless treatment of women, the poor, and the natural world.

"America was created as an idea and ideal before it was explored and mapped, and the symbolism of America has continued to outstrip the reality ever since." None of the colonial corporations chartered by the crown were profitable. It has always been the expectation of wealth rather than wealth itself that makes Americans so optimistic. Private corporations were the immediate beneficiaries of the boomtown conditions in the colonies, which depended on a continuous influx of new arrivals to drive up prices and do the work of exploitation.

It is this expectation of wealth that has us focused on quarterly profits instead of longer range sustaining goals. And the object is not just to get rich, but to get rich quick. One suspects with the increasing speed of life that at some time in the near future the quarterly outlook will look like long range planning. This is part of the boom mentality that follows a line in American history from all the land speculation schemes, and the various gold rushes directly to the dot com economy that everyone is watching burst like a giant bubble gum bubble on the face of so many investors. It is time to look beyond the immediate monetary gain and consider what has come to be called the triple bottom line, the social and environmental ramifications of our business decisions as well as the economic ones.

I have always suspected that the American Revolution was more of a business decision than a true revolution and Jasper provides ample support for this view when he reveals that the first institution created in the colonies was the market. They were developed before the government was created and took deeper root. The author states that "Markets are the social institution most compatible with restlessness, the one most opposed to place loyalty." One of the first markets we created was for land. Colonists had more property rights than English nobles. Such rights were necessary for the largest possible profits to be made in the shortest possible time.

We developed new ways to survey land and covered the land in square mile section grids which triumphed over the natural terrain. This was the quickest way to divide so much land, and it created a sameness that prevented attachment to any one place. One square was the same as the next.

More than any other people, Americans move about once every five years according to Jasper. The United States was founded by people who uprooted themselves to get here and whose descendants have continued to move about the country throughout the nations history. We change our addresses, our jobs, our cars, our names, our spouses and whatever else we want in a constant search for reinvention.

Restlessness by nature is self-reinforcing. If we never stay in one place long enough to really know it, there can be no sense of connection and thereby respect for the place. "The natural environment was one of the first victims of restlessness, since few Americans grow loyal to the places they inhabit." "The English colonists lacked a sense of permanence, and hence any concern for ecological preservation of the kind the Indians had practiced, albeit mostly unintentionally." This demonstrates the typical Euro-centric view the colonists had toward all things Indian. The colonists viewed destruction as a sign of ownership. "The Indians gathered acorns; the colonists chopped down the oak trees." And when a piece of land is no longer productive or profitable, we abandon it and move on.

Jasper notes that while the geographic frontier closed one hundred years ago, and suggests that perhaps it is time to close it culturally. I agree and I think it is time to cast sustainability as the new American dream – the next incarnation of wealth and freedom. We should put the power of American reinvention to work on creating a prosperous, egalitarian, sustainable society. I wish the author would have spent more time discussing his ideas on how to rethink restlessness in order to create a better society. However, this is a book that you read in order to ponder the ideas and think about connections.

Jasper quickly lists ten suggestions that might help Americans begin to settle down and begin to ease some of the problems generated by our national restlessness. Gaining an appreciation for connections, and place, learning compassion for those less fortunate, and creating incentives for settling down and staying put are some of the ideas the author mentions. He admits that it will not be easy to accomplish and that these suggestions solely represent his own utopian vision of the American dream, which he humorously notes, is of course, best for everyone. Still his book goes a long way in helping us understand who we are. Even though we are a very diverse nation, we appear to have at our core more in common than most would acknowledge.