American Century

January 02, 2000|By Stanley Crouch

There is much talk these days of which person should be considered the No. 1 force of the 20th century.

For my money, the American is the person of the century -- male or female, whatever color, whatever religion, whatever class. The American.

One might think differently if one happened to have the misfortune of being the kind of European who discovered that no amount of education or refinement protects a society from the use of technology to kill on a scale beyond nightmares.

First, World War I put something on those kinds of Europeans. Then Hitler was the gully-whomper. They lost faith in civilization rather than understanding that it is, finally, a very frail thing, no matter how natural it might seem in the best of times.

Americans have made the theory of democracy very real. We now know there is nothing that can determine where on the social scale greatness will come from.

We have had great Americans emerge from everywhere. In the process, many stereotypes have been knocked to their knees. We have had great Americans who were slave holders, like Jefferson and Washington. We have had women who have rebuked inequality among the sexes, like Abigail Adams and Susan B. Anthony.

Abraham Lincoln, a country boy of genius, towers over his era as does Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave.

In the world of earthshaking inventors we have had Thomas Alva Edison and the Wright Brothers. In the arts, there have been so many. D.W. Griffith developed the basic vocabulary of film. Louis Armstrong heralded the arrival of jazz and inspired the numbers of artists necessary to solidify a new art form. The children of Eastern European and Russian immigrants wrote some of the very finest popular songs for Broadway and film.

There have been the labor movements, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the ecology movement, every one of them pushing civilized treatment of our citizenry and our environment further up.

We are, of course, far from perfect and will probably never reach anything close to perfection.

But this nation is a work in progress, and that work has touched the entire world. It has touched the planet with the ideals of democracy and provided it with some of the best examples humanity has ever had to offer.

Stanley Crouch is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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