08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Do Americans Think - Or Just Act?

What I'm really saying is Americans are unconscious. You can see it in the verbs. This isn't a value judgment, I am just intrigued by what gets in and what get out, what impacts people and how they think.

Take those Europeans. Look at the passage below from Fareed Zakaria's CNN show. Two pundits, one French, one German, reflect on the impact of Obama's visit to their respective countries:

ZAKARIA: "So, Europe thinks it is no longer a participant, but really an observer of war."

French writer Bernard-Henri Levy, author of "Who Killed Daniel Pearl": "Observer of history. And Europe believes, more than that, that in the reality you have not -- you have nothing left which could be called history, with real enmities (ph), real vision of the world opposite, and so on and so on. We have a sort of eirenic vision of the world in Europe. We have the feeling that the things will get into order anyway, and that any form of too strong opposition is wrong. So, that is true. When Barack Obama, if elected, shows his muscles in front of Iran, for example, or in front of Pakistan -- as he said, as he already announced -- you will hear some voices in Europe to say, please, peace before all. And this is our illness in Europe."

Publisher of the German magazine, "Die Zeit," Josef Joffe: "Let me just add something to what Bernard said, and which I think is important. When you are the weaker party and you deal with somebody who is very, very strong and very big -- it's Mr. Big rather than Mr. Bush -- you either want control over that power, or you want that power to be like you. And so, if I read some of the most interesting fantasies in the respective (ph) world press around here, you get this image of Obama which he isn't. He's kind of social democratic, he's kind of peace minded, he's U.N. minded. And he will be -- and that's the most interesting thought -- he will preside over weakened and chastened America after Iraq. And therefore, we'll be able to like America better, and him better than Bush, because America will be more like us. But, of course, America will never be like Europe. It will always be different. It's the daughter of Europe, as de Gaulle once said. But that daughter left home in the 18th century and never came back."

There's heavy emphasis of the verb be (is/are) and the past tense, the future is often used conditionally:
could be
will get
will hear
to be
will be
will preside
we'll be able
to like
will be
will never be
will always be

There's even an absence of verb, like this phrase, "please, peace before all." - as if to the speaker is taking the "action" out of his speech.

This might be how you speak when you're trying to narrate the most subtle of ideas, when you're trying to explain something that's been lost, that's over. We Americans don't speak ... or think ... this way.

For the sake of contrast, here's a quote on the same topic (reax to Obama's trip overseas) by NYT columnist Bill Kristol:

. . . I drove around the Washington suburbs, I saw not one but two cars -- rather nice cars, as it happens -- festooned with the Obama campaign bumper sticker "got hope?" And I relapsed into moroseness. // Got hope? Are my own neighbors' lives so bleak that they place their hopes in Barack Obama? Are they impressed by the cleverness of a political slogan that plays off a rather cheesy (sorry!) campaign to get people to drink milk? // And what is it the bumper-sticker affixers are trying to say? Do they really believe their fellow citizens who happen to prefer McCain are hopeless? After all, just because you haven't swooned like Herr Sporl doesn't mean you don't hope for a better world. Don't McCain backers also have hope -- for an America that wins its wars, protects its unborn children and allows its citizens to keep more of their hard-earned income?

Notice here the prominence of action verbs and the present tense:
are impressed
to get
to drink
are trying
to say
do believe
to prefer
haven't swooned
don't hope
don't have
to keep

It's not a new idea, of course, but it's worth stating that Americans are placed in the present, looking forward and looking for action. Even Kristol's descriptions are active, "festooned", "unborn", "hard-earned". We are an action-oriented people.

I'm a doer more than a thinker. Case in point: When I was a little kid one morning I really, really, really had to go. Number two, my friends, number 2. So I knocked urgently on the bathroom door. My dad was in there. My dad was always working, we didn't have that kind of relationship, where I'd be like, dadd-dee, I have to go poopee. I just couldn't tell him that I had to really go. I said timidly:

"I have to go."

"One minute."

Couldn't wait. We only had one working bathroom, but we had this small empty room . . . you know where this is going . . . that my parents had been talking about making a second bathroom. So I went downstairs to the small, empty room... that my parents had planned to make another bathroom (they wouldn't end up doing this for another 10 years) and I pooped on the floor. Ahhhhh. In that moment, I can honestly say, I was quite happy. The stone in my belly gone, I went about my day, running outdoors into the fresh air. Naturally, my parents discovered this - my father calling me from inside the house:

"Na-kyan-zi! Na-CHAN-zeeeeeeee! Come-in-here.

Me -breathless.

"Did you do this?" - pointing to the poop mountain on the floor. I could smell his aftershave, what a contrast.



"Maybe it was David." (seemed like a good time to bring up my younger brother)

My father cleaned it up silently.

At the time, I didn't think about the best course of action (Why didn't I tell my father about my emergency? Why didn't I just go poop outside? We lived in the country; it wouldn't have been that weird a thing to do.)

Nor did I admit that it was my shit.

So how do people-of-action, like myself, or perhaps like you, get by? How do we take-in the information that, say, politicians give us? When we are moved or provoked, what do we do? If we are people-of-action - what kind of action do we take? Do we shoot up a church, as Jim Adkisson did this past Sunday? Do we march? Do we build a compound? Do we form a PAC? Do we make a video? Do we cook? Do we start a business?

And where is the space where actors think? Do we think? Do we meditate or just act? Do we learn by acting? Is acting our thinking? How do we test our ideas? And when and how do we admit we've been wrong? Do we only learn when we are acted upon?

This is an interesting question as we look at other people who are also acting. Those nutty terrorists, come to mind. These are people of action. How much reflection goes into their action? How much reflection goes into ours?

I don't know the answers to these questions. Of course, I can see that there can be a danger in acting first, thinking later - as in, an unconscious people hurls over a cliff.

I hope anyone running for office is thinking about this.