What do Americans want? According to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, they have an "overwhelming hunger" for something called "nation-building". Americans, he thinks, recognize their own national malaise -- the infrastructural crisis, the financial debt, the absence of political leadership. To rebuild America, Friedman believes, requires the values of our parents' generation: "work hard, study, save, invest, live within your means". But this, he recognizes, is a complicated message that requires a special messenger. So, Friedman asks, who will tell the people the bad news?
Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.
The Friedman argument is intriguing. He is the messenger to the special messenger. He is suggesting that "Americanness" is defined by a common misreading of its people's own identity. The bad news is that Americans are living a lie. But the good news, he says, is that Americans are ready for the truth, ready to finally face themselves.
Oh dear: we are not who we think we are. So what, exactly, do Americans think that they are? What are the illusions that they hold in common? What deludes Americans?
It's such an illuminating question that I'd like to come up with my own equally illuminating answer. So, tomorrow, I'm flying to New York City to hook up with a film crew. And, on Wednesday afternoon, we'll go out onto the highly unrepresentative streets of Manhattan to discover the lie/truth about who those poor deluded Americans think they really are.
Hardly scientific, I admit. But a start, at least, to the great question of our age: What has become of America?