Regardless of whom you ask, there isn't a single country in the world that exists in precisely the way that is perceived. Everyone sees the the world through the lens of his own subjectivity.
I mean this in a comprehensive sense. When I think of the places I've been, I can only recall certain areas, and not others; and despite knowing their geographical names, I could never claim to know every square inch of them, because I do not. As measured statistically, I've been inside virtually none of the buildings or residences of any of these places; even at the universities I've attended, I've been in only a fraction of the places there -- libraries, lecture halls -- that exist. And I may have been in Chicago, for example, but 99.99... per cent of it is completely unknown to me from first-hand experience; and that percentage is unlikely to change by much regardless of how much time I spend there. Thus, when I say, or anyone else says, "Yes, I've been there," what is referred to is only a recollection originating from a symbolic subjectivity; one is creating in one's mind, temporarily, quasi-visual or conceptual scenes recalled from memory.
Right now, I can visualize the Sears Tower with photographic precision in my mind; but even such a recreation is only as valid as the perfection of my memory.
This subjectivity of recollections and experiences as it pertains to places and things is widely disregarded in cultural references, and particularly in political references. These references are essentially stories that are told that condense symbolic references into further symbolic references, attributing to them meaning that the narrator desires to convey.
When Jimmy Carter spoke about a "national malaise", he was widely derided for it. How did he know that there was such a "malaise"? Had he asked everyone in America how they felt? Did he consult a poll on national sentiment? Did he fly all over America on Air Force One, surveying the country at 30,000 feet for telltale signs of malaise?
More likely, he had consulted with advisers, or read letters and telegrams and phone messages, or thought about events in the news, and then decided that America was suffering some kind of slowdown, some arbitrary sense of sadness, and so, probably, arose his Presidential diagnosis.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan's reference in speeches to Winthrop's "shining city on a hill" was aspirational and symbolic, but -- as often noted by his critics -- it lacked a real concrete reference. Hollywood, where he was from, if it shone at all, did so only in tinsel; and his hometown may have been homespun and imbued with virtue, but, still it was no city on a hill. His reference was meant to be symbolic, but it had the effect of referring the minds of his audiences to places that didn't exist -- at least, not yet.
The conception of America on the part of political parties is similarly limited. In no sense do limitations of time and space allow, in political discourse, a thorough and literal representation of "America". When John Edwards spoke of "two Americas", his experiences, too, were driven only personal apprehensions and symbolic references, and indeed his speeches, as do all speeches, necessarily presented symbolic references built upon symbolic references.
Thus, political and cultural discourse will always be controversial and it will only accidentally yield an accurate picture of the places it tries to communicate. The "small town America" of Republican yore coincides with only a portion of this country; likewise, a 1950's urban America shown in Hollywood films, populated by well-dressed people speaking in perfect Midwestern English accounts in no way for the Mississippi sharecroppers who existed in America at exactly the same time.
There are limits to the truth value of speech, therefore, when we say that portions of America are declining into Third World status, or that there are places here where the gaps between rich and poor make places in this country look like a Third World dictatorship, complete with walled enclaves surrounded by peasantry. Similarly, when we speak of a staunchly middle-class America -- the one of sitcom fame -- we know that Leave It to Beaver is merely a fantasy, and a microcosmic fictional segment of a place that never was, and never will be.
It is up to each of us to determine, from a good-faith evaluation from our own experiences, whether each of these kinds of representations are true, or accurate.
Perhaps, in a time when the formal churches condemn symbolic representations, even if visually provided, seen in The Da Vinci Code, and when political parties pretend that they have the answers, when they don't, now is a good time to understand the very real limitations of communication and the sadly constrained realm in which knowledge, aspirations, and the desire to improve our surroundings must exist.
[Edited 2006-05-13 13:43:14]
What's fair is fair.