I WAS AN AMERICAN …
I know what a lot of people think about me. That I am a mindless flag waver who yells “U.S.A …U.S.A!” during Olympic sporting events, cries during the national anthem, and wears hats that say “These Colors Don’t Run.” Well, I DO wear sleeveless shirts, drive a Mustang convertible and roll my eyes at man-buns and men who wear open toe sandals.
But other than that …nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is I am a history nerd who is skeptical (bordering on cynical) about just about everything …including my own country. If you’re a born-and-raised American, at some point you need to de-construct your country’s founding and question everything you think you know about it. At the end of that road, you will be faced with two choices: you can decide on the Howard Zinn, colonialism-wrecked-a-peaceful-world, America-is-the-worst-thing-to-ever-happen-to-the-human-race version of things. OR you can put it all in certain historical context and decide that, aside from Jesus Christ, America is the most unique miracle to ever happen on planet earth …in the course of human events.
In my lifetime, I’ve gone back and forth between these two lines of thinking. But I have settled on the latter.
As a history nerd, of course I’m a fan of the show Turn: Washington Spies, on AMC. It follows the underground espionage that took place during the American revolution. And as I watch this show, I’m amazed all over again that this country ever got off the ground in the first place. The idea of it, in the face of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, was actually mad. And if you focus on the less-than-above-board tactics used to give that little experiment an edge or the willingness of the colonials to kill everyone in their way, you can come to the conclusion that they were no better than ISIS or Al Queda fighters. They were just wearing weirder clothes.
But in every human conflict where people are being killed, you have to ask ONE question – the most salient question: what happens if THEY win? That will always reveal who the good guys and bad guys really are. You have to judge the players based on what would happen in their perfect outcome.
And although the Americans STARTED the American revolution (they weren’t just defending themselves) the outcome determined who was correct in the conflict. One side was loyal to the crown – the monarchy – rule by the privilege of birth. I’m absolutely certain there were very decent and good men on the British side. And they were raised to respect the crown and their country. They were fighting for what they believed were the right things. Honestly, I have no quarrel with their reasoning.
But the other side was fighting for self-governance. A new idea on the planet, that there was no hiarchy of privilege when it came to governing men and women. That people should govern themselves, out of their own ranks, with direct access to their government whenever they had grievance. I definitely like that. And striving for THAT outcome would’ve put me squarely on the side of the colonials.
The men who wrote the founding documents of America were essentially British subjects. And they left vestiges of the classism into which they’d been born in those documents. The experiment and story of America has been an epic journey to rid those documents of every semblance of those discriminatory tiers. This is the essence of the American Civil War. This is the essence of the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. And more recently, this is the essence of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Trump revolution and, believe it or not, the #resist movement.
In all these waves of belief is that nagging question: what is America going to be?
Well, America for me is the belief in a few things. But it essentially boils down to one thing …the value of the individual.
The old story of the little girl and the semi truck comes to mind. A semi truck driver mis calculated the height of his rig and got it wedged under a low bridge. Traffic was stopped for hours, while expert after expert tried to figure out how to get the truck released from beneath the bridge. Finally, a 9-year-old girl stepped forward and suggested they let the air out of the tires. And it worked.
Believe it or not, THAT is the essence of the American ethos: Anyone from anywhere can have the next big idea, solve the next big problem, or have the answer to the next big question. And that is why EVERY individual is important. That belief is a uniquely American idea that has caught on around the world. And I’m glad it has.
Our continual push and pull in this country is almost always somehow connected to that premise. Is the state the answer? Or are the private citizens the answer? Do people act well in their own interests? Or do they default to greed, envy and, ultimately, lawlessness? If ONE person aggrieved by a state decision, should it stand?
These questions keep getting asked of every generation. And they keep getting answered in various ways.
Personally, I remain an optimist. I remain an individualist. I remain someone who believes existentially that humans have no idea what their full potential really is. And if they truly buy into the American ideal (no matter where in the world they live) they will surprise themselves in ways that blow their own minds.
And that is America for me. The idea of it. The promise of it. The spirit of it. The grit of it. The refusal-to-give-up of it. The we-can-fix-this of it. The belief that life-is-good-and-worth-every-ounce-of-breath of it.
So, I’m including a song I wrote a few years ago in this post. The video was assembled by my good friend, Ed Nash. I don’t normally let my blogging and music collide. But I think it’s important for this particular time in our history. We are so divided as a nation. We are more divided than I’ve personally ever seen. But I believe we ultimately share the same values, even if we don’t know it.
Some people aren’t proud to call themselves Americans right now. Maybe they’re embarrassed by people we’ve elected or they question the wars we’ve fought or they find disdain in the culture we’ve created. Some even think we founded the entire experiment on original sin and we’re doomed to pay for it in ashes and rubble.
But no matter what the world calls it, no matter how it is couched, the idea of reaching farther and flying higher and striving greater is a real thing. The notion of one person being able to change the course of history is a real thing. The concept of every person having a voice and a free spirit is a real thing. And even if America goes away …those ideals will still survive somewhere, in someone. Right now, they survive in me.
So, remember when I’m gone …that I was an American.