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America the Beautiful

America the Beautiful

I often reflect on what it means to be an American in the 21st century. It is true that our image has changed somewhat over what it was 50 years ago when my parents emigrated here. As a child of immigrants, I have great cause to love this country and I do.

I love what it represents; a democracy that provides more freedom to its citizens than any since the days of Athens in ancient Greece. We like to think of ourselves as the Land of Opportunity, and certainly for a very long time there was much more of it here than anywhere else in the world.

I don’t believe that is the case any longer, but not in a bad way. I believe that the world has caught up in many ways to some of the precepts that made America a world power in a very short span. In most nations these days, people have a greater amount of freedom to pursue whatever dream it is they may have than they did once before. Societies all over the globe have recognized some of the advantages of allowing their citizens the opportunities to be the best that they can be; it is where innovation and achievement come from.

I like to think our success as a nation had something to do with that, but then again I also recognize that we Americans tend to have an exaggerated sense of our own importance. While we certainly should be proud of our accomplishments, we sometimes lack humility. This is a great place to live, it’s true – but then again, there are many great places to live in this world.

Our land is one of great diversity of landscape. Since marrying Doreen, we have had occasion to take several long road trips and as a result I’ve gotten to see much more of this country than I ever had and have learned to appreciate the many faces of it, from the prairies of the Midwest to the rugged Northern California coastline, the stark deserts of the Southwest and the lush greenery of the Northwest, the bayous of Louisiana and the Everglades of Florida. New England’s charming towns, and the magnificent skylines of Manhattan and Chicago. The Black Hills of South Dakota and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The balmy beaches of the Gulf Coast and the endless blue wonder of the Pacific. The towering majesty of the Rocky Mountains and the fertile farmland of the Great Plains.

I’ve gotten to see all of it, and more. However, a nation isn’t just a laundry list of its geographic features. Every nation is defined by its people, and with the advent of the Internet I’ve been fortunate enough to gain friends and acquaintances all over the globe, but specifically throughout the United States. I have come to realize that we have some things in common as a nation – not that these qualities aren’t present elsewhere, but this is what I’ve observed about Americans in general.

We are a passionate people. We hold our beliefs dearly and will express them forcefully if need be. We don’t necessarily agree on all of them – sometimes it seems we don’t agree on anything – but whatever our opinions are, we invest ourselves in them with a great deal of emotion. That can lead to some pretty interesting conversations, because we rarely back down on our beliefs and even more rarely do we change our minds about them.

We can be loud, abrasive and opinionated. We can also be egotistical and arrogant about our culture and a little xenophobic about what lies outside our borders. We are critical of other nations, but much more critical about our own. We LOVE to laugh here – it’s a national pastime, but we also value hard work although I have to say, we seem to value it less these days.

We are often criticized – somewhat justly I might add – that we have a tendency to ram our culture down the throats of the rest of the world, and I agree that not all of that culture is attractive. While Europeans linger over their meals, we prefer fast food – eat and be done with it. We also tend to define ourselves by how we make our living, much more so than people in the rest of the world do.

Yet there is much about our country and its people that are good. While we can be – for lack of a better term – assholes, we can also be compassionate and remarkably giving when the chips are down. Americans in general can be a very warm and loving people, sometimes in surprising ways. Yes, we chase the almighty dollar with a grim obsessive singularity of purpose that rivals Ahab gunning for Moby Dick; we also value achievement and innovation here so much so that we almost expect it of ourselves.

In many ways, that’s why we have had such a problem with our own recent economic downturn. We sometimes act as if we’re invulnerable, that everything we touch is bound to turn to gold. When that doesn’t turn out to be the case, it shakes us up. However, one thing that is admirable about us – we’re generally optimistic about the future. Sure, we can grouse and complain about the way things are but deep down most of us believe without any doubt that things are going to get better sooner or later.

We have our share of problems, too. I’ve noticed that we have grown more intolerant over the years, particularly of those who are outside the norm. .We’ve always had difficulties with prejudice here and we continue to treat those of African, Latin and Asian descent with suspicion and hostility. In that sense, we pay lip service to the phrase “All men are created equal” but when the rubber hits the road, we don’t always believe it about everybody.

We’re the same way about lifestyle choices as well. The gay community has had to fight not only for acceptance but for the rights to exist as couples. I was encouraged recently that the loathsome Proposition 8 was recently overturned by a California judge, although that fight is far from over.

At the heart of what America is to my mind is the picture of what America could be. We are a nation of achievers and doers, but we are also a nation of accepters. I see us learning to be more tolerant down the road, learning to accept that diversity is one of our great strengths and that while we don’t have to love everyone, we must fight to see that their rights are just the same as our own.

Our Constitution is an amazing document. Few nations have anything like it. That document is the root of our greatness as a nation and the principle source of hope for our future. As long as we are willing to defend it, we will be a great nation. However, as we begin to take it for granted and abrogate our responsibilities to maintain it, we will slip into a morass that will lead us to fall from grace. Our fight isn’t with terrorists, but primarily it is with ourselves. We owe it to our forefathers and to our descendents to carry the spirit of the Minutemen in our hearts, the willingness to sacrifice so that our nation may continue to be a place of refuge for those who require it, a place of achievement for those who work for it, a place of wonder for those who seek it. Freedom is a responsibility, not a right; it is meant to be earned.

That is why I sometimes despair that we have become a nation of wage slaves, that a ruling class of the very wealthy controls the fabric of our lives far too much. That is the great danger of this era; not that terrorists will cause our way of life to crumble, but that the greed and entitlement of the wealthy will overcome our common sense and vision. We have become short-term thinkers and we must learn as a nation to look farther afield than that. Our goals have to be better than profit; we have to set our sights on making this country a better place.

Our politicians must rediscover who their true constituency is. Not the special interest groups, not the corporate concerns and not the ones who can afford to fund their re-election campaign. In point of fact, if you say that their constituency is the American people, you’re only partially correct. The constituency of our President, our Congressmen, our state and civic leaders all, is not just the American people but their descendents. We are custodians of this beautiful land and its freedoms and it is our responsibility to pass that custodianship on to the next generation intact. I believe that we have greatness within us, but we must overcome our baser instincts first. We can do it if we summon up the will. After all, we have overcome so much to get to where we are.


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