This Land Belongs to You and Me

Today is the Fourth of July, the day the United States celebrates its independence and the day we all celebrate a nation founded as an ideal, a project, an attempt at changing the rules by which nations were governed.  On the Fourth of July, I have always followed the advice of the late, great Paul Fussell, who said it was the one day of the year in which America should receive only praise, and I’ll do so again this year, recalling what was great about our country’s origin and speculating about the state of the grand experiment on which our founders embarked.

Almost ever country that existed before the United States of America– certainly every country that had any great success on the world stage — was founded not out of any intent or sense of purpose, but because they were more or less a coincidental agglomeration of ethnic, racial, linguistic, or geographic commonalities.  A Korean wasn’t Korean because he subscribed to some grand notion of what it meant, intellectually or philosophically, to be Korean; he was a Korean because he had Korean ancestry, was a member of a Korean family, was born in Korea to Koreans.  The people who made this country, though, truly made it; while it has taken us almost 250 years of figuring out how to extend the ideals of the founders to everybody, a process that continues to this day, America was unique in its belief that what made a country was not mere accident of birth or geographical fact, but rather subscribing to a particular set of ideas, ethics, and ideals.  America’s greatness did not rest in its history, but in its humanity.

That wouldn’t have been enough to make a truly great country; any idealistic young fool can declare a flat patch of grass a sovereign nation and set about making a set of idiosyncratic laws.  Americans made America through their limitless energy, their desire to invent themselves anew, their determination to make it work against all odds.  They were blessed with wealth, education, and drive, and with a foundational mythology so universal that referring back to the fighting spirit, guts, and optimism inspired future generations to the same.  They were also graced with good fortune in terms of a vast sea-to-sea empire, isolated enough to be safe but also naturally rich enough to be great.  The fact that these good fortunes ran on the misery and suffering of others did not make them any less good.  We used that luck, those resources, and that uniquely questing character to forge a nation out of a thought, out of a massive consensual agreement to have a country that meant more than just the confines of its borders.

It has been no small thing, keeping that agreement alive.  Particularly thanks to our particular brand of race-based slavery, we held onto a regressive idea of what being American meant even as older, more established countries were beginning to think there might be something to this whole matter of a national ideal.  We actually fought a war over whether the idea of a country was more important than the execution of that idea, and, eventually, whether or not every group had an equal right to American citizenry.  It took us a long time to figure out that young men could share in our national dream, and even longer to figure out that one need not even be a man at all.  We remained true to our vision of a nation even as poisonous ideas about nationalism, all of which are still with us and still powerfully appealing to the weak and  aggrieved, developed into European fascism.  And always, always we have struggled with the idea that being American was for every class, not only the rich.

But the vision of America as inclusive, universal, and immediately available, of the notion that a nation is what you make of it and not just what you define it as, still exerts an astonishing power.  We have been progressive and tolerant enough to insure that people of many faiths and none, of many beliefs and no beliefs, of every race and ethnic group, of every level of success and esteem, could all take part in the national experiment.  We have recently affirmed that one’s sexual preference should not be a barrier to receiving the full benefit of the law; and we seem to be coming around to the idea that the freedom of women means more than we once believed it did.  We are even considering that traditional ideas about gender and sexuality are as arbitrary as race.  People of any nation can be Americans, even ones we have traditionally hated; people of any race or religion can be Americans, even ones we have traditionally feared.  And while class is still the great divider of our society, we are at least at a point where it is no longer unacceptable to discuss the question of whether equal opportunity under the law can ever mean anything when there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.

We face tremendously difficult problems as a country as we enter the second half of 2015.  We must ask ourselves hard questions about whether we can continue to exist as a country if our economic freedoms threaten to destroy the very land, air, and water that makes up America.  We must ask ourselves if it is worth it to become members of the world community if it means lowering our standards for safety, wages, and worker’s rights to those of the lowliest members of that community.  We must deliver on the promise of equal opportunity to people of all races, backgrounds, and genders.  And we must, crucially, ask the wealthiest citizens of this nation if they are truly loyal to the America, or only to the protection it offers their profits.

But we are strong; we are tough; and we are unafraid.  We have faced far worse fears and far more difficult questions.  And we can become an ever greater nation, if we just remember that we are not a nation and have never been a nation — we are an idea, and we must always fight for that idea.  Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans.

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