Long May It Wave

Photo: Scar-Spangled BannerToday, the day Americans celebrate this nation’s incorporation as an independent country, there are and will be a lot of fireworks, eat-drink-and-be-merry parties, solemn salutations of admiration and thanks addressed to the people and acts that led to the establishment of America, and “patriotic” speeches of allegiance and fealty to whatever each speaker or audience relishes as the greatest rights and privileges of living in this place. We don’t all agree, not remotely, on which things are Rights and which are merely privileges, never mind which are to be relished. We don’t share a single, singular point of view defining patriotism or our national identity or strengths.

That, in fact, is what I see as one of our greatest strengths. We are a country that prides itself on individualism, if not individuality. And that, in turn, we define differently, each of us. As little as I know about the country I call home, my sense of it says that the name United States suits us well: a collection of wildly, wonderfully, weirdly differing entities—both states and persons—pulled together into one larger whole. It doesn’t homogenize or even blend us. We remain diverse and divergent. And that is the strength that our founders hoped, as I understand it, to cultivate.

We tend to fail, nationally speaking, more than we succeed at this delicate and complex effort. We mess it up pretty (no pun intended) royally both out in the wider world and within our own borders. Often. But there are frequent gleams of starry hope, as well. There are those among us who will stop and truly listen to each other, who will negotiate, counter-propose, parlay, parry, and persist, in the pursuit of better solutions. Those who choose to recognize differences without letting their own beliefs in the matter condemn their fellow citizens as second-class or unworthy.

It’s funny how often many of us Americans get mighty excited, thinking that somebody else is busy trying to impinge on our personal Freedoms (apparently we are historically hysterical when it comes to that) merely by valuing different aspects of the legal freedoms we all enjoy here or by wanting an equal share of the same ones; we’re past masters, too, at howling injustice over others’ intolerant narrow-mindedness, which of course translates directly as “any thinking, belief, or experience different from mine” and thus is equally self-definition, should we think through it carefully. We each obsess over how to make the rest of the nation see our individual points of view as the simple and clear logic they embody, and as the obvious morally and ethically correct way to think, live, and be, whether any of our own choices and decisions are in truth logical, moral, or ethical, let alone demonstrably so. But that difference, too, is part and parcel of the multifarious and colorful country we call home and of its hard-won foundational tenets.

So while I spend the Fourth of July, like any other day, in mindful and slightly irritable worry over all that could and perhaps should be better about my native country, not to mention about me as one of its inhabitants, I also cling to the hope and optimism that continue to reside here. People are still kind to each other, from holding open doors to donating large quantities of time and other resources to the health, education, safety, and well-being of others, and more importantly, some even do this without requiring that their beneficiaries support and adhere strictly to the donors’ worldview. That, to me, is a great assurance that this nation does still hold dear some of the essential characteristics on which it was founded, even if with a noticeable amount of ignorant hubris stomping on the extant good on this new shore. We remain flawed and selfish and foolish, each in our own ways, but for the most part, this is also a country full of people who, through hard work and goodwill and the desire to fulfill the promise of our forebears, native-born and otherwise, mean to keep becoming better.

May this better part of each of us become a great banner of Peace, Justice, and Hope. May the winds of the future send it curling around those who are in need of the wealth with which we, corporately, are gifted, and give them not only enough resources and courage to be lifted up but a share of that same peace, justice, and hope. And long, long may that banner wave.

We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.