Even before I came to America I saw the PBS television series about the origins and history of the Vietnam war (the 5000 day war I believe was the titel) about 22 years ago.I could not believe the integrity and honesty and the openness of a country and society that would publish to a worldwide audience such a deep penetrating series on a painful recent debacle.
As an immigrant American (is there any other kind) I wanted to crystallize my thoughts and beliefs about what it means to me to be an American at the risk of some soapbox/platitudes.
I believe the one unceasing reality of American life is change and because this aspect mirrors an intrinsic part of nature and is simultaneously at odds with our natural life preserving need for stability and more sheltered lives I can understand how some people tend to blame a country and culture that embraces it more than others.
Many of the things that are identifiably American today were invented or discovered elsewhere – ranging from the major discoveries in the physical sciences and technologies to our democratic system of government to theories in economics and social sciences – but innovation in bringing the fruits of these human creative endeavors using a market mechanism and open democratic government is perhaps the most unique aspect of America.
Americans realize that market mechanisms are potentially soul destroying and unforgiving in their unrelenting progression to equilibrium between supply and demand. Whether it is in automobiles or high tech ventures, health care crisis or equality of opportunity we realize that markets have limitations. So we are constantly trying to mediate and correct these market forces using social and governmental mechanisms that are decidedly non market like and with varying success rates – ranging from social security and medicare to universal free K-12 education to NASA and the space program to various other subsidies and occasional bailouts of failing automobile companies, hedge funds or S&L’s to name just a few recent interventions. But we are aware of the limitations of governmental actions too – whether it is the Family Jewels of the CIA or the ongoing NSA wiretapping etc.
At a more local level I find this urge to participate in change both exhilarating and enervating not just for me but for all the people around me. My daughter wrote to the Mayor’s office objecting to an ad for a lottery on a bus picking up students at the local school and got a detailed follow up. My brother in law teamed up with others to appeal a decision to stop a local bus schedule and got a hearing. My wife wants to “give back” by helping teach Special education classes. My son wants to find solutions to the greenhouse problem. Our neighbors regularly participate in creek cleanups and recycling events.
Often times our efforts are too little too late and yes they tend to solve some problems but create new ones too. But the political system we have in America is perhaps the most resilient and remarkable of all such systems devised by man and I believe is our best hope for getting us all to a better place. It is perhaps America’s most important “export”.
As Le Tocqueville wrote hundreds of years ago America was then and is now still an amazing work in progress. How many countries can one name that forged a Constitution that explicitly ruled out a single prevailing authority and set up a system of checks and balances both between the different branches of government but also between a federal government and the state government and successfully operated for more than 200 hundred years ? How many have had peaceful transitions of power at every level of government for over 200 years? How many times in all of written human history has a nation ever attempted to assimilate people from all over the world into one multi-hued multi-ethnic multi-racial social entity where all are equal under the law without force? How many societies allow free speech to the level visibly demonstrated in the US? How many have freely expressed moral outrage over their own previous and/or current leaders activities and actions and lived to tell the tale and better yet change things?
To me America seems more a concept and a goal or ideal that is always going to remain unrealized than a country at times. I believe many Americans are still trying to understand what it truly means to be American and why it evokes so much passion in those who hardly know what it is to be American (as distinct from what it means to be in America).
We are all living on Spaceship Earth – on a lonely planet in orbit around a mid-size star in the outer reaches of a fairly ordinary galaxy in space and disasters – whether it is man made disasters (like 9/11 in the US or the many wars all over) or natural disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes or disaster over te horizon like the thrreat of global warming- tend to make many of us feel this brotherly bond of our common humanity and shared identity as citizens of one Earth at least for a brief instant, rather than taking a narrow viewpoint as a ‘citizen’ of this country or that. We accept and realize that we all want the same basic things – freedom to attain our potential as individuals, families and a people, safe and clean food and water , clothing, medicines and shelter from the elements and vagaries of nature.
For me this spark of shared humanity coupled with these shared values of democracy and freedom is both at the very core of being American and is also the best hope for mankind as we look at the many global challenges – of poverty, ignorance, disease, malnutrition, tyranny, war, global warming, nuclear annihilation etc. – we all must face and overcome if we are to survive and thrive on this lonely planet.
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