Today, this country’s 244th birthday, won’t be a raucous party celebrating American freedoms and strength. We’re wounded, maybe even staggered, by a three-pronged attack of pandemic, economic uncertainty, and cultural unrest.
The strife caused by this attack plays itself out daily on the news and our social media feeds. Everything’s a battle, a political statement on what this country should be and who it should be for. From wearing masks to racism and policing, to the names of sports teams, everything can be a litmus test on how to be a proper American.
One side sees the things that made this country great from the victory in World War II through today, increasingly eroded by forces they don’t understand. It scares them. If angry mobs can burn down buildings and displace the authorities with impunity, how can anything be safe? If the police are truly abolished, what will keep us from anarchy? The future is full of fear and uncertainty.
How long until someone decided Amerigo Vespucci was an irredeemable racist and the damn name of the country has to go?
The other side wonders why the freedoms that supposedly make us special don’t apply to non-white, non-hetero people. They see a recent history that includes Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, they feel the need to tell their children how to not follow their path, if that’s even possible.
Then they see coverage of police beating, assaulting, or driving into people all over social media. They see white people pulling weapons on blacks and walking away while blacks are killed for far less. Then they see a national history that includes slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and a constant fight against even basic freedoms for people of color, gays and lesbians, and people who don’t conform with binary genders.
We have routinely treated our fellow Americans like garbage, from the first day of our existence.
This country, still a young country as these things go, has always had a disconnect between ideals and execution. While our execution has been horrific at times, the ideal has always been exceptional.
Ronald Reagan’s farewell address talked of American as a great city on a hill. A place of liberty, opportunity, and happiness. For all of our flaws and our current struggles, that ideal’s still pure and worth pursuing.
There’s no defense for racism, looting, murder, and all the forms of bullying we’re currently swimming in. There’s no excuse for using our collective insecurities as a lever for political advantage and personal gain. It’s unAmerican to treat people as less than full partners solely because of race, sexuality, religion, or any number of other things that have nothing to do with worthiness.
It hasn’t been easy and we’re certainly not perfect, but over time, we’ve become more inclusive. We’ve become more free.
It took us almost 150 years to allow women to vote. But we changed that. Irish went from needing not to apply to seeing one of their own as President. For all of our racial missteps, we’ve had a black president. And there’s a very good chance we’ll have a woman of color as Vice President within a year.
In my lifetime, we’ve gone from spaghetti being considered ethnic to a true smorgasbord of cultures available within delivery distance.
Although things seem ugly right now and impossibly dark, we’re sorting out some incredible changes at a tremendous pace. This process will end. When it does, we’ll still have scars and blemishes, but we’ll have fewer of them.
Allowing freedom and opportunity for all isn’t easy. We’ve blown it badly. We’ve been slow to the table. But the steps we’ve taken, and continue to take, to form that more perfect union aren’t trivial.
Being a good American means different things to me than it meant to my parents. And it means different things to my kids, too. That’s as it should be.
America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. And it’ll be erased and rebuilt again long after any of us are gone.
These are growing pains for our country. They’re necessary, because as much as some might long for the simpler days of the 50s or the 80s or whatever decade, they weren’t that simple. But with each rebuilding, we move closer to that wonderful city on the hill.
That’s what makes me proud to be an American. And though things aren’t looking good right now, these internal struggles give me hope that our execution will close the gap with our ideals.