The U.S. is an Unfinished Book: Three and a Half Stars

The United States gets a lot of bad press around the world — not without reason.

Still, these days I often tell people I’m proud to be an American, although that wasn’t always so. For most of my life, it’s been cool to hate on the stars and stripes. So when I was younger, mostly until college, I would often keep my mouth shut.

Before university, most of the history you learn is about your own country. Not ALL of course, but that’s certainly the focus in most places, since the ultimate goal of compulsory education is not to turn out educated citizens but compliant ones.

But world history was a big part of my higher curriculum — although my primary training is biological science — and so for the first time in my life I got to learn about all those other countries out there.


Here’s the deal. The Declaration of Independence is an amazing document, unprecedented in its ambition. Literally. To the British who received it, it would have no doubt seemed a farce. And indeed, there were a great many people predicting doom after the Revolution, and again when the Articles of Confederation failed, and during the War of 1812, and during the Civil War, and during the waves of immigration that followed, and again at universal suffrage, and during the Great Depression, and the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement… And still, there are many people in this country who think we’re one bad trading day from the collapse of the whole thing, and that their AR-15 will protect them from the government drone better than the people on the ground in the Middle East.

To be fair, we’ve been teetering from the start. From the moment the Declaration — and its companion, the Bill of Rights — were penned, the United States was immediately and embarrassingly short of its ambition. And for the last two hundred and some years, we’ve still not managed to achieve it. Recent events come to mind.

But that’s the thing about lofty goals. They push us to do better. If they were easy, everyone would have done it. And those two hundred and some years are nothing if not the story of us — painfully, often excruciatingly slowly — doing a little bit better.

We still have a long way to go. There were far too many crimes along the way. And this last generation we seem to have faltered. But I would suggest to you that it will take far, far longer to get where we’re going while forward-minded people continue to let backward-minded people appropriate the public symbology, like the flag. And patriotism. As if this country was only ever ‘Murica, its internet parody, and not also the home of jazz and personal computing, national parks and moon landings, baseball and the role-playing game, surgical anesthetic and rock ‘n roll. Even social media.

As Orwell famously noted, there is a difference between patriotism and jingoism, and in that narrow gap is where the real battle is fought — at the level of belief. There are always those people who will explain to you that the movie you just said you liked was the the most awful, tepid, useless, boring piece of trash ever filmed and anyone who defends it is a moron. Some people wear hyperbole like a hat and use it to call attention to themselves. Others will assume that simply by not hating on the film, you must therefore think it’s a masterpiece of modern cinema. Some people really are morons.

It depends on what your expectations are. I believe there’s room for us to be proud of what was accomplished without marginalizing those who were left out of it. And I will not abandon patriotism to those who will turn it into a lie. The United States is, if anything, an unfinished work whose first chapter opens with the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Let’s finish the book.

And here are three visions of America

download (5)

“Fourth” by Franco Brambilla

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Jasper Johns’ famous whitewashed flag

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“Bill Clinton: Ladykiller” by sharpwriter