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, I often tell people I’m proud to be American, although that wasn’t always so. For most of my life, it’s been cool to be a cynic, especially where national affairs are concerned.

The history of the US certainly makes it easy, not least because so many troubling episodes — Wounded Knee, Ludlow, My Lai — are either whitewashed or simply absent from grade school textbooks. Just the thing for a cynical adolescent to strut about muttering to the peons.

In college, where world history was a large part of my curriculum, I got to learn about all those other countries out there.

Ouch.

The Declaration of Independence is an amazing document, unprecedented in its ambition. To the monarchy that received it, it 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 the Great Depression, and the Cold War…

To this day, 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 satellite bombardment better than democratic reform.

To be fair, we’ve been teetering from the start. From the moment the Declaration and 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 get it right. 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’ve achieved them. And those two hundred and some years are nothing if not the story of us — painfully, often excruciatingly slowly — doing a little bit better, albeit not uniformly so.

There were far too many crimes along the way — we should never forget that — and we still have far to go — we seem to have faltered this last generation — but I would suggest that it will take far, far longer to get there while forward-minded people continue to let backward-minded people appropriate the public symbology, like the flag, or patriotism generally, 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 Star Wars, surgical anesthetic and rock ‘n roll.

Rosa Parks, Eugene Debs, and Bob Dylan are just as American anyone else. I’m not sure why the cynics get to define them as the exceptions and not the other way round.

As Orwell famously noted, there is a difference between patriotism and jingoism. In that narrow gap, the real battle is fought — at the level of belief. There are always those who will explain to you that the movie you just said you liked was the the most awful, tepid, useless, boring, horrid piece of trash ever filmed and anyone who defends it is a racist and a cretin. Some people wear hyperbole like a hat.

Others will assume that by simply not hating on the film, you must therefore think it’s a masterpiece of modern cinema. Some people are morons.

In either case, the film is the same, and our interpretation of it — what it means to us, whether it is good or bad — derives first from our expectations.

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

We have yet to finish it.


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