That, above all, is the question, isn’t it? Who are we, as Americans?
Lately, I’ve become a lot more aware of my own narrative about America, because so many people are trying to tear it away from me.
I know mine isn’t nearly the “whole” truth about America. Nobody possesses the “whole” truth. And believe me, I can come up with plenty of contrary evidence.
Perhaps it’s best to say that it’s my aspiration for America – but that it’s based on enough of the “real” America that I’ve been able to hold onto it all my life.
It shapes how I try to act as a citizen.
Let me share it with you.
My America knows people are not and never will be perfect. But it also knows they can work together, and they can improve.
The Founding Fathers certainly thought so: that’s why they crafted a constitution to build a “more perfect union.” That’s why Jefferson wrote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders thought we could improve, not just as isolated individuals, but as communities, and as citizens of a Republic we could all share.
That’s why Lincoln spoke to northerners and southerners, white and black, about the “better angels of our nature.” Even as their armies were cutting each other down in fields not far from where he stood.
The Founders, for all their flaws, saw their new country as the greatest achievement of the Enlightenment, which promised we could use reason to escape the chains of ancient conflict and superstition, and begin anew.
Then they welcomed generation after generation of newcomers who also hoped to begin anew, with many diverse motivations. (Even by 1776, this was deeply rooted in the heritage of My America. There are towns in Connecticut named after folks who’d been involved in the English Civil War in the 1640s, and would have been executed if they’d set foot back in England after the Restoration.)
My America has sometimes fallen victim to outbreaks of nativism and ignorance. Of course it has: My America is made up of human beings. (We even had a political party called the Know-Nothings. What they said about Catholics was identical to what some people now say about Muslims.)
Make no mistake, for centuries many people have come to America and left because they did not like what they found here. Moreover, America isn’t the only nation that has ever welcomed outsiders. (Just north of us, there’s a country that might now do it best of all.)
But, for all that, My America has generally been exceptionally open to foreigners. And those foreigners have revitalized My America with fresh energy and ideas in almost every new generation. (The people who overcome all the obstacles in their way to get here tend to be the people with the most energy and creativity.)
People come to My America to make money, but also to make a better life in other ways. Because, as commercial a society as we are, Americans have usually understood that there’s more to life than money.
For whatever reasons people come, My America has grown and changed to encompass them, from their food to their songs to their faiths. Including mine and yours.
So far, every time My America has done this, it has become a better country.
So far, every time people told us these newcomers were too alien, too criminal, too dangerous, too impossible to assimilate, they were wrong. Including when they said it about my ancestors, and yours.
They always say “it’s different this time,” and they’ve always been wrong. Always!
My America, far too slowly, too haltingly, and with too many reverses, might even someday overcome its original sins of racism and slavery. I know that is optimistic. Perhaps it will take a third Reconstruction, perhaps a few more generations of interracial marriage, but it’s possible: My America has done amazing things.
In the America I can convince myself exists, if you are a stranger, people reach out and help you.
Perhaps some of those Americans are Christians remembering what Christ commanded (not “suggested”):
The King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it for one of the least of these My brethren, you did it for Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’
Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for Me.’”
Perhaps some are Jews recalling the Prophet Isaiah:
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Perhaps some are Muslims reading the Koran:
…it is righteousness… to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and give Zakat (regular charity); to fulfill the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God fearing. (2:177)
Perhaps some are secular humanists who would agree with the manifesto of the American Humanist Association if they knew it existed:
Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.
Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.
Regardless, in My America, everybody matters. If someone is left homeless on the street to die, that reflects on me. If my waitress can’t see a doctor because she has no health insurance, if she dies before she can see her grandchildren grow up, that reflects on me.
Because we are all created equal.
Because My America is a civilized society, and we all share it.
And because My America starts by looking for the good in people, as individuals. Instead of looking for the reasons why they don’t deserve help, or do deserve to suffer and die.
Make no mistake, if My America is abused or attacked, it reacts appropriately. But perhaps one reason My America has been so successful is that it happened upon the biologically most successful strategy for playing the prisoner’s dilemma, Generous Tit for Tat.
You’ve come across that strategy, right? It starts by assuming the best in people. If that’s what they give you, you keep assuming it. If not, you respond in kind. And, every once in awhile, if they’ve behaved badly, you give them one more chance to do better.
It isn’t just about “being nice”: it actually works better than any of the other thousands of strategies they tried. I think there’s a lot of “Generous Tit for Tat” in America when we’re at our best.
My America likes strategies that work. Because My America is practical. (Tocqueville certainly thought so.)
That means My America tries to find the best ways to solve its real problems. If honorable people can’t agree, they figure out where they have some common ground, and move forward on that basis. It’s not perfect. But then they tweak it and improve it, instead of raising holy hell to make sure we do nothing at all.
My America – I am actually sure of this – is full of people on the local level who are working together to bridge differences and solve problems.
What did Churchill say about us? “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” Still, in My America, we eventually get there.
And we get there because we’re open to the best ideas, wherever they come from. We don’t rule them out ahead of time because they are inconsistent with some left-wing or right-wing ideology. So if the best way to solve a problem involves markets, or government, or both together, that’s what we do.
If the best way to make our farms more productive is to build public land-grant colleges to teach our farmers how, we do it (the Morrill Act, which established and funded many of our largest state universities). If the best way to supercharge private enterprise is to build a public canal between New York City and the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal), or a federally funded interstate highway system, we do it.
If our people are sickening and dying because of inadequate sewage and sanitation, we establish public health systems to fix it — and our people get healthier, work harder, and accomplish more. And if we need more reliable, faster networks than private enterprise is ready to give us, we invent the Internet (through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency, which may not have anticipated cat blogging or Facebook when they did so).
Since we are grownups in My America and know things like these cost money, we pay taxes to do them. We grumble, because nowhere — even in My America — does anyone love taxes. But in My America, we understand there’s such a thing as enlightened self-interest.
That’s why, when My America won World War II along with its allies, we created the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe. Because My America recognized that you couldn’t defeat Communism without providing help, and a more attractive alternative.
(Some people said: Just bomb the Soviets to smithereens. Make the sand glow! But that’s not the strategy My America chose.)
Speaking of World War II, when My America led the Nuremberg Trials of Nazis and Japanese war criminals after World War II, we were explicit that we were establishing rules for everyone, including ourselves. Not just the losers.
When My America executed Japanese torturers, we promised not to torture, either. When My America captured hundreds of thousands of German prisoners and scattered them in work camps all over the U.S., the guards were extensively trained in the Geneva Conventions, and those prisoners were treated well.
This wasn’t new in My America. When My America’s George Washington saw his troops abusing British soldiers they’d captured, he immediately court-martialed them. Even though he knew that if his Continental Army lost the war, he would be hauled to London and executed.
Talk about “existential danger.” And yet, he would not compromise the principle that you do not torture your captured adversaries.
Washington symbolized something important about My America: it could usually tell the difference between earned, quiet strength and WWE bluster.
My America knows that merely owning a firearm doesn’t make you tougher. (Or even safer.)
My America settles its differences through its democratic institutions, not the barrel of a gun. (In My America, we don’t reserve for ourselves the right to slaughter American soldiers or policemen because we, in our own individual judgment, conclude they are agents of “tyranny.” We call alleged “Second Amendment Remedies” exactly what they are, and say: No. Here in America, we vote.)
My America takes a step back for every two steps forward, because, again, we are human beings, not saints. But over time, My America takes more steps forward than back. It becomes more just. More open. More bighearted.
Along the way, My America has listened to many demagogues – Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace. Usually, My America has turned them away.
Now, we are being challenged to do it again. At a time when our confidence in the future is low, our resistance is down, and we are susceptible to the fatal infection of hatred.
Darker visions of America are rising. They make it harder to believe in My America. They make it harder to de-emphasize the strands of American history where hate and murder and slavery and imperialism reigned.
They make it harder to say: “That’s not who we are.”
Yes, Trump. But not only Trump.
Tens of millions of us have been taught to hate and fear for the past 30 years, by silver-tongued professionals with immense media and financial power. (I am looking at you, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch…)
They are incredibly skilled at what they do. But there is an especially hot place in hell for people who make money or gain power by teaching us only to see the evil in each other, and in strangers we don’t know.
Thanks in great part to such people – and others who’ve happily benefited from their diabolical shaping of the public conversation – millions of Americans now see enemies and conspiracies everywhere. Both inside and outside their country.
Those enemies include you, me, and anyone whose America looks different from Their America.
It falls to us to speak out against the hate, wherever we find it. We have to.
Because, after all that’s happened and will happen, we still have something precious to fight for. America. Yours, mine, ours, all of ours.