Posts Tagged ‘America’

“Some Dreams Take Work”–because America might be beautiful, but it isn’t always easy. Available at my CafePress Store: http://www.cafepress.com/magicdogpress

I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism lately. In the 2008 elections Sarah Palin talked a lot about “Ril Amuricans”-who they are, where they live, where they go to church, to whom they pray. She praised the screaming, rage-fulled crowds at her rallies for their american-ness. She spent a lot of time insinuating that then-Candidate Obama wasn’t  a “Ril Amurican,” that “he doesn’t see America like you and I see America.”

Many on the right side of the political spectrum have followed her lead. Patriotism has come to be associated with tight-jawed people in three-cornered hats, carrying guns to political and presidential events, with a set of values that disenfranchises millions, that seeks to impose a narrow set of religious beliefs in the name of “American values.”

I realized the other day that I had conceded patriotism to a political and social group that quite frankly frightens me–that seems to be trying to strip away the very parts of America that I find most important.

It’s the Fourth of July. I went out and sat on my lawn and watched The Boy and his buddy set off our legal fireworks. In between our beautiful, jewel-like little fire fountains I listened to the huge cannons, and oohed and ahhed at the gigantic golden chrysanthemums, the umbrellas of flickering fire, and the shooting stars the scofflaws on both sides of me were setting off. I don’t know where they get the fireworks, but it happens every July Fourth–the skies light up, and I sit out on my thoroughly-watered lawn, swat mosquitoes, and enjoy the show.

Tonight I thought about our town. I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but local legend holds that our skies full of fireworks happen because of our large migrant population–they bring their enormous fireworks, and come Fourth of July it’s like the battle of Fort Sumpter all over again, but with fewer blown-up buildings and burning boats.

The irony of this, of course, is that our most American of holidays is made more American because of the non-citizens in our midst. We have our problems–yesterday I noticed that somebody’s tagging around town, and that makes me sad. We are not perfect. But citizens or not, and despite our differences, we are all real Americans, and we all inhabit real America.

That means that I have to understand that America is big enough to hold the Tea Party and the Progressives, the GOP and the Democrats, ethnic and racial groups of all descriptions, lovers of all or no genders. America isn’t an apple pie–it’s a fruit salad, and some of us are fruitier than others.

And so today, I am a patriot. I love the symbolism of the flag. I choke up at the “National Anthem.” I believe Katherine Lee Bates had my part of America in mind when she wrote the lines,

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

I believe that everyone deserves the tools from which to build success–what you do with them is up to you. I believe that no child should go to bed hungry. I believe that we all deserve healthcare, housing, and education at a fair price. I believe that while success is American, success achieved by harming others isn’t. I believe in good neighbors, vegetable gardens, and keeping religion out of politics. I believe kids need to learn how to think clearly, to play fair, and to put themselves in others’ shoes.

I believe that we don’t have to have the same values, cultures, or traditions to like and respect each other. I believe we all make potato salad and fried chicken a little differently, and it’s okay. I believe we don’t all have to agree, but we do have to listen to each other, and differ respectfully.

And I believe I’ll go outside and watch a few more fireworks, and maybe sing “America the Beautiful,” until my throat tightens. Because America is beautiful, and I am lucky to be here.

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There’s a lot of talk these days about American exceptionalism. David Corn describes in Mother Jones how, now that birtherism has been effectively “eviscerated,”  the GOP has begun stressing the “he is not like us” meme about President Obama.

A key plank in developing this platform is the idea that because Obama doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism in the same way that the GOP believes in American exceptionalism, he is somehow not a true American. This begs the question, is America exceptional, and if so, in what way?

The dictionary offers an interesting dichotomy. Exceptionalism can mean either extraordinarily gifted–or it can mean a a person or object so far from the norm that special allowances must be made. In other words, being exceptional can apply to either a highly gifted student–or a student so challenged that he or she cannot be judged by the same standards as others.

So here’s the question. Is America exceptional because it is extraordinarily gifted, a nation of which great things might be expected? Or are we exceptional because the standards that everyone–including us–apply to the rest of the world cannot be applied to us?

History suggests that while in the past America was exceptional in the first sense of the world–for years we led the world in key areas–increasingly the view of American exceptionalism has shifted to the second sense–that somehow we are not to be held to the same standards as the rest of the world.

Consider our stance–and indeed, our military actions–waged in opposition to leaders we had judged guilty of war crimes, including torture. And then consider the uncomfortable fact that our government, in recent memory, determined that it need not be bound by the Geneva conventions, engaging in “enhanced” forms of interrogation that we ourselves had previously defined as torture.

Consider the fact that when this came to light we did not hold the regime responsible to account. Right now, we have a former President living comfortably in Texas who, by his own admission, authorized the use of acts which we, along with the rest of the signers of the Geneva conventions, defined as torture.

Consider the fact that our own government has engaged in behavior that, had it been any private citizen or corporation, would have been deemed unconstitutional–things like unwarranted wiretaps, and widespread spying against its own citizens.

Consider also the fact that we no longer lead the world in key areas. Our educational and healthcare systems fall short of standards set in other parts of the world. Our industry has largely been gutted. Our standard of living is declining, particularly in the middle class, which is losing ground at an alarming rate. Wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a very few mega-wealthy people and organizations.

And yet–in many ways, America is still a wonderful place. We still have millions of clever, innovative, and resourceful citizens. In spite of recent government inroads we are in many ways still remarkably free to pursue happiness in our own way. Unlike many other nations, we have, with few exceptions, never had war carried to our homeland.

I love America. I cannot since “America the Beautiful” without getting a lump in my throat. I feel like Woody Guthrie had me in mind when he wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” I live in a town not so very far from where I grew up. This is my land. Its rhythms are in my blood. I count the turning of the year not by days or months, but by the color of the fields, by plows in late winter, by combines in mid-summer, by the turning of the trees. A while back I stood on a hill overlooking my town. It was late spring. The wheat in the field behind me was thick and lush, and already had heavy heads on each stalk. I was there for a cemetery dedication–my son’s class had spent time cleaning up the old pioneer cemetery that spring, and we were there to celebrate our past in the form of the silent headstones, and our future in the faces of our children.

I stood there caught in the moment, balanced delicately between past and future, and I knew that this land, this town, and these people were America, and yes, we were–and are exceptional. We are remarkable.We have incredible natural resources. We have a generation of bright, gifted children who, if we do our jobs right, will be capable of honoring our shared past while shaping an unimaginable future.

Which is why, I suspect, it so offends me to have American exceptionalism apparently defined by the other term–that somehow we are exceptional in the sense that we need not be bound by the same laws as the rest of the planet. Among some of us, American exceptionalism seems to me that we are above the common standards of humanity. Global warming need not apply. The laws of cause and effect are somehow to be turned back at our borders, along with all of the would-be illegal aliens. The laws of society and history apply to others, not us. We can somehow continue along our disastrous path where the rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer and poorer. We can meddle at will in other nations’ government and social structures. And somehow, there will be no consequences, because we are exceptional.

There is a quote from an old book: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

I don’t think any of us would quibble about the idea that  America has been given a great deal. We are exceptional. But our very exceptionalism obligates us to act in ways that benefit not just ourselves, but the planet, and all who live on it. Here’s another quote:

No man is an island13, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory14 were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind

Being exceptional does not place us apart from or above the rest of the world. We are all diminished by the loss of any. We can no longer afford to act as if America is somehow a place apart, untouched by the events that touch the rest of humanity. We were all broken by the tortures enacted. We are all touched by diminishing resources. We are all devalued by the attitude that business and corporations can be expected to act against their own self-interest and somehow behave in moral, kindly, benevolent, or even just ways.

Our very exceptionalism requires us to understand that exceptionalism does not place us above the rules which we have agreed should govern the rest of the planet. Nor does it place us above the laws of nature. “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Nor does it entitle us to impose our own culture upon others against their will. It demands that we allow other nations room to grow and determine their own fate that we experienced ourself. America is exceptional. It’s time we started acting like it.

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Let’s talk about patterns. I used to sew a lot of my own clothes. I found that using a pattern was a good idea. The pattern allowed me to predict my results with some degree of success. I don’t sew anymore, but my respect for patterns is deeply ingrained.

When I decided to give up on the relationship that gave me my son, I did it not because of any specific event, but because of a pattern–we were in a bad one. I am able to succeed as a self-employed designer because I have established a pattern for my days, and I stick to it. I depend on that pattern–and so do my clients. Patterns show us the shape of our lives.

They also help us understand our history–and allow us to predict our future, if we continue following a given pattern. For instance, it is possible to chart a pattern in the events preceding revolutions.

I’ve been spending some time reading about the events leading up to the major revolutions in history–the English Civil War of 1640, the American Revolution in 1776, and the French Revolution in 1789. While individual variables certainly exist, it is possible to see a certain pattern in the events leading up to open warfare.

1. Outmoded laws no longer promote social and financial security for the middle classes. The rich get richer, and the middle classes get poorer. Note that I have not said “the poor get poorer,” though that is also true. More on this later.

2. The government is in financial distress. The reasons for the distress may vary, but the distress is a constant.

3. Taxation is inequitable. The wealthiest pay little or no taxes, while the middle and lowest classes bear the heaviest tax burden. In France, for instance, the two wealthiest groups–the aristocrats and the Catholic church–lived virtually tax free just prior to the Revolution, while the reduced middle class and the peasants paid dearly.

4. Unrest begins in the middle classes, and spreads downward. One of my history professors noted that people who are struggling for bare survival just don’t seem to have the energy to challenge their circumstances. Fomenting a rebellion requires not abject poverty, but a certain level of success.

5. Revolutions don’t begin with blood in the streets–they begin with words. It takes a lot to whip a nation up to the point of revolution. It takes the kind of rhetoric that at once undermines the legitimacy of the established order, and promises a more equitable, more legitimate new order.

6. For a rebellion to become a revolution, there must also be a powerful, reactionary faction determined to maintain the old, outmoded forms, no matter what havoc they may wreak on the rest of the nation.

7. There is a profound disconnect between the ruling classes and the middle and lower classes. Violent revolutions are seldom a first choice; they generally happen with there is no other perceived path to redress inequities.

We can summarize this by saying that the financial well-being of the nation becomes both unbalanced and polarized, with the vast preponderance of wealth concentrated at the very highest strata of society–whose members also pay the least in taxes. When bad times come, the government must raise taxes. This places an unfair burden on the middle and lower classes, who are already suffering from the economic downturn. Attempts to bring the nation into a more equitable financial balance are stymied by those who have the money, power, and authority. After all, they have succeeded under the present structure; they have no incentive to change. As economic distress worsens, the middle classes become increasingly disaffected. Government rejection of change fuels the fire. And then one day there’s a flash point. It might be an assassination. It might be a bread riot. It might be a confiscated fruit cart. Whatever it is, it provides the spark necessary to convert the violent revolutionary rhetoric and the rage that has fueled it to physical violence.

The mob takes over, and after that, reasons don’t really matter anymore.

And this is important why? Take a look at that list. The pattern of revolution is forming around us. Wealth and taxation inequities, economic distress, deep divisions between those who believe the solution lies in a return to outmoded forms and those who believe it lies in restructuring our laws to meet our culture’s evolving needs, government that increasingly serves the interests of business and of the wealthiest members of society at the expense of the middle classes, and increasingly violent language among the middle classes are all present. Our government has become a byword for disconnected, stalled, irrelevance. The recent Supreme Court decision legalizing unlimited political donations by corporations has removed the last safeguard of democracy by turning elected office into a seat for sale to the deepest pockets. We have become not a democracy, but a plutocracy.

There is a great deal of talk about the financial debt we are leaving our children. I find myself wondering about the other thing we are leaving for them–a government run by officials all too often put in place to serve the interests of those who have succeeded by exploiting economic and human resources to the detriment of the rest of us.

Our nation is changing. Technology is changing. The values by which we govern our lives are changing. Our views of gender and ethnic roles are changing. Our laws need to change, too. We have a choice. We can either change our laws to create a better, more equitable life for all of us, and ease the pressure cooker that is fueling the deep anger stoking the divisions in our country, or we can  legislate to benefit the tiny minority at the top, dig those divisions even deeper, and move ever closer to the inevitable flash point.

Patterns matter. And we’re in an ugly one right now. History warns us that governments who persist in believing that they can ignore the voices of their people do so at their peril. And at ours.

These images were gleaned in less than twenty minutes of web browsing. They depict revolutions and significant rebellions in America, France, China, Russia, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and India. Five of those revolutions occurred, or are occurring, within living memory. Three of them are currently either ongoing or so recently ended that the result is yet to be seen. Does this worry anyone but me?

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