It’s a fractious time in the good ol’ U S of A. An economic downturn and the wages of two wars have saddled us with enough baggage to weigh anyone down, and as we rumble toward a presidential election, the splits grow wide and raw. My dad says he’s never seen the country so divided. And my dad is really old.
As the 4th of July approaches, bringing our Independence Day celebration, I am finding all the infighting and campaign ads oddly hopeful. The thing about America is this: our unity is our diversity.
It sounds trite, glib. It’s not. It’s the essence of who we are. By European standards, we’re a country without a history. We lack an ethnic uniform. Walk around the hinterlands of Texas and you’re going to hear a lot of Spanish. French in the Cajun bayous. German among the ‘plain folk’ in Pennsylvania. Try to back a definition of what it means to be American into a corner, and it’ll juke left and slip right past you.
There is no America, and that means nobody can ever be un-American.
The 4th of July makes me think about that. I was raised without the holiday. My parents were urbane intellectuals, children of the 60s. To them, waving a flag and lauding your country was to deny the role we’d played in the horrors they’d just seen unfolding in Vietnam. The 4th of July wasn’t something ‘our sort of people’ did.
As an adult, I wasn’t interested in being anybody’s sort of people. I joined the military myself. I even celebrated the holiday in a warzone, holding a sparkler outside the US Embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2006 before in-direct fire forced us inside. While the detonations rattled the roof, I swelled with pride at the sight of the fireworks bursting over Washington, DC over the satellite TV, showering the city with color. I walked the spectrum that my parents never did, seeing the holiday as both a nationalist glossing over of America’s past mistakes and a joyous celebration of everything wonderful this country stands for: liberty, stick-to-itiveness, optimism in the face of overwhelming odds.
The truth is that, in America, there is room for both those perspectives, and all the shades between. That’s the point. More importantly, the American tapestry embraces individual complexity as well. Americans can observe the 4th with mixed feelings, they can be conflicted about the meaning of the holiday. There’s room for that too.
I wrote CONTROL POINT over many 4ths of July. The protagonist of the book, Oscar Britton, is a highly conflicted man, facing tough choices that raise the very same questions of morality, duty and what it means to be a citizen of this country. In a way, his turmoil is a distinctly American story. That questing conflict is as American as apple pie.
The 4th reminds me of that. Our national seal reads: ‘E PLURIBUS UNUM’. Out of many, one. There is no America. We are, when you think about it, everyone and everything. We are a true immigrant nation: a sea of cultures, languages, cuisines, dress codes, senses of humor. We blend and borrow and fold in on ourselves. From that pluribus, we get a Frankenstein unum that has, thus far, been pretty damned amazing.
But it’s not just food and clothes and language. We are a cauldron of ideas. We are white-water rapids of perspective and beliefs. Not only as a society, but in each individual. Our divisions are the tinctures of strength. The fabled ‘American Exceptionalism’ can be found as much there as anywhere.
This 4th, as with every 4th, that gives me hope.
Posted by Myke Cole, author of CONTROL POINT (paperback available 16/08/2012)