Status Check, Re: USA

The 234th birthday of the United States of America is a fine time to check in with one’s self about how one feels about being a citizen of this country, so today’s question: Am I proud to be an American?

I am. The United States, like so many things, is better as an idealized concept than it is as an actual entity, on account that the nation is made up of people, and while most people mean well, in a day-to-day sense they struggle with their ideals, which are often so inconvenient to their desires. And so, like a married family-values politician with a Craigslist personal ad, or a vegan Febreezing the apartment so no one will catch the smell of bacon, America often finds itself failing its own expectations for itself and others.

In times like this what I remember is that while people (and countries) fail their expectations and ideals, those expectations remain, and even when failing them, people and countries find those expectations and ideals to be powerfully attractive. Despite sidesteps, backtracks and inactions, over time — over the long haul — we move toward our ideals. Martin Luther King famously noted that the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. He was correct, but only to the extent that justice is in itself genuinely held as a goal.

As Americans, we do hold it so: It’s right there in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, along with other laudable goals. And I do believe that despite whatever day-to-day failings our nation has, however we are on this particular day struggling to live up to our ideal of ourselves, nevertheless over the arc of history we are bending toward justice, and are forming that more perfect union we imagined ourselves having more than two centuries ago. It is this commitment to justice and a more perfect union, written into our country’s genetic code, that makes me proud to be an American, and inspired to make sure that I do my part to get us there.

Will we get there? Not in my lifetime, and perhaps not in any lifetime; people stubbornly remain people, and heir to weakness, desire, self-absorption and stupidity. The Founding Fathers were wise to note we were working on a “more perfect” union, not a “perfect” one, because perfection is hard with actual humans involved. But I believe we can get closer to perfect, and then closer than that, and then closer still. It’s like approaching the speed of light: the closer you want to get to it, the more energy you have to put in to get to it. You’ll never get all the way to it. But you can get close enough to get to where you want to go, in time, with effort.

So happy birthday to the United States of America. I’m glad to be a part of it, and glad to be working on it.

43 Comments on “Status Check, Re: USA”

  1. What tempers my cautiously optimistic agreement with you is the increasing tendency of people and organizations to actively subvert our country’s ideals. IMO, freedom, justice et al. are fighting a losing battle. It’s discouraging to see so many people metaphorically shrug their shoulders and say, “Whattyagonnado?”

    The ideals are indeed noble and worth striving for. I’m not sure how well they’ll hold up over the next hundred years.

  2. I agree perhaps more wholeheartedly than Mike; while I do see the upswing of the active subversion, that too is a product of our republic and our ideals to allow people to talk and think, no matter which field, or how far afield, they are playing in. The apathy/complacency that Mike sees is there, but so is an upswing of social awareness that we have to hope continues (on the other hand, the 1960’s led into the 1970’s). I’m not sure what the country will look like in another century (hey, is that a science fiction idea?) but with the striving towards a more perfect union has to come hope.
    In any event, thanks for the words, John. I was looking to read something like that this morning.

  3. Mike,

    They’re fighting a losing battle only if we don’t oppose people and arguments that support less freedom. There will also be setbacks and, while a decade long setback is a significant chunk of your life or mine, it’s not a large amount of historical time.

    The media features the wackos on all sides because it’s different – “Oh, see the crazy person say crazy things! How provocative! Let’s cut to the talking heads in the studio to see what they think!” Right now, it’s the Tea Party. In the 60s it was the SDS, Black Panthers etc. Extremists are news. They’re only a threat if not enough of us stand up and say “Hey, wait a minute…”

    The more perfect union doesn’t form itself. It’s the collective effort of millions of people each day that pushes it closer or away. Like John, I’m proud to be a citizen of the US and also like him, I realize that while our ideals are admirable and there’s much that’s good about the country, we’re far from perfect. Everyone is, though. All we can do is to try to push the country in the direction we believe is right.

  4. @ #1, Mike

    Compare the Germany of the new millennium with the one from the mid 20th century. Hitler’s legacy has ironically turned out to be one of the most progressive, open minded societies in the world. Their soccer team currently features players of Brazilian, Ghanian, Turkish, Spanish and, again with a measure of irony, Polish heritage. Talk about your huddled masses. Things can always get better, my friend.

    “Yes, there are two paths you can go by
    But there’s still time to change the road you’re on”


  5. HBO has been re-running the John Adams miniseries for the 4th. Anyone interested in John’s post should check it out. Adams is an often overlooked, but remarkable founding father. He was not the most charismatic of the founding fathers, but in general he was a decent, honorable guy.

  6. Thank you, Rick. You’re right on target. In my mother’s generation, it was all the groups of the 60s. In our generation, there are groups that do the same thing. We just see and hear about it more because of the media. What’s the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. I do agree with John’s assessment of the U.S. Yeah, sure, we’re not perfect, and never will be. But the fact that most of us strive to be something better is what this country is all about. If we didn’t, it would be utter chaos. And now I’m babbling.

  7. Hay John, thanks for the post. I actually really needed the reminder of why I should be proud to be part of the US. Time to go find a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for my anual reading :)

  8. I agree with Mike. My impression isn’t that we’re becoming an increasingly “more perfect union”–quite the opposite. Our perfection diminishes. We steadily stray from the noble ideals that define America conceptually. We take one step forward, then two steps back.

    The hopeful thing is that those ideals that beat in the heart of this country still serve as an inspiration–not just to us, but to other nations, some of which are doing arguably better jobs of realizing and executing our ideals.

  9. A few years back, I was sitting in a Manhattan bar with a buddy from Ireland lamenting that the bar had been so lowered for America. My friend, who was more than a little critical of America himself, said, “Yes, but it will be raised again. It always is.”

    Personally, I believe we’re overdue to reinvent ourselves. It’s something we can’t help doing. And while we’re figuring it out, it’s amazing to watch other parts of the world do it.

  10. Leah, let me ask you (and Mike) a question – how old are you? This isn’t the prelude to a “Oh, you’re young (or old), you don’t get it” argument, but if someone is in their 20s they likely started paying attention to politics and current events in, maybe, thier teens… so the Bush years comprise a significant chunk of their politically aware life and that skews the perception of trends. The opposite was true of people who were teens in 1990-ish and came of poltical age in the 90s when things were more or less on the upswing.

    Trust me, I know abou skewing – I’m 52 and was a kid during Vietnam, clearly remember the political assassinations of RFK and MLK and came of political age at the end of Vietnam and during Watergate.

    One thing I’ve seen as I’ve grown older is that things repeat and seem to cycle – and it’s hard to really get a feel for when you’re under, oh, 30 or 35. A single president who lasts 2 terms spans 8 years – that’s fully 25% of the entire lifetime of a 32 year old and, unless that person was very precocious, is 50% of their politically aware lifetime. But 8 years is tiny percentage of 234 years.

    It’s hard to judge trends within one’s lifetime, especially when you’re young, simply because events span so much of one’s awareness… this is where knowledgeof history comes in. We’ve had significant backsliding on freedoms before – the Japanese camps during WW2, the McCarthy era are two examples. The race relations we take for granted today seem one way to us… but to someone raised in the first half of the 20th century what we have today would seem like amazing progress. We debate gay marriage on this site every once in a while but let’s not lose sight of the fact that even 40 years ago gays were much more reviled than today and the idea that gay marriage would even be a serious possibility would be shocking to someone from 1970.

    Mike might be right – but I don’t think so. The longterm trend still seems to me to be toward more freedom and more tolerance… but it’s a LONG TERM trend and will suffer setbacks.

    That’s not to say that only the US has the ideals of freedom – we don’t and many of our ideals spring from older traditions. Debates about the ‘best’ country are silly – many countries are very good places to live for most of their citizens and some better the US in certain areas. We tend to be zero sum about these things – but life simply is not that way.

  11. “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. “

  12. Good words John. You observe that looking at the long arc of United States history we have progressed towards justice, towards a more perfect union of always imperfect people. And I agree with you that likely we will continue to do so as the decades march on so long as we live up to our noble values and ideals.

    But others around the globe are also marching towards the same goals of justice. I would be just as proud to have a British, Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand passport on my person for overseas travel. What would really be cool would be a Texas passport, but then Texas would have to become a Republic again for that.

  13. I think we are incredibly lucky to live in a country that not only lets us openly criticize, but to actively work to ‘overthrow’ administrations (via the electoral process) every couple of years. Do we have problems? Well, yes. Most of which are derived from a deep seated fear of change, which seems odd in a country where our government is founded on change; but there it is. The upside is that most of our problems are fixable (though we often debate on what the best fix is).

  14. @10 I read your post, and thought, “Yeah, American bars used to suck. If you were lucky, the bar would serve Guiness, and occasionally Fat Tire. Out side of that, you were stuck drinking Bud Light. But these days, most bars have beers that extend beyond those basics. They have a more diverse selection of microbrews and porters and IPAs and…” Then, I realized you were talking about a different bar being lowered. Oh, well, the metaphor still kind of works. Kind of.

  15. @15 Hah! I really like that metaphor. Profound. Sorta. Plus I like beer. Real beer, not Bud Light!

    John, you said what I wanted to say much better than any attempt I’d made. The ideals are worth working for. How far we are from them now is less the point than what we’re working toward.

  16. I’m 45, and I think things are getting better (in the long view). It’s definitely not “one step forward, two steps back,” despite all the signal to the noise: when I was a little girl, it was both legal and customary to pay women less than men for doing the same exact job (by this, I mean, large corporations had official company pay schedules that said “Grade Four Bookkeeper with three years experience: men, $X, women, $X-$y”); it was legal to refuse marriage licenses to opposite-gender couples of different races; it was legal to arrest same-gender couples for dancing together in public; and there were no Federal laws about public accommodation of people with disabilities.

    We need to do a lot better with all of the things above, and with many more besides, but to say nothing has changed even in my lifetime is to ignore history.

  17. John,

    Very good article. A happy 4th of July to you and all of your readers.

  18. Have to agree with Rick. Perspective is necessary to see the whole picture of how our nation – the American experiment- has moved in a positive direction.

  19. I’d say I’m proud to be an American, but I’d say that my idea of what it is to be an American is shaped by the people around me and by the places I’ve been. It’s shaped by my friends who are not from America and love to visit. When I think of America, I don’t tend to think about the shameful moments in our history, like slavery, the Japanese detention camps, eradication of the Native Americans, the School of the Americas mess with El Salvador and Iraq, etc. I think that the vast majority of Americans, at least at this current stage in our history, would oppose any of those endeavors. I think that overall, we are good people and that we’ve come a long way. However, we are far from racial equality or even gender equality. We have a long way to go to repair our relationships with foreign nations and to build ones that didn’t exist before. I think we still live in the past to some degree because Americans, in general, tend to be somewhat conservative compared to some other nations. I also think it will take a while for progress to occur, partly because everyone has a different idea of what “freedom” really means and what steps we need to take to make our country better. However, I also think that our ideals are enough to inspire others, from our early beginnings and our desire that we should have freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. I think that it is a difficult thing to achieve and we haven’t even completely mastered those 3 things. But other nations were inspired by what we did and are today. We’ve accomplished some really great things and will probably continue to do so. However, I agree with my politics teacher when I was in college, who was originally from Libya. The best thing about the U.S. is that we are allowed to criticize the government. That doesn’t just limit us to speech, but we are allowed to organize and to participate in demonstrations, etc. We can vote (need to get away from the Electoral College, though…it’s really outdated), and work to create change. I think it’s okay to look beyond our own country to what works in other countries and we can adapt some of those ideas to work for us and make them better, if we can, though. There are certain technologies, etc., that I wish the U.S. would bring here, however, I’ve noticed a certain reluctance among a lot of people to even pay attention to what’s going on outside of our country (#1. The majority of Americans are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Why not keep some of your original cultural foods, celebrations, dress, etc. Many get really pissed off if a Mexican-American mentions Cinco de Mayo or continues to speak Spanish with their family and friends)(#2. How many Americans really know all that much about Canada, Australia, or even some place like Egypt, which we’ve all read about. What happened after the Roman period? Anyone?) If we can master that, though, I think we can continue to inspire.

  20. Mr. Scalzi:

    Thank you for the article and discussion on being a citizen.

    I see from the discussion that we are continuing the fine tradition of arguing amonst ourselves about what it really means to be a citizen of America and where is the nation headed.

    As Charlie Daniel’s observed, “This lady might have stumbled; but, she ain’t never fell.”

    Happy Independence Day to one of my favorite authors!

  21. I’m 52, like Rick and while I agree with what he and others have stated about the arc of history, I want to come to bat for those that are seeing issues like Mike and Leah do.

    We have come far, we have a long way to go, that much is certain. Mike, Leah, the problems that you are seeing, the injustice, the political shenanigans, the out and out greed. The dependence on sound bites. Damn straight, they can get you down. But… You are seeing them from a platform of built over the last 234 years. You expect more, the American people over our history expected more and moved us in this direction and you want us to do even better.

    Keep that attitude. Keep asking the questions. Keep saying, “Look, that’s just about enough of that shit, knock it off.” In reality, there is always a large amount of complacency. So we, who see the issues, have a responsibility to pay attention and say WTF.

    Up here, north of Seattle, a local School Board member recently trotted out some tired old crap research about genetics and race affecting how well kids are going to do in school.

    The reaction was immediate. Calls for his resignation, and the outright disbelief that someone in this day and age would stoop to such a level were all over the news and his condemnation continues. He hasn’t resigned yet, but I think it’s just a matter of time. And he should resign, that attitude has no place in today’s society. The point is, in the 70’s when I was in school, he’d probably would have gotten away with it. It wouldn’t have even made the news at all.

    The twin demons of apathy and ignorance will always be here, we just have to keep stomping on them. Hopefully, we always will.

  22. Jeff… Amusing coincidence… Not only are we both 52… we’re both in Seattle. :)

  23. This has long been one of my favorite quotes:

    “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”

    John Adams wrote this to Abigail on the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I think he was darn near prescient on the matter of “shews, games, sport, bells, and bonfires”, but I wonder whether people have forgotten the toil, blood, and treasure part of his idea. To me it has always been a reminder of the fact that our Founding Fathers weren’t some cardboard constructs, but rather real people with real things to loose, but who chose to support the founding of our nation in spite of all of the risks.

    Having this wonderful nation is rather like having a good marriage: it takes work and attention, it doesn’t just happen by accident. We all have to pay a little less attention to “Entertainment Tonight” or “Sportscenter” and a little more to what is going on regarding the running of our country. But like John, I am hopeful….anxious, as befits someone whose cousin is in his sixth tour in Afghanistan, but hopeful nonetheless. In my opinion, there still are rays of ravishing light.

    Thank you, John, for a thoughtful and optimistic post.

  24. Thank you, John. As always, yours is a voice of thoughtfulness and reason… one which I have come to regard as a touchstone of sanity in my life. Happy Independence Day!

  25. Excellent essay, John. I love the getting-closer-to-the-speed-of-light analogy and will be forced to steal it (with full credit to you, of course.)

  26. John – Thank you for this post.

    Mike- Totally agree with you. As frustrating and futile though it may seem it’s almost always worth doing what we can to encourage enlightenment and the application of logic. The most fitting quote I can think of right now is one by Thomas Jefferson (paraphrased): All tyranny needs to take a foothold is for men of good conscience to remain silent. Let us not remain silent nor shall we let others take from us our motivation to speak giving way to oppression.

    Happy Independence Day.

  27. Rick
    the internets, they is small sometimes 8D

    Christy and kimberlyloomis, nice quotes.

    One of my favorites and apropos of the thread.

    Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.
    Harry S. Truman

  28. And now for the Canadian perspective:

    “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

    ==Pierre Elliott Trudea

    Seriously though, we could have worse neighbors, but please keep the music down and the dog off our lawn. :)

  29. Nice piece. It’s great to read something other than depressing cynicism every once in a while. Happy Fourth of July!

  30. We have a black president and you can question if things are getting better?

    Things are getting better. Life isn’t perfect. Its up to us to make sure that when the civil liberties are tromped on and justice is missed to correct it. One voice plus one voice plus one voice…until enough people hear and act and then one more step forward. Its messy and ugly and slow. But its definitely better than it was.

  31. Thanks John. Reading your essay while watching A Capital Fourth on PBS has been a great way to end a great day.

  32. Looking at America from Australia, I’ve always felt that the word “freedom” was a bit depressing. When I am asked what my government is all about, I answer “inbuilt redundancy and idiots, with a few good ideas”. When I ask what I think I’m entitled to legally, I respond with “free or affordable medical care for every level of income, access to housing and food, access to university educations and assistance with relocation for all work and study needs! Community disability and mental health assistance, and pathways towards affordable legal and accounting assistance.”

    Which is a bit of a mouthful, and far less marketable than “Freedom!” And we’re far from perfect ourselves. But the truth of the matter is that nobody WANTS anyone else to starve to death or languor in pain and horror at their own life; while ideals are great starting blocks, optimism for a better government and culture has got to have more substance than most of the patriotic speeches that I see coming out of your country.

    I hope that this time next year all you Merkins have much more to celebrate, but remember that justice cannot always be tempered with empathy or contextual compassion while remaining truly “just”, and that we should all be careful what we wish for.

  33. Thank you for posting this. Yesterday’s RSS feed was a bit of a downer with people proclaiming that our best days were behind us, we’ve jumped the shark on the national scale, or how all of our dreams of freedom and equality have driven us to creating a tragic parody of our ideals.

    Are we perfect? No. Are we trying? Generally speaking, I believe we are.

    Thank you for reminding me of that.

  34. The USA was the first country ever to be founded on an idea. Not on tribal affiliation or religious creed, not on geographical convenience or anthropological persistence, but an idea: That a society can be self-governing, by its own citizens, and that anyone (for varying values of “anyone”) can be a citizen.

    That fact has never failed to boggle my mind completely. Being a history buff helps, to realize just how staggering the idea was when it was first proposed.

    And it helps a bit to remind myself that, if the USA is governed by its citizens, then it’s jolly well going to reflect them. Our government can never be better than we are, because we *are* our government. If we are governed by fools, bigots, and charlatans, it’s because we elected them. Bearing Sturgeon’s Law in mind, it’s amazing how often we’ve been lucky enough to have heroes and visionaries in office.

    USA: You make me nuts, and sometimes the doomsaying gets the better of me; but by golly it’s… fascinating… to be an American.

  35. Unfortunately, I couldn’t agree less. We have made progress in many areas since this country’s inception. The problem is that we’ve also deteriorated, and badly, in many more ways over the same span of time. There is a lot to love about this country. I believe it is still the finest in the world, and I am very proud to call myself an American. But it saddens me how far we’ve fallen in so many ways. And self-perpetuating ways, at that… I fear this country is going the way of every great civilization of the past. Each deteriorated over time until they were a crumbling shell of what they had once been, and then nothing but memory.

  36. For me the most depressing/irritating/infuriating thing about American politics is that the people who proclaim most emphatically their reverence for the ideals upon which the country was founded are so often willing to trash them in practice.

    “They hate us for our freedoms!” Inconvenient things, freedoms, when you’re expected to extend them even to people you dislike, or people who get in your way, or people who mean to do you harm. Let’s see if we can find a way to exclude those folks from the class of people protected by those freedoms, or send them someplace that doesn’t worry about such niceties.

    It’s really easy to despise my fellow Americans sometimes. But.

    I’m coming up on 57. Even on election night 2008 I still had doubts that America was capable of electing a black president; for days after it still felt like something of a miracle. Two gay friends just celebrated the second anniversary of their recognized-by-the-commonwealth-of-Massachusetts-by-golly! wedding. Person by person, state by state, we’ll grow up. We’ll get there. Or at least we’ll get closer.

    Thanks, John.

  37. I will quote from an essay of my own, written a couple of years ago:

    “I wish I knew how to quit you, America, but I keep coming back no matter how many times you break my heart. I love you, America — God help me.”

    Sometimes love hurts….

  38. I display an American flag because I love my country. Right now, I’m loving it the way a parent loves their 18 year old rebelious son who just got into a car accident while driving drunk. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but I still love it.

    I only hope that sometime soon, America looks back on 2000-2010 the way we look back on Joseph McCarthy now, as a huge fear-based mistake.

    I think one can easily see that the arc of history has for the last couple centuries bent closer and closer towards justice. At the moment, though, it doesn’t seem like “justice” is the principle some people are operating by, or even holding as some distant goal.

    There are still people that the US government knows to be innocent who are being held in Guantanamo. The Obama administration is fighting their release.

    Obama has buried the torture photos from Abu Graib, delaying justice even further.

    And Obama has authorized an assasination program that allows for the US to kill American citizens without any kind of due process whatsoever.

    At some point, even a parent has to question their loved ones as to whether they even know what “justice” means.

    Over the last two centuries, we’ve clearly bent closer to justice. Over the last decade or so, on that shorter view, we’ve moved further away from justice.

    I still love it, though. And that’s why it breaks my heart to watch it making all these massive mistakes.

  39. Speaking of heartbreak, yesterday, the US charged Bradley Manning with a variety of crimes relating to his alleged leaks of classified material to WikiLeaks, most prominently including the Apache attack video that spawned worldwide debate over the American occupation.

    Obama’s “Look Forward” is turning into a new form of “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” Don’t ask about the US government breaking any laws. And be damn sure you don’t tell anyone about it.

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