Today is the Fourth of July, the annual day when America stops to celebrate itself. And we’ve much to celebrate – one of the youngest and yet most influential nations on the planet, we are pretty much the geopolitical equivalent of the Millennials: we came into the game early, believed we belonged, proved ourselves despite some mistakes, and now we’re sitting in the catbird seat wondering, “What next?”
It’s been a rollicking ride, to say the least. I’m no historian, but we’ve undergone quite the transformation. Once a backwater repository for people who didn’t want to be picked on anymore, we’re now the Ritz-Carlton of refugees. For nearly three centuries we’ve been the rewrite of Shangri-La; our national anthem might as well be New York, New York because if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And yet we find ourselves at a crossroads. Things have changed. We still believe certain things are true about our country, but we are also increasingly aware that the nation we live in isn’t built entirely on sunshine and big brass ones.
If America were a shiny Jeep Liberty (cause, really – what else would we be?), then we’d have to admit there’s a good bit of dirt on the undercarriage. The same is true of almost any nation.
But we feel it more than most, I think. Our mythology has always been that we were the nation that wasn’t a carbon-copy of the despotic and tyrannical days of yore; we were the nation that gave rise to the voice of the people, the nation that proved that power was not best when concentrated in the hands of a few. We stop and celebrate our independence every July 4th, we sing the song for the people, by the people, of the people, but the reality is that we have drifted far, far away from that narrative.
And it bugs us.
Some folks break out the tea bags and stockpile the ammo, waiting for the day that history repeats itself. Others push for reforms that will never come. Some just embrace it as the manifest destiny of all nations – that at some point the safety and security of all we’ve become is paramount over the rights and liberties that made us what we are. Others adopt that most modern American of attitudes: “Dude, as long as I still get wifi, who cares?”
Two hundred and thirty seven years after we told the British Empire to step off, we’re still trying to figure out what it means to be American.
And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe the most daring of political experiments should never come to a tidy conclusion, where certain ideas and beliefs become ruts that trap us. Maybe it’s right that we continue wrestling with the soul of our nation in order not to fall into the trap of other former powers who lost their souls and then lost themselves. Maybe our greatest gift to ourselves is the permanence of uncertainty, that we rise and fall on our ability as a nation to never settle on a “right way”.
It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if our stability as a nation rested on our instability as a culture?
I’m not a fan of everything that’s changed about our country. I look back on previous generations and lament the loss of certain of their characteristics in this day and age. But I’m also quite pleased that we now have a country where you can’t own another person legally, you can’t get away with abuse in private, and you can’t claim superiority to another person simply because you were born into privilege. Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of who we used to be, but you know what? A bunch of it needed to be lost.
That’s what makes us America – we’re constantly examining who we are in order to become who we want to be.
There will always be people who deny this, of course. They’ll insist that what makes us great is what made us great in the past, those values and behaviors that gave rise to power and prestige on the world stage. But if you look at the thread weaving our history together, if you look at the central characteristic of the American story, you see that it’s always been our propensity for change that’s made us great. We are a nation built on thrown off ideals.
Our independence is what defines us, for better or worse. Usually for the better.
So today as Americans, wherever you may be, celebrate the country that gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself. Celebrate the nation that believes at its core to be human is to change. Light a firework or fifty in honor of our independence, not just from Britain, but from the shackles of history; not just 237 years ago, but everyday.
Happy Fourth of July, America. Hope it’s a good one.