What is America?

The funny thing about being an American is that, when I was growing up, we used to ask each other as kids, “Where are you from?” We didn’t mean what neighborhood; we meant what country. I would say, “I’m Italian,” because my family has Italian ancestry.

Others would say, “We’re Irish.” And on and on. America is a nation of immigrants, to a large extent. The older I get, the more interested I’ve become in American history. We’re a land of contrasts.

America has had many great political statesmen – men like Abraham Lincoln who were incredible orators and gave memorable speeches. America is a land of high ideals, of energy, and zeal.

I do see the great qualities and beauty of our country, but I often see the negatives, as well.

But there is a dark side to America. As someone who has always lived in this country, I’ve been familiar with the dark undercurrents in American culture, and especially of our past.

Lately, I’ve been studying the Gilded Age of American history for a podcast/novel project. This was the period that spanned between about 1865 to 1900, or after the Civil War and into the period leading up to World War I. This was a critical period of American history that sometimes gets passed over. When I go to book stores, I have no trouble finding books about the Civil War and World War I, but I have a lot of trouble finding books about that period in between.

We’re screaming at each other

It seems trite to say I’m proud to be American, but I am.

Sometimes, though, I feel almost embarrassed to be American. I do see the great qualities and beauty of our country, but I often see the negatives, as well. Open any American history book and you’ll see some of the bloodshed: lynchings and racial terror in the South, the genocide and removal of Native Americans, the obscene wealth accumulated by the “robber barons” and capitals of industry in the Gilded Age, and the horrid working conditions they subjected their laborers to.

This has become a scary time to be an American.

Yet, America continues, and sometimes we reach soaring heights. I think of the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century, of the labor leaders who fought for better working conditions, of the Civil Rights activists of the 20th century and the courage they summoned to face tremendous violence.

Still, here we are at a time in American history when all of our warts are on display again. We are angry at each other – screaming at each other, really, screaming on social media, on cable TV news programs and, increasingly, on the steps of state capitol buildings and in the streets.

This has become a scary time to be an American. Sometimes, the things I see on the news remind me of the footage I’ve seen from the ’60s and ’70s – the protests, the violence, just the raw anger and hostility.

Where are we going?

So, my question sometimes is, “What is America?” How do we define ourselves? Can we find common ground? What are our shared ideals? Do we have to be so polarized? Do we have to identify as either Democrat or Republican?

Politics here have become a zero-sum game – it’s all or nothing. The media churns out stories that sometimes seem downright bizarre. The headlines are apocalyptic, begging for clicks or eyeballs.

Meanwhile, many of the people I know are part of what I like to think of as a silent majority. They don’t pay much attention to news or politics, they mostly shrug it off, just want to live their lives in peace.

So, what is America? And where are we going?

The pandemic has turned the national conversation into a veritable circus. Lately, I’ve been on social media more, and there is venom in some of the messages, some of the constant insults.

Is healing possible?

What I want to know is if the country can heal. I have always been an idealist and a dreamer – I hope my heart never becomes bitter.

Is healing possible? Even a small fraction of national unity?

Perhaps this is naïve. I’ve been accused of that before.

I want to know if we can turn to the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln said, instead of resorting to hate and hostility.

But maybe there is too much resentment in our politics now. The feuds have been going on for too long and the bitterness may be too strong.

“The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Progress is slow, blood is shed, but justice does happen, and I believe that it will happen.

The racial tension – and the roots of it – are probably America’s original sin. Most of our dysfunction stems from that, in my opinion. And that tension continues today and, sadly, I think it is a permanent fixture of our politics.

Decades upon decades of tension from enslavement, to Jim Crow to all varieties of discrimination have not healed – and they may never.

But, I believe in the quote that President Obama would sometimes reference – “That the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Progress is slow, blood is shed, but justice does happen, and I believe that it will happen.

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