Wednesday, September 15, 2010

About being an American.

This is the time to think about what it means to be an American. On the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks -- clearly attacks on America and what it means to be American -- it is important to ask ourselves what it is about us we value when we say "proud to be an American."

It is also the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  The experience in New Orleans was clearly confusing and full of ambiguity. There were white gangs roaming through the stricken city randomly killing black men and women. Instead of aiding victims of the disaster,  police and National Guard dedicated themselves to controlling "looters" -- for the most part men and women trying to procure essential supplies. In short, at the height of Katrina, our racism showed itself in its ugliest and deadliest form.

At the same time we saw many demonstrations of personal heroism helping those endangered by the flood and saving lives. There are many stories of strangers working together to support each other through this major crisis in their lives. Katrina brought out the best in some people and the worst in others.

Katrina reminds us of an important fact. When we ask ourselves: what it means to be an American we often tend to look for some characteristic that all Americans and only we have. But Americans are not all the same-- some of us are generous, tolerant, and dedicated to values of inclusion and mutual assistance. Others are deeply racist and murderous. And most of us have different sides and are better at some times, and worse at others.

The American identity is primarily a struggle between the different inclinations among us. As a nation we have struggled, and still struggle, over the issue of racism, overt distrust and hatred of people who are different, such as immigrants. We have struggled, and still struggle, over issues of inequality—over the difference between the homeless and working poor, on one side, and the people who get annual bonuses of several million dollars for selling mortgages which the poor buyers won't be able to pay back.

The American identity is a struggle between what is best in us and what is worst. But that does not make us different from any other nation. All nations have their ideals and their glowing moments; all nations have their dark sides. All nations struggle to conform to their ideals and against their brutal, hateful impulses.

What differentiates our American struggle to be as good as we can from similar efforts in France, in Bolivia, or in Tanzania? Each country has its own history and their struggles are shaped by that history. Many of our American freedoms were first learned from our English ancestors. But after several centuries and different conflicts we have come to think about the details differently. Americans, for instance, take an extreme stand on free speech. We allow extremely few limitations of that freedom. Witness the recent threat of a Florida pastor to burn the Koran. Other countries are willing to put tighter controls on free speech rights.

Americans take extreme stands on the right to bear arms. Other countries are prepared to limit gun ownership. Given that for many Americans the frontier with weak or no government is just a few generations behind them, the distrust of government, an irrepressible inclination towards anarchism, is a peculiar trait of American political thinking. Just listen to the Tea Party folks.

What does it mean to be an American? It is not enough to say that we love freedom because other people love freedom too. What is more we must always remember that we, ourselves, constantly betray this love of freedom. We are all for freedom of religion except maybe for Muslims. We are all for equality, except for the poor or, often, except for persons of color. We are all for rights to privacy and people running their lives as they please-- except for gays and lesbians. We are all for the free market but do not hesitate to subsidize our farmers, big banks, and General Motors. And so it goes.

 Being an American is to be in struggle with ourselves.

Our struggle is conditioned by our history. We are not better than other people. We are not worse. We live and struggle in the shadow of previous generations on this continent. Sometimes we come close to conforming to our ideals. At other times the ideals are distant and seem unreachable.