I’m surrounded by the sounds of Independence Day as I sit down to write this. The skies are clear. The daylight heat has graciously acquiesced to the pleasant temperatures of evening. My windows are open. Pleasant breezes steal through the screens, carrying with them the full collection of bangs, sizzles, whistles, pops, whoops, and occasional big booms of July fourth. I welcome them, revel in them. I have contributed a fair share of them during my seventy-three years. Well, seventy-two if you hold me to absolute accuracy. My birthday won’t be official until about three a.m. tomorrow morning. But we are accorded a certain leeway on such things as this when we reach a certain age, and I certainly have.
As I listen to the celebrations, and glance occasionally at the multicolored displays large enough to rise above the houses, I find myself reflecting on phrases that are of such particular import on this day, more than any other. Phrases, and the passionate beliefs behind them, that drove and formed the foundation of this ‘great experiment’ in Democracy of ours. I let them dance through my mind like a Cohan tune, with a hint of Gershwin as counterpoint. “When in the course of human events…We, the people…a more perfect union…establish justice…promote the general welfare…all men are created equal…” They ring with as strong a resonance today as they did two hundred and fifty years ago in Philadelphia’s sweltering and tumultuous Independence Hall.
This year, I cannot help but think also of a more contemporary phrase that demands prominence during these clearly troubled times. Troubled times. If we but stop and think, I mean really think, we must face the fact of the matter, namely that most times in the history of man have been troubled. Man is a creature whose specialty, more perhaps than any other, seems to be predicated on creating trouble, then laboring mightily and bloodily in an effort to get out of it. Truth be told, man’s ‘good times’ are good primarily in the sense of being only somewhat less troubled than others. But I digress.
The other phrase that comes to mind is one we hear tossed about almost constantly in print and on the airwaves during this election year. Make America great again. As a sound bite, it’s a passionate call to patriotism. As a slogan, it’s irresistible. Undeniable. How can you, or I, or anyone who loves our country, argue against it? It dares you to disagree. If you question it, it slimes you with a coating of questionable patriotism. Any true American, any genuine patriot, any citizen who loves the U.S.A., wants our country, our America, to be great. Again.
The fly in the buttermilk here, as Sam Houston was wont to say, is the question of which great America we’re talking about? The America of our founding fathers was certainly great. How could it not be? It achieved our independence from a non-resident and callous King who showed little concern for the rights and issues of his colony in the Americas, except when it came time to tax them. Even though our founders left intact the awful and despicable practice of slavery in the south, and the economies in the north which profited from it, out of a certainty that otherwise there would be no new America at all, they made their bargain with the Devil with all good intentions of addressing that problem at a more manageable later time. That issue would take almost a hundred years to reach a boiling point, but it was on the agenda. And overall, the American Revolution was indeed, a great and notable time for America.
What of those generations in between, then? Generations in which the country was settled, east to west and north to south. The immigrants and their children who built the country during that time faced hardships of weather and geography, and made enormous sacrifices as they expanded the country out of its little pocket on the Atlantic coast. The British attempted to put us back in our place, that being the King’s pocket, and the War of Eighteen-Twelve called upon our new country to raise its resolve once again, which it did, and again it prevailed, with a bit of help from the French. Native Americans, initially welcoming in most instances and later, unfortunately, a bit in the way, didn’t fare so well, but progress was, as it is today, a powerful force, sort of like making an omelet. And we know how that works.
One of our greatest Presidents, though reviled in his own time, like another President who would appear a hundred and fifty years or so later, finally resolved that slavery had to end. It was simply wrong and could no longer be tolerated. It’s difficult to think of anything as atrocious and violent and murderous as our Civil War, as being a great time in our history, but it did officially end slavery. The sacrifices made by hundreds of thousands of white, and black men, prevailed over hundreds of thousands of other white men, and did finally fulfill the phrase, “…all men are created equal.” To be sure, it didn’t end racism against the black man and woman, and it certainly did little to alleviate the bigotry and hatred with which we seem to greet each new generation of immigrants not among the original bunch, or our own bunch. The Irish can tell you that, and the Chinese, and the Mexicans, and the Asians, and well, you get the idea. But the buckets and box cars of blood and carcasses that defined the War between the States did establish, at last, that it was immoral and illegal to own another person, and that the government of this country would not tolerate it.
If we are looking for that ‘great’ America, the era from the end of the Civil War to the early twentieth century would surely be a good time to look. From the late eighteenth century to the turn of the twentieth, settlers swept forward in all directions. From the cities of the east to the Pacific Ocean and from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande, across the fertile plains, the arid deserts, the broad rivers and towering mountains, the frontier was tamed, the west was won, commerce expanded, law and order was slowly established. Millions of hard working, long suffering people, good people mostly, looking for nothing grander than a better life, turned the vastness of America into a true country. It’s almost impossible not to look upon the westward expansion as a great era. Of course, Native Americans were the recipients of a bit of collateral damage called genocide, and much of the greatness of America was built upon land that had previously belonged to Mexico. But those were small things when looked at alongside the overall accomplishments and accumulating greatness. It was grand. Therefore it had to be great.
It’s probably safe to say that most Americans, when they speak of “…that time when America was great,” are most likely thinking of the era stretching from the burgeoning of the Industrial Revolution, or latter nineteenth century, through the two world wars, the time when the United States established itself as a formidable, respected, and feared international power. These decades also saw the growth of the American middle class and improvement of working and living conditions for the majority of its citizens. The poor continued to be poor, of course, and those guilty of inadequate ambition moved mostly downward, but overall the twentieth century was a time when America was considered by the world, and therefore Americans, as a truly great country. The Statue of Liberty attested to the fact, and immigrants looking for better lives flowed to our shores, where the ones who had arrived immediately before them whispered in their ears “Watch your back.”
Of course the twentieth century did give us those two world wars, and the Korean war, and the Vietnam war, though neither of the latter two were given the dignity of being called wars. Bigotry and racism still ruled, unofficially of course, in much of the country, especially in the deep south. Whites used one water fountain, the cleaner and better one, while blacks used the other, dirtier and not so good one. White folks ate and strolled wherever they wished, black folks wherever they were allowed. That was all finally forced to an end during the civil rights movement that raised itself up in the nineteen-sixties, and officially sanctioned racism was finally, again, rooted out of the south. Like all such things do, it merely went underground where the hate and bigotry festered, and continues to do so to this day. So when we look at the twentieth century, it’s more accurate to describe America’s greatness primarily as its performance in the two world wars, and the fearsomeness it built for itself. Here’s a point to consider. Out of all of the nuclear warheads existing in different countries since the mid-nineteen forties, out of all the thousands of them, only one nation has ever actually used the abominable weapon. America, twice. The bill for Pearl Harbor, paid in full.
We are barely into the twenty-first century, and we have spent virtually the whole of it at war, in one place and another. We live in fear of terrorists and our own neighbors. We still practice racism and bigotry across the land. Anyone who doesn’t realize it is not paying attention. We stand at a crossroads of whether this country can force its way back to a nation of government, or allow ourselves to make the final slide into a financial and corporate oligarchy. The poor are poorer than perhaps any time other than the Great Depression. The middle class teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, unable to afford a house, in some places unable to afford even an apartment. Religious zealots are trying furiously to make the United States a version of the Middle East, where religion rules over reason. The country is facing some of its direst threats in history, and no, I’m not talking about ISIS.
So we come back to my original question, which of the ‘great’ Americas do we want to be, again?
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, of course, no matter how much I might want to. Mel Brooks told us “It’s good to be the King.” But I’m not one. I’m just a mere commoner. My needs and wants are those of a commoner. The great America I want to see is no more, and no less, than the phrases in my head describe. An America where all men, and women, are equal; an America where justice is served for all; an America where your gender, your sexuality, the color of your skin and the shade of your religion, are no one’s business but your own. I want an America governed by reason, not by your religion or mine or anybody else’s. I crave an America where it’s not a crime to be an employee or a blue collar worker, punishable by poverty even if you work forty hard hours a week. I dream of an America where we are ready to fight to the death against terrorists and demigods and threats to our freedom , but understand that commonality of borders, or ancestry, or some book is not within itself proof of criminality. And I want an America great enough to lead, not follow, in the quest for environmental responsibility and humane treatment of all animals, including those destined to sacrifice their lives for us. I ask for a Lincoln’s America, “…of the people, by the people, for the people…;” but I want add something to Abe’s quote. I want us to read it as I think he meant it,”…of all the people, by all the people, for all the people. And I dream of a nation that understands the people are inextricably linked to the land, the sky, the waters, and our fellow species. Now that nation could change the world. That nation would be a truly great America.