Moments when I feel – truly feel – that distinct essence of being an American:
*singing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ during the 7th inning stretch
*stopping at a gas station on a cross-country road trip
*watching fireworks on the Fourth of July
*listening to Ray Charles’ version of ‘America the Beautiful’
*wearing old blue jeans and sneakers while mowing the lawn
It’s quite a portrait, is it not? In fact, I might even say that these experiences are almost like virtual snapshots of modern America, more or less; taken together, you find a collage of what happens from day-to-day between these oceans so famously white with foam. It’s all there: the baseball, the open road, the freedom, the rhythm and blues, and of course, the blue jeans. But these are moments when you expect to feel American. They are synonymous with American living. And even though we all have our own unique experiences of these moments, with our own friends and families, the fact remains that we, as a people, share them. They are what make this land your land, as well as my land. I think that in order to actually get down to the business of truly discovering the essence of being an American however, you have to come across a few moments that you never could have expected; moments that are on their surface not characteristically or definitively American at all; at least not in any typical, star spangled kind of way. That’s my story at least. In addition to the handful of experiences listed above, there is another group that has made me realize, on a more personal level, what it means to be an American. They are perhaps less obvious than baseball and fireworks, but the truth is, they have gone on to inform what I believe most about my role as an American citizen. This is not a complete list, for sure, but it begins to get at what being an American means to me and what I believe 2008 could mean for America.
The first four of these five moments are:
*listening to “Revolution” by the Beatles for the first time
*re-reading Common Sense and actually understanding it
*hearing David Halberstam’s answer to my question
*interviewing my classmate for a documentary film
You know the song. Paul kicks the whole thing off with an inspired, raw yowl right before the distorted guitars crash down on all of us. And then there is John singing about changing the world, his lips snarled in determination. At times, in the archival footage of this recording, he even looks so enraged he could drop the guitar and start a fight. It’s incredible, actually. You don’t even have to understand the words of this song to know it means business. This song is big, tough, and a little off its rocker. You get the sense that if this song was a kid on the playground, it would be beating up all the other songs.
And it’s because this song communicates the downright danger and anger of revolution.
This song succeeded where every textbook I read in school as a child failed: it gave me a sense of what revolution felt like – the danger and anger – and it gave me an idea of what the American revolutionists must have felt. This was how I began to humanize the colonists who dared to imagine the world in an entirely new way and how I began to understand the truly radical nature of their ideas of liberty and equality. Patrick Henry didn’t have distorted guitars, but with lyrics like “Give me liberty or give me death” maybe he didn’t need them.
A WORLD OF PAINE
Although, I could have used a catchy melody the first time I crossed paths with Thomas Paine. The summer before my junior year of high school, I had a lot of reading to do in preparation for my AP U.S. history class. In addition to reading the first third of our class textbook and maintaining a meticulous reading log, I also was expected to independently study the primary sources of a Founder of my choice. I choose Thomas Paine, and as I spent the last day of that summer alone in my bedroom reading (but not absorbing) his Common Sense, I found myself thinking ‘This guy stirred the people to revolt with this long-winded babble? How? ’ That is to say, I didn’t get it. And with less than 24 hours until the first day of school, I didn’t really have time to try.
Which is a shame. Common Sense is timeless, but only if you take the time to understand it.
For me, that came years later, when I came across this passage: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Huh, I wondered, which John Lennon song is that from? Turns out, it’s from a little revolutionary pamphlet called Common Sense. And just as I found it so stirring and compelling at the turn of the 20th century, so did the American revolutionaries in the 18th century. And because of these words and the actions they inspired, the world as the colonists and everyone else knew it, truly did begin over again.
And then, as I re-read on, it was as if Paine knew that one summer day in my teens, his common sense would be way over my head when he wrote, “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” What I realized when I re-read this passage later was that the new world Paine helped create, the one I enjoyed, was dependent on American posterity understanding the very virtue of that new world.
That world was America. That posterity was me. And it was time I discovered the virtue at the heart of this truth.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST
I was fortunate to enjoy a dinner with David Halberstam in the fall of 2003. He visited my alma mater, the University of Puget Sound, to lecture on his book The Children, and a small group of faculty and students were invited to meet Mr. Halberstam to discuss the issues of the day with him on the night before his lecture. The dinner conversation primarily focused on the war in Iraq, imbedded journalism, and the Bush administration – and what all of these had in common with Vietnam. I left the dinner with so many thoughts and questions that I did not know where to begin unpacking them.
The next night, when Mr. Halberstam took questions from the audience after his lecture, I stood and asked him this: What is the role of politicians in leading the nation in confronting some of the more painful aspects of our history? He responded that the answers lay in reading; in our leaders’ curiosity in and knowledge of the world. Only by these will leaders know where they are leading from historically and be able to help the nation address the difficulties of our past.
Standing there, addressing a man whose influence shaped the history of his times, I felt the wisdom of his words. Since hearing them, I have increasingly felt that the best hopes for our future lay in our true understanding of our past. If those of us inheriting this nation’s wounds could take it upon ourselves to look to our past and begin to find their remedies, indeed this generation might earn that title made famous by Mr. Halberstam: the best and the brightest.
My interest and faith in my generation led me to initiate a film project in my senior year of college. In lieu of writing a term paper for my final U.S. history course “The United States in the 1960s” I partnered with a classmate and undertook a documentary that addressed the question of what the legacy of this period – a half-century past – meant for the next American generation.
Fourteen members of the class participated in one-on-one interviews, where we discussed broad themes from the 1960s: the civil rights movements, the fight for liberation, the birth of the modern political spectrum, the war in Vietnam, and the idea of generational identity. It was here, on this idea of a generational identity, that the ultimate question was addressed: what does this past have to do with our future?
The responses of my classmates were incredibly intriguing. I ultimately found a group of people who believed our generation was capable of tremendous good, even acknowledging that we had been thus far somewhat slow in making an impact on our times. It was as if, somewhat nervously, a belief in ourselves as a generation was bubbling beneath the surface.
And it finally peaked through in the words of one of my classmates who said that he just simply but truly believed in us – this generation. He did not care about what divided us, because he believed that we would recognize all that we stood to gain by realizing what united us. We, we, we – he kept saying the word over and over again. And it made something in me click. After devoting weeks to talking with these young Americans about the legacy of the 1960s, I realized this: the answer to the Me Generation was going to be the We Generation. And the idea of being part of that inspired me. Even this week, I have been inspired again, here on this blog, to see that this idea and even this wording is already in use. Surely, the fact that my experiences can lead me to the very same wording for the very same idea as those of others across the country speaks to the truth of this matter. The bubbling beneath the surface is real and we finally have a reason the let it flow forth.
This brings me to the fifth and final moment that brought me to a discovery of what it means to be an American.
THE AUDACITY OF HOPE
The summer of 2004 was an anxious time for those of us who believed that the country needed new leadership, that the very foundational principles of the republic were jeopardized without the intervention of a new direction. John Kerry was our man and the Democratic National Convention in Boston was his moment to rally the people to this cause. And I really thought that ultimately, come November, people would be rallied.
Even as someone who entered the week of the convention with a great degree of enthusiasm, ready to vote for Kerry and stump for Kerry, I never expected to be so honestly and completely stirred and energized… but not by Kerry; by a state senator from Illinois whom I had never heard of.
Out of nowhere, came Barack Obama saying what I thought! What I knew was true! What I had never heard any leader say in my lifetime!
He began with his own story, speaking of his modest roots as the son of a goat herder and the grandson of a cook. He told his story, one of dreams and ambition, and emphasized how his experience was the realization of the American promise. His story was part of the American story. And the greatness of his own life’s journey reminded me of the greatness of America’s promise.
Obama spoke of America at its best: as tolerant and generous. He made clear that the American tradition was to constanly seek to grow in each of these founding virtues. It is why he owes a debt to his forbearers; it is why we all owe a debt to our forbeaers. When we do so, Obama said, we affirm the greatness of the nation.
I felt proud. Of America and being an American. Obama had barely been on stage five minutes and he had reminded me of the simplicity and the decency of America’s primary purpose. And I felt called anew to serve that purpose. “Our pride,” Obama said, “is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago, ‘We hold these truths to he self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Hearing these familiar words from the Declaration of Independence again, this time from Obama, I felt a reverence for these words as I never had before.
He reminded me that these words are what bind all Americans to one another. By them, we are able to do well by one another. The idea of America as a community, invested in the interests of one another was a deemphasized notion in 2004. We were then a people that reflected our politcs: deliberatlively and passionately divided. How compelling it was to reflect on the common ground that we truly shared as a people, starting with the inspired words of the Declaration of Independence. Building on that notion, Obama said this, which I will never forget and which I will always keep close to my heart:
“There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
In mere minutes, he summarized the foundational hopes of this nation – and he reminded me that those virtuous principles our Founders revolted for were being betrayed by the politics of my time. The reason I knew this to be true was because even I, despite my excitement over the convention, had not actually expected to be so compelled by it; yet, this moment of authentic inspiration generated by Obama revealed how small my expectations of my leaders, my fellow citizens, and even myself truly were.
I realized that it was possible to expect more. And what I have learned since is that it is my duty to expect more: of my leaders, of my fellow citizens, and of myself. I now find Obama’s presidential candidacy so urgent and important for the nation because he believes this too, and he does expect more of himself as a leader. I see examples of this in his refusal to accept the money of lobbyists to fuel his campaign and also in his prescience and new vision concerning the war in Iraq. He also expects more of this citizenry, as he calls all of us to take part in this campaign and begin looking to our history for wisdom and direction in our own communities. Because he appreciates the best of our nation’s past, I believe he is ready to lead us to the best of our nation’s future. This persoanl realization, brought on by a man who simply recited the opening of the Declaration of Independence and embodied its promise, is the most important moment I’ve yet experienced in discovering what it means to be an American.
I say this because the words of the Declaration of Independence are the words born of revolutionary virtue; they are the words that began the world over again; they are the words that will heal our collective past in their very fulfillment; because these are the words that will unite our generation to reclaim the American dream; and because these are the words evoked so sincerely by this new leader who has already given name to that defining cause of our time: the audacity of hope.
In the midst of discovering what being an American means to me, I believe that the meaning of the 2008 election stands to mean the rediscovery of common sense for this country. And I believe that the next American generation will be leading the way, supporting Barack Obama and acting in understanding of Paine’s words: “Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor.”