No, I'm not a historian, but if you question my patriotism, I will tell you that I love America. I am America. America is not only the land of rampant consumerism and vast right-wing conspiracies. My America is Robert Kennedy protesting with the United Farm Workers Union in he 1960's. It is the raised-fist protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. It is the birthplace of Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau.
It is a feminist nation with a 120 -year old suffrage movement. It is a nation whose former president BOTH emerged from a textbook trailer -trash background and played the saxophone on late night television and told millions of MTV viewers about which type of underwear he preferred. What is not to love? It is — and I'm getting teary-eyed over this one — the birthplace of Jazz.
America is so much more. A country with a strong rebel mythology whose original founders betrayed their own countries to establish a new one. One could argue whether this rebel spirit did in fact always materialize into a place of freedom. Clearly it didn't. But what should be just as clear is the deep psychological and cultural influence that this mythology has imprinted in our hearts and minds.
I myself waver between having an intense affection for American people and being strongly critical of their (our) government. And being so conflicted, and being a person who's passion for America is itself comprised of a series of historically anti-American, influences and symbols, I feel quite at home in a land full of it's own demons and contradictions. A land which has been known to continually deny rights to Black Americans while simultaneously putting Malcolm X on a postal stamp.
America is a land whose leaders attend sacred Native-American places and listen to people mourn and celebrate indigenous lives and cultures of America's past while simultaneously endorsing “free trade” policies with nations like Mexico that end up eradicating indigenous life and culture there.
Are Americans aware of such things? Have most Americans read the infamous letter from Chase Manhattan Bank to the U.S. government, in which Chase advises the Mexican government to “neutralize” the indigenous population in Mexico in order to boost international investment? Read it. It's on the Internet.
But more important than all of this is that fact I learned my very critique of the U.S. government precisely in this land I call America. America created me. A land with a deep historical affection — psychological and emotional affection — for underdogs. A land which taught me — either through it's mass media or various institutions, through the words of people like Mark Twain or Martin Luther King Jr. — to care and to be critical.
And frankly, what has bothered me about many of us is that we sometimes choose to ignore this entire psychological history in order to obsess and fixate over other connotations that are present. Some of us even continue to define America solely in terms of European-Americans and in doing so we make it too easy to define this country as a land of the exclusively powerful.
Other people live here — Chicanos, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, the Irish (often referred to as the “Mexicans of Europe”), and so on. Many of these people devoted their entire lives to changing American societal and political norms regarding race and culture. If I hear one more hyper-rational academic ignore all of this history in pursuit of the whiter connotations, of the consumer connotations, of the more violent connotations, I will… meditate peacefully and pray for their kind souls.
So in this country we buy a lot of crap. I know. We buy too much crap. Unnecessary crap. If we are happy, we buy. If we are unhappy, we buy. And since this IS a hopeless fate, we are not without our share of dysfunctions. Some of the crap might even be manufactured in Tibet under oppressive Chinese rule, or in Mexican factories where astronomical numbers of women are abused and raped south of the border. As Americans, we need to be more responsible and critical of ourselves. If our higher standard of living demands poverty elsewhere — either in this country or in the world — we need to change our own lives before we expect our government to follow.
And another obvious point: if you were to ask George Bush or William Bennett or Al Gore, “What makes the best life? Surely none of them will reply “Oh! the consumer life” or “Having 312 pairs of shoes!” We all know that money and status and material objects do not reveal or celebrate our higher selves. But because a plausible escape from all of this SEEMS unlikely for ordinary Americans, we are left lacking in spirit. And through such lacking, we create a climate for self-hatred — the ideal climate, by the way, for advertisers.
The question is, what are we going to do about it? How are you and I going to revert to Walt Whitman's mythological America? How are we going to bring about the proper changes? How will we advance and improve it?