Which America Do You Celebrate?

Which America Do You Celebrate?

June 13th, 2016, I got up early Sunday morning, hours before the full horror of the murders at Pulse, Orlando’s lively gay nightclub, were known. For the rest of the morning, it was like an ugly storm that would not let up.

Which America Do You Celebrate?
Which America Do You Celebrate?

Ironically, this was a day I set aside to write about Fourth of July, Independence Day, fireworks planned for Roosevelt Island, yet here I was miserably distracted by contemporary fireworks that continue to upset our nation in its 240th year.

More assorted ideas…

When I was a kid, my dad drove us to the county fairgrounds in Montrose, Pennsylvania, and allowed my brothers, sister and me to sit on the roof of his car while fireworks lit up the night sky.

That was a different America, the comfortable one where we felt safe before the 1960s political assassinations, struggles for civil rights, disillusion of the undeclared Vietnam War and criminal corruption in the Nixon era.

None of these things were possible in the Ozzie and Harriet America where watching fireworks from the roof of a car was the delight of the summer. Or so we imagined.

I have never been able to fully let go of that ideal America, even as it becomes more clear that it wasn’t what it appeared to be. 

Tempted at times to discard that comfortable vision, I haven’t followed the impulse because the America I thought I knew then harbors an important message: we know what American greatness looks like.

An America we can build and take pride in has its template.

Land of the Free / Home of The Brave

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s America won World War II, ending the genocide that tortured Europe. If ever there was a clear case for good triumphing over evil, this was it.

Magnanimous in victory, we poured resources into rebuilding a ravaged continent.

Think about it. Europe remains united in peace seventy years later, home to democracies from East to West. Without America, the story would be different.

In the long shadow of World War II, President Truman finally integrated our armed forces, and a few years later, President Eisenhower followed the lead of the Supreme Court, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, sending in troops and federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to force Little Rock to accept nine black students into a previously all white high school.

During the war, American women entered the work force in large numbers for the first time. They were vital because so many men were needed in uniform.

The disconcerting part of that story, though, is that, after the war, women were asked to return to traditional domestic roles, their “place,” as the saying went, in the bedroom and the kitchen.

America’s economy roared. The white middle class thrived. Pride in being American, pledging allegiance to American ideals, was seldom challenged.

This was the “land of the free, and the home of the brave,” or so the narrative was told. 

But the decade turned with a young, charismatic President taking office. Images of Camelot, a staple of the mass media at the time, masked cultural tensions that ripped the seams that, sown together, made the American Dream.

An American Dream With Missing Parts

So, which America do you celebrate?

Was it a long-simmering cultural pot that boiled over or a perfect storm of forces colliding at once? Whatever the cause, the 1960s crashed onto the world stage. Fifty years later, the drama’s unfinished.

Anyone dismayed at the state of things in the United States today needs to step back long enough to take an objective look — if stepping back is still even possible.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law a little more than fifty years ago. Most Americans alive today never saw the America where segregation was standard practice in some states. Segregationists were elected to office, no apologies required.

Even where it wasn’t written into law, segregation was respected in traditions.

Not only was our country traditionally unequal, many of us, maybe even most, preferred keeping it that way.

Women’s rights entered the stage, a predictable next step in the push for equality. Before long, gay men and women came out of the shadows to demand their place in the sunlight. 

On and on, groups pushed for equitable treatment, insisting it’s time for America to live up to the ideals it declared to the world.  

July Fourth: Which America Will You Celebrate?

When we step back from the mass media narrative…

Let’s be honest, most newspapers, radio and television stations are there for advertisers, not for truth; if a clear view seeps in, it has to fight for space above or between blaring commercials.

But if you step back from the narrative relentlessly in front of us, what do you see?

Each of us has his or her own vision, but our country, in the last fifty years, absorbed more change, more nonviolent revolution, than anyone could have thought possible.

The order of things is changing, and surprisingly, it’s almost all for the better.

You don’t have to be my age to be amazed that transgender people are not just stepping forward but demanding fair treatment, that the successful presidency of a black man nearly folded into that of our first woman in the highest office, that small wars exist but the giant wars of the past are over, that the social curse of violent crime is at an all-time low.

As Time Is Passing, Which America Do You Celebrate?

We have a long way to go. Women and minorities continue to be held back from full participation and fair pay in jobs.

Discrimination over sexual orientation is as embedded in our culture as is racism. It’s true for both that the elements are so commonplace, it’s hard to see them. They’re incorporated into the American background.

Even so, enormous strides have been taken and will continue to be, but there’s a cost. Incredible stress generated by rapid change has many of us wondering who we are. What does it mean to be American now?

On July 4th, which America will you celebrate?

Does all the violence in places like Orlando mean we’ve gone collectively mad? Do we need so many guns and assault rifles? Is the federal government really bent on destroying our rights and turning us into slaves as websites scream? Will we ever calm down enough to begin building America again?

The fact is, in spite of the daily feed of negative news, that we never stopped building a better America, one more tolerant and generous than the agitators want us to see.

We learned to accept, even celebrate, gay marriage, didn’t we?

Aren’t most of us disgusted by racial discrimination whenever we see it?

Let the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders trash talk. Another great source of American pride is our freedom of speech. Neither of them see the country I see, one so different, so much better for all the struggle, than the one hidden from me when I as a boy.

Happy Birthday, America! is what I plan to say on Independence Day.

My country, you’ve done it again.

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