7.04.2009

Look for America (Weekly Geek 2009-25)

If you are an American citizen, share what the Fourth of July means to you and how you celebrate it. Do you think of it as the true start to summer? If you are from another country, other than the United States, share what national holidays are significant to your country. Are any of them similar to our celebration of Independence Day? Are there traditions around their celebration? Do they suggest the beginning of a season or something other than the National purpose? Go a step further...let's talk books. Have you read a good fiction or nonfiction book which centers around a country's search for independence? Do you have any book recommendations which embody the traditions or celebrations of your country? And since the Fourth of July brings to mind summertime ... are there any great summer reads you are looking forward to reading over the next month or two?
America is wonderful. That's the fundamental fact. There are few words in the history of the world that have become so universal, and so widely inspiring of wonder and amazement. It's been so for a long time - De Tocqueville was already raving about what America meant as far back as 1835, when America had hardly decided what she meant, herself. By the end of the century, thousands and thousands of souls crowded into boats, armed with little more than the one word: America. They could not even say it, sometimes, in proper English, but they knew it with the intimacy of lovers. I recently finished reading "The Jungle", a book deeply engaged with the word 'America.' America, the land, was a hell-hole unless you were rich - if you didn't have America, in short, you wouldn't get it by going to it. You'd simply be given a scrap to live in and the dubious task of fulfilling the America of others. When I was young, I heard the standard histories of this, that America was there, but that some people were frightened of a big-tent America. That, these immigrants came, and it was hard, but they, too, got their America. American history is a long, gentle bloom of revolutions: slaves were freed, then suffrage, then immigration, World War II, Civil Rights, the Feminist Movement. Manifest destiny was not, in my mind then, a slow growth of borders, but a slow destruction of them, towards the day when all men might, eventually, be free and equal, be truly in America. As I grew older, I learned better. I learned that America was always a sham. I read about the Trail of Tears, and realized the Native Americans were now just shoved into miserable reservations where they relied on casino money. I learned about the Ku Klux Klan and the virtual reenslavement of blacks that still hasn't fully been undone. I saw the way Hispanic immigrants are treated today, and I learned about the ways we keep ourselves rich now - we've just moved our slums into China and the Third World. There is no America, only a big lie told by the rich to sucker the poor, a complex kleptocracy as insiduous and cruel as the worst excesses of kings and emperors. Can you say that America exists or does not exist? America is not and never was a place. When I think of the Fourth of July, or when I think about the election last year, or when I think about the American flag, I think of a poem by Langston Hughes, one of the most beautifully honest works of patriotic literature ever written:
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-- The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be!
(The entire text is available, for instance, here) A holiday? Perhaps. Perhaps in the old sense, of a holy-day, not holy for what we've done, but holy for what we meant, and what we've dreamt, and what we may yet do. That's America to me, and I do very little on the Fourth. I will light fireworks, when every man, of every nation can say the word, without the veil of distance or ignorance, like an epithet, like a cry of it's own particular meaning. I'll light fireworks, when there is only one America, when the America of the grafter and the world-leech is gone, when America is not just a nation, but an honest, pure feeling. I'll light fireworks, when what cannot be done is done, when finally, we have stopped waiting for the world to hobble on through history, and have drawn America up to her feet again, and crowned the good, so often forgot, so often ignored, with brotherhood, sisterhood, fraternite, ahimsa, agape, metta, or whatever word each local tongue can dream.