Saturday, July 03, 2004

This land is your land 

Last night I was listening to the radio when KBCS's Teen Talk program came on. Given the proximity to Independence Day, the show had an appropriate theme: "What does America mean to you?" They started out with a general survey of teens and I found myself chuckling with a condescending attitude at their simplistic answers.* But then my brain kicked in and I had to stop when I realized that I didn't even have an answer.

If you had asked me when I was a kid, I probably could have rattled off catch phrases like freedom, liberty, democracy, truth, justice, and the American way. I was growing up in a conservative, middle class household in a homogenous, middle class suburb. America was the land of heroes--men who were strong, brave, honest and independent. As I grew up and started reading, some other ideals started filtering in. The concepts of equality, diversity, peacefulness, and charity were tacked on to my cultural identity. But over time, I began to become more aware of the ways of the world, the gaps between ideals and reality. It was a gradual change, and just like the G. I. Joe of the 1970's transformed from a soldier to an adveturer and explorer, my values shifted from the right to the left. I never really thought too deeply about them until I hit adulthood.

Probably the first problem came during the Reagan era in the early 1980's. I was all ready to come of age and take my place amongst the hippies, only to find that everybody else was getting haircuts and waving flags again. It seemed to me that America was rushing to feel good about itself again without having tackled the problems of the last two decades. And the more I learned, the worse it got. I realized that America had problems going back way before 1776. I felt that I had been fed a line by those who molded me in my childhood. Then I soon realized that my newer role models were also flawed. As Bob Walkenhorst put it: "The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys." I grew into the cynicism that I had attempted to mimic in my teen years.

I was content to stay there for a decade or so, to get caught up in the day to day. But various things--raising my kids and digging into my family roots, learning about other cultures, growing into my faith--pushed the cultural identity thing back onto me. I've tried to recognize and celebrate things of my heritage, aware of the shortcomings of human forebears and the institutions they created and preserved. So what is America? The melting pot metaphor is still one I like. All sorts of people and cultures, coming together, agitated by the flame of personal and community trouble. And just like you can't throw an ingredient into a pot and expect it to retain it's unique flavor, so each and every American--even the rich white guy--is changed by the other peoples of this land. We have the freedom to be ourselves and even to try and press that identity onto our neighbors, but that also means we run the risk of facing counter pressures which seek to change that identity. As for those ideals of my youth--justice, freedom, love--they aren't the province of Americans, but can rise among any people. Or be equally lost.
*The biggest laugh was the response "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." The interviewer had astutely questioned further and the respondents had to admit that they weren't getting much, if any, of the three.