Of Salads and Dysfunction -- Part 5 of Twelve-step Program for an American Recovery

It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “A nation divided against its self cannot stand.” He was speaking in a context of civil war so his words carried that weight. The statement demands consideration in today’s context as well, and it brings me to my fifth step in re-establishing an America of promise – we have to start thinking of ourselves as Americans first

I am a woman, but I am pre-eminently an American – my female DNA is a choice God made for me and does not determine my political allegiances. I am an American. I have Danish-Dutch-Czech-Swiss ancestry, but that is just interesting, conversational fodder, not an issue on which I vote.  I am a senior citizen, which mostly affects my speed – how quickly I can unbend after sitting a while, how long it takes me to do my make-up, how fast I drive – but it doesn’t make me part of a voting block. I am an individual – an American.

Americans are a people who solve problems, who invent, who take risks; almost all of us have at least one ancestor who took the gamble of crossing an ocean to get here. We are people who value decency, hard work, and integrity. We aspire to be the best that we can be. We don’t take no for an answer, in fact we thrive on pressure and challenge,  on adventure  and innovation, on potential and hope.

Yes, we will always carry with us the residue of slavery.  We will always be aware that we pushed aside another group of people who lived here before Europeans showed up.  But that history happened a long time ago and picking at those scabs gets us nowhere.  It’s true that humans rarely learn as much from history as we should, but I think we got it on these issues.

Yes, some of us have amassed fortunes. Some of us haven’t. Some of us have made dismal life decisions, and some of those folks are rich, some poor. I thought America aspired to be a classless society and now we have a president who lives like a Middle-Eastern potentate and slanders the “rich.” What exactly does that accomplish?  If we all hate the rich will the poor then be comfortable?

We are neither black nor white, native nor immigrant, wealthy nor impoverished, male nor female. We are not even essentially conservative  or liberal.  We are Americans and we’ve got to start putting that first.

For quite a while now forces have existed that insist on separating us; diversity has become more important than unity. We’re no longer a melting pot, but “a salad.” I was told that by one of my college professors. Good grief – salads rot – or get eaten.  America is so fragmented now that we can barely hold it together, and yet, our president and his administration have trained their laser-like focus on driving wedges (no golf pun intended) into every crack and cranny they can find.

We’re constantly urged to nurse our grievances at the expense of our fellow Americans. Isn’t it interesting that in the interest of inclusiveness we would constantly be harangued about which group we exclusively belong to? Are you one of the 99% or the 1%?

Are you gay or straight? Old or young? Pro-choice or pro-life? Christian or atheist?  Tea party or OWS?

I’m not an advocate of ignoring our differences or of homogenizing them. If you are black, you’re black. If you are Hispanic, you’re Hispanic. OK, fine. But you are an American first. We are all in this together and we mustn’t let the incessant barrage of anti-whatever  -propaganda trick us into seeing each other as faceless enemies.  If we’re Americans first, we’re individuals, not groups.

My students were often appalled to discover – as they occasionally did through the school grapevine – that I was a conservative.  I was a public school teacher,  heavily involved  in the performing and literary arts, and I wasn’t a liberal?!? Several of these kids were so amazed at this arrangement that they wrote their college application essays about it. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Why did they have the idea that those things were mutually exclusive?

We pledge allegiance to this country, to the idea of this country – not to the countries of our grandparents’ birth, not to a union, a club, a party, or a race. If we can’t see the importance of that idea, then heaven help us. Our enemies – and we have them, both within and without,  no doubt get a thrill up their legs with every display of American disunity, and they must love it a great deal when it is our president who encourages the display.

Each of us must decide if we want the America our founding fathers designed. That America was a nation of aspirations. It was imperfect – of course; it was new and as with all nations, it was constructed of flawed human beings.  It’s still quite young, as nations go, and we still have a great deal to accomplish. The nation’s designers leaned heavily on Judeo-Christian mores, Anglo-Saxon governmental patterns, and Greek philosophy. They saw capitalism, production, and business as the route to plenty for all. America honored the individual, giving each citizen the opportunity to chase dreams, yet it depended on each citizen to take care of himself and his family.

Wanting to improve the execution of those original ideas will keep us a great nation. But that is not the same thing as wanting to scrap it, to “fundamentally change” it. There’s nothing wrong with its fundamentals, nothing wrong, or old-fashioned, about seeing each individual as worthy of making his own life choices. There is nothing magically different about the 21st century that renders that idea passé. But if we are to retain that personal freedom, and accomplish our original goals, we have to see ourselves as responsible, particular persons, each a necessary and unique part of the greatest experiment man has ever undertaken.