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Working Definition

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About 18 years ago now, my Irish friend came to visit me for the first time.  I’d visited her before, and this was the first time she’d come to see me.  It was also the first time she’d visited the United States.  She spent a lot of the first few days staring at everything with wide-eyed wonder, remarking on actually seeing something in real life that she’d seen on television (there was one point when she was trying to hang out of a subway window so she could take a picture of Queens, because “it looks like like Archie Bunker!”), or just staring in mute, dazed paralysis. A few days into the trip, while we were in the cafe for a museum, she gave me a pensive look.  “So tell me,” she asked. “What…what is America?”

I think I actually stopped mid-chew.  “Well, it’s….it’s a country….”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”  She explained that she had a handle on what constituted the Irish cultural identity.  Other countries, too, had their own definite cultural identities – there was something you could point to and say that “that is typically German” or “that is typically Irish”, or French or Italian or Japanese or what have you.  But the American identity had her confused. So what was it?

I was still sitting there mid-chew, thinking. “…I have no idea,” I finally admitted.  And after 18 years, I still have no idea how to answer that.

But thinking about that question every year has become a major part of how I observe Independence Day.  One year I went to Washington DC and thought about it as I paced my way around the Mall just after dawn, contemplating Lincoln’s and Jefferson’s memorials; another year I was in a small town in the Adirondacks, huddled between a young family and a gang of Hells’ Angels watching the fireworks.  Most years I grab one of my collection of American history books and read, and think.  And I am no closer to having the answer.

This year, though, I realized why I don’t have a single answer – it’s because ever since its founding, the definition of “what is American” has been changing.

At the time of its founding, the United States was a conglomerate of former English colonies who basically just wanted to be left alone to do things their own way.  Culturally, though, we were still pretty close to being English.  But soon the new citizens began to ask themselves “what is America” and went through an identity crisis of sorts – right about the time that a vast frontier opened up for us.  Novelists and painters and playwrights started writing about America’s earlier colonial days, setting the stage for the Honest Plainspoken American as our national standard.  The plainspoken, hardscrabble pioneers moving out to the new lands to the west weren’t people seeking a particular lifestyle, they were Honoring Our American Roots.  The simple homespun ways of the pioneers weren’t because of a dearth of goods, they were because Americans eschewed the trappings of artifice.  Even the huge meals that working farmers had to eat were signs of Real Amerian Appetite.

But almost immediately that definition had to change, because there were a couple towns already in that frontier.  Towns where the founders hadn’t been English – but French. New Orleans, along with Baton Rouge and Natchitoches and all the little Cajun regions scattered along the Mississippi, had to count as  American now too.  And so did St. Louis, and Chicago.  And in time, so did towns founded by Spanish settlers – first in Florida, then in Texas, then some bits as far west as California.

And then it changed again as immigrants from even more countries came to find their fortune. Germans and Scandinavians to the northern Plains, Chinese to California, Irish everywhere.

And then the definition had to change again, to accomodate a swell of newly-fledged citizens who’d formerly been enslaved.  They looked different, they thought different, the circumstances of their coming had been very different indeed. It took longer in this instance, but the African-American experience got woven into the definition of America.

And then it expanded again, to include women. Not that we weren’t here all along – but our roles had become limited. More limited, in a way, than they’d been when we were colonists, when shutting out 50% of the minds and strength of the population would have been foolish.  Over time, the definition of American evovled to exclude us – but then it evolved yet again, to include us once again. There is still a ways to go here, too, but at least we are inclued in the count.

And we also had to rewrite the definition again to put back the faces and voices we had tried to erase – in our rush to colonize the new land, we didn’t always consider whether it really was new, or available for colonization.

In time we also had to expand our definition to include other faiths as well – we’d always said we valued religious freedom, but it still took time for the country to accept a Catholic president.  Or a patriotic song by a Jewish musician. Or a Muslim athlete.

And just recently, we had to expand the definition yet again to include a wider variety of sexual preference. Within one single year we went from finally allowing same-sex marriage to establishing Stonewall as a national monument.

With every shift in definition, though, there are those who want to stop it. The shooting in Orlando came just one week before Stonewall’s inclusion on the national registry.  The KKK still rail against Jews and African-Americans; for many, “feminist” is still a dirty word. Trump still talks of excluding Syrians and Mexicans from our country, despite being the grandson of a man who was kicked out of Germany for being a draft dodger.  But even this is par for the course – the Know Nothings were fighting German immigration at about the time Trump’s grandfather was moving over from Germany in the first place.

Fighting to stop change is the wrong idea. This country is too big, too varied, too chaotic for there to be only one definition of “America”, and the Founding Fathers most likely knew that would be the case. The country was painted in broad strokes, with a working definition hastily pencilled in, to give us today the leave to shift and morph and adapt the country into whatever we needed it to be, given the current state of the world. When the world needed scientific innovators, we could be that. When the world needs artists, we gave them that. The world may not have needed more imperialists, but we became that too.  We have been drivers of scientific progress, influencers of geopolitics, crusaders, buffoons, beacons of hope, dictators; a sign of all that is wrong with the world, and a sign of lots of things that are right.

As I write this, one of the best-selling musicals on Broadway is the story of one of the Founding Fathers.  Two hundred and forty years ago, those men – along with most “Americans” – were white.  Today, though, the cast of Hamilton is deliberately mostly non-white – to reflect the faces of the country as it is today. And the music isn’t the classical minuets and English folk songs of Hamilton’s day – it’s hip-hop.  And it wouldn’t have happened if the definition of America hadn’t expanded to include everything that’s come along within the intervening 240 years.

The answer to “what is America” is never going to be set.  It is always going to be a working draft, as pieces get written out, added back, expanded, rewritten, rethought, refined, redrafted, reworked. America is an experiment and we don’t know what it’s about yet.

And so  our best work and most patriotic act would be to keep looking for how to expand the country, who to include. Rather than writing someone out for being the wrong race or color or creed or gender, rather than turning away those who vote Red State or Blue, we need to write them into the definition of who we are, and keep moving forward into the next change. 



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