I remember, when living for four years in Indonesia as a child, listening to my mother reading me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I remember her explaining how this declaration applied to every American, black and white and brown alike; how those words, and words of the United States Constitution, protected us from the injustices that we witnessed other people suffering during those years abroad. That’s my idea of America.
As I got older, that gut instinct – that America is the greatest country on earth – would survive my growing awareness of our nation’s imperfections: it’s ongoing racial strife; the perversion of our political system laid bare during the Watergate hearings; the wrenching poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia. Not only because, in my mind, the joys of American life and culture, its vitality, its variety and its freedom, always outweighed its imperfections, but because I learned that what makes America great has never been its perfection but the belief that it can be made better. I came to understand that our revolution was waged for the sake of that belief – that we could be governed by laws, not men; that we could be equal in the eyes of those laws; that we could be free to say what we want and assemble with whomever we want and worship as we please; that we could have the right to pursue our individual dreams but the obligation to help our fellow citizens pursue theirs.
It’s hard to get your arms around an entire country. It’s too big for the easy summations people like the Freepi give it; they draw the circle too small. It’s hard to love them as part of the country you love, but if their pathology is that they can’t accept us as part of them then our grace has to be that we can. At times I wish we could wall them off in their own state and let them have their weird theocracy so they don’t poison everything that allows them to be, but who then would remind us we’ve always got farther to fall? They’re on the fringes, pushing, reminding us that if we’re not careful, look where we’ll end up. Look where we are. I appreciate them for that; it’s easy to start to believe that’s everybody else, but it’s not the case.
It’s hard to get your arms around an entire place that holds so much anger and fear, and when you’re a fighter you think that’s all there is to do, fight, and you start seeing everything in terms of opponents, the problems, the gaps to be filled and the list of tasks yet to be done. I’m not saying take a break, I’m not saying it’s okay to kick back today of all days; in four days Congress is gonna start fucking with the Constitution again and so we’ve all got phones to get on. But I am saying, it’s easy to see all the broken places, and forget that, to paraphrase the great Leonard Cohen, the only reason you can see the breaks at all is from the light shining through them.
And that light for is everyone who ever did something kind for someone else, for the dollar that fed someone its giver never met, for the hand that opened the door to the prison camp, for the feet that marched the picket line, for the cooks in the soup kitchens and the people making beds in the shelters, for the voices answering calls for help in the middle of the night. For the New Deal and the 101st Airborne, the teachers for America and the doctors at the free clinic down the street. For the Spirit of ’76 and the Freedom Riders, the fishermen on the lake at 5 a.m. in the summertime and the construction workers on the Dan Ryan at midnight. For Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy, for the astronauts and the cafeteria workers, for the singers and writers and painters and poets, for my neighbor who gave me matches when our power went out (300 candles in this house, and no matches or lighter) and the cop who comes through our alley and waves to the kids riding bikes and the guy who leaves the house across the street every morning yelling over his shoulder, “I love you, honey!” For you, and you and you and you, you, and you.
The quality of mercy isn’t exclusively ours, of course, but the examples are, and for whatever yours are, I think, we can raise our voices and sing a venerable drunken tavern song: