The New York Times last Sunday ran an article about the city of Enid Oklahoma. It was very illuminating, insightful, and ultimately disturbing.
In summary the story told was ostensibly about an attempt to institute an indoor mask mandate in the midst of the pandemic we are about to “celebrate” the second anniversary of. The mandate was ultimately voted down when a group of Enid citizens, calling themselves the Enid Freedom Fighters, shouted down all attempts at institution at a city council meeting. While this group claimed to have logically and civilly presented their views on the mandate, what they really did was shout, yell, make unfounded claims about the US Constitution and the bible, invoke the names of discredited quack “doctors”, and in general parrot the talking points of the far right. That “victory” emboldened them to become a political force that forced out all those council members who voted for sanity…er…I mean the mandate, take over the city council and the school board and suddenly become a political arm of religious extremists and white supremacists.
The story asks more, though, about what it means to be an American these days. So as we slouch out of this old year (thank you Joan Didion for all you wrote) I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on what I think it means to be an American.
First of all, being an American is a choice (ooh, that’s a word full of contention these days). There is no ethnicity called American. This country was founded, it didn’t naturally evolve as a confederation of related and or conquered tribes like Anglos, Saxons, Gauls, Gaels, et al created Britain, France, Ireland, et al. The Founders (and that right there shows you a difference) made a conscious choice to disassociate from their former country and re-associate with the folks they were living around, mostly British, but also Dutch, German, French, and yes even Africans. Since then America has been a melting pot. Or a salad. Or a quilt. Or whatever analogy you want to use to signify that we aren’t all the same. And then of course in the last several decades we have all become hyphenated Americans, even the increasing number of citizens who are multi-hyphenated because their Australian-Chinese mother married their Belgian-French father making them so many shades of humanity about the only thing they CAN be called is American. We are the mutts of the world. And proud of it.
And I like that. I’d rather live in a land where who your parents were or where they came from makes no matter. Or at least a country that aspires to be that.
Being an American means you have an opportunity to make yourself into the best self you can be. It makes no matter if your desire in life is to have a house in a small town with 2.3 kids, a spouse, a pet, and just enough to retire comfortably on or if you want to have the mansion up on the hill and own all that you can see. The opportunity is open to all who wish to take advantage of it. Your background shouldn’t matter, your family shouldn’t matter, where you grew up or went to college or even if you went to college shouldn’t matter. As long as you are willing to do the work, and do it honestly, then you should be allowed to climb as high as you want. This is an asperation for our country as we have certainly gotten closer but never reached the nirvana of complete equality. Again, this country isn’t a finished product, it’s still in the rough drafts stage. The important thing is to believe we can get there and to have the strength to help get it there.
And if you do make it there, it is your responsibility to make sure the ladder you climbed up on is still there for the next person to use.
Speaking of complete equality, I believe in an America of inclusion. That means everyone is included regardless of race, religion, sexuality, gender, ability, bank account, whatever. Everyone. You live here, you hold American citizenship, you are included. And no one is better than anyone else. Just because you have more money or your family can be traced back in this patch of earth for longer than mine, makes no matter. My family came over as Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century. My wife’s family came over on the Mayflower. Yet still we met, married, and had children. One of those children just married the daughter of the Australian-Chinese-Belgian-French mother and father. No one said they couldn’t marry, not the Supreme Court or the court of public opinion. That’s the ultimate in inclusion.
How do we create this world where everyone is included, where everyone has an opportunity, where everyone who has made the choice can join in the American Experiment? It’s called respect. Every social interaction has to start out from a position of respect. Respect is not necessarily liking someone and that’s okay. There are plenty of people I can say I don’t necessarily like them, but I respect them. That is an evolved situation. Will Rodgers never met a man he didn’t like. Well I’ve met plenty of men (and women) I haven’t liked, but I have come to respect them for their abilities, their courage, or their intellect. About the only people I don’t respect are people who don’t respect other people. In other words, I will respect you until you show me you are not worthy of respect.
Perhaps most importantly, being an American means believing in the fundamental ideas of freedom and democracy. We don’t violently attack the rule of law, either through actual violence or through violent manipulation of the rules we have agreed to live under. By all means, if you feel a wrong has been committed in some way take to the streets and let your voice be heard. It is your right, nay your duty, to speak up for what you believe in. More importantly take to the ballot box to air that grievance and if someone attempts to prevent you for exercising that for which so many have given their last full measure of devotion then call those worms out for what they are and let the world know you think them to be fascist dictators.
I believe so much in that notion of democracy that I will say that much as I abhor the Enid Freedom Fighters and all they stand for, they legally won their elections and have a right to institute the policies they fought for. Just as I will have the right to avoid the toxic environment, both spiritual and physical, of the city of Enid Oklahoma. Because democracy is based on compromise. Just because the majority rules it doesn’t give the majority the right to run roughshod over the minority. Elections are great things, monumental things in the history of the human race, but a victory is only as good as the manner in which the winners treat the losers. In other words Enid, I’ll be keeping tabs on you. And if the anti-education, conspiracy theory believing, Trump loving woman behind your movement attempts to take her beliefs national, well then we got business.
Because Americans don’t shy away from a fight. We don’t look for it, but we don’t run away from it either. We stand for what was written 250 years ago. We stand for what was spoken on a Pennsylvania field turned battle site turned graveyard. We stand for what was dreamt by a man of peace. We stand as Americans who believe in the cause of freedom, for ourselves and our children and their children after them.
And while we’re at it, thank you Mr. Sondheim for writing the most concise and clear debate on what it means to be American