We are Americans, Not American’ts

This was originally posted with The Outlier Collective in July of 2013, when I was invited to write about the USA in a positive light. As TOC has gone offline, I decided to re-publish it here.

How would you fill in this outline? I guarantee it’s more complex than red, white, and blue. Would you color this country obnoxious and ignorant, or optimistic and inventive? All these shades exist inside the American crayon box, but what really colors your perception of America is what aspect of it you choose to focus on. Today, I want to highlight what I was celebrating last week as the 4th of July fireworks exploded.

When I think of my home country, what immediately comes to mind is that it’s a wellspring of possibility. From birth, Americans are raised believing that you simply do whatever it takes to follow your ambitions. Ask any six-year-old: What will she be when she grows up? The answer (in summary): Anything she fucking wants. And with that belief comes a determination that means there’s very little that can’t be accomplished in this country. In addition, the great majority of Americans are relentlessly committed to finding what makes us happy. It’s written into our core national documents, for crying out loud. I believe the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” represents my nation more perfectly than any other words we have on record. And the place where initiative and idealism converge is the source of what’s best about America. It’s our own special kind of magic.

This energy is magic because it leads to evolution. When people are simultaneously driven and hopeful, and when they have the resources to pursue their passions, good things happen. I’ll be completely honest and tell you something you already know: there are plenty of very average, not especially motivated people in my country. That’s fine. There are also some very bad, fearful, and stupid people in my country, and sometimes they hold positions of power. But when I think of why America is worth celebrating, my mind is on the thousands and thousands of citizens who genuinely want to make the country and the world a better place. Because, after a time, all that “pursuit of happiness” navel-gazing turns outward, and the concept of personal fulfillment transforms into the conviction that everyone in the world should be empowered to achieve their own brand of contentment. People begin founding public health NGOs and working to preserve the environment and promoting international fair trade and – while our government continues to be a problematic beast, erring often and apologizing infrequently – the individuals who truly make up the nation keep pushing for positive change. Just last week, my federal government recognized gay marriage. And yes, that initiative came up from the people at the grassroots. And yes, I am really, really proud of my country.

Of course, my patriotic love is not unconditional. For example, I happen to think there are much prettier flags than ours. (Have you seen Kazakhstan’s?!) And I don’t think America is the best country in the world, because I don’t think we’re in a competition. But I do know that we have a lot to offer and we are trying to do good work. (After all, the internet and global warming were both invented by just one of our citizens!) But seriously: I’m not talking about saving the world. How could we, when there’s so much we don’t understand? But Americans are learning to connect with other people around the globe to mutually support each other and, together, make things a little better for the next generation.

I didn’t always feel this way. I spent years of my life apologizing for my country. When I lived in Mexico, I was on auto-repeat that not every American worshipped George Bush. When I traveled to Dubai, I found myself pleading with a taxi driver to understand that of course not all Americans despised his way of life. Wherever I went, in the midst of appreciating some new and marvelous place, I was accompanied by the specter of being American in a world that is frequently angered and disappointed by America. But now I believe that promoting mutual understanding is a more valuable use of my time than begging forgiveness. In fact, I began to realize I was judging my own country by much harsher standards than I would ever apply elsewhere, and I was losing so much in the process. There is a way for me to represent where I come from honestly and fairly, without sweeping our faults under a rug, but also without ignoring what we have to offer. And what America offers is not our government – it’s our individuals and their collective power. I think our people’s sheer belief in the potential of the human spirit casts an international light.

As American author Jack Kerouac wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who […] burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding […] across the stars.”

And that’s us. We’re nothing if not excessive, but boundless exuberance – when channeled – can be a wonderful thing. Driven by confidence and enthusiasm, our energy spills out like fireworks around the world. Sometimes the light show gets misdirected and, despite our best intentions, we shower sparks onto an unsuspecting neighbor’s roof. Sometimes the sparks catch fire and cause damage, and the results are tragic. But I can promise that, when disaster strikes at American hands, there will be other Americans lining up to form a water bucket brigade to douse those errant flames. These people will recognize where the fault lies and then do whatever it takes to re-establish neighborly love. Hopefully these Americans are enough to make people of other nationalities believe that – despite the unpredictability of fireworks – the world is overall a little brighter because they exist.

So. If you want to discuss specific examples of American uncouthness or political fuck-up-ery, I’m more than happy to oblige with a sober, reasoned conversation. But if you ask me how I really feel about my country, I will tell you this: It’s awesome. Here, I can trust that my freedom of speech is utterly sacred. I can travel from one shore to another and see enough varied geography to fill five separate countries. I can enjoy the cultural contributions of an incredibly diverse population on a daily basis. I can witness the old soul of this relatively young nation reflected in our continued devotion to traditional crafts, music, and storytelling despite the increasing prevalence of modern conveniences.

And, most of all, I can spread the news that – to paraphrase the immortal words of Johnny Depp – we are Americans, not American’ts. We can learn. We can grow. We can succeed more than we fail. We can be ourselves and still be worthy of our place in the world. We can be an imperfect nation and still have a positive impact.

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29 responses to “We are Americans, Not American’ts

  1. There’s still an unending parade of people kicking down the doors to get into this place. It must have something going for it. You can come to America and become an American. You can’t go to China and become Chinese or Germany and become German. I might bitch and moan, but I ain’t moving.

    • Every place I’ve lived or traveled, people have had serious complaints about corruption in their government. It seems more like a flaw inherent to politics than one belonging exclusively to a particular country.

      • Yes, but the level of corruption is wildly different. Some countries, like in Africa or in the Middle East for instance, are so corrupt that the nation is crippled and no progress can be made. Other places, like China or Russia, are “functionally” corrupt. We have corruption here, of course, but we’re straight shooters compared to a lot of places.

        BTW, speaking of functionally corrupt, I wrote a check and paid someone to fix my blog, which has been a mess for a long time. I’m off self-hosting and now part of the greater WordPress community. Long time coming.

        • YES!!!! First the Bloggess, now YOU. I freaking love this trend. Please, keep moving to WordPress and making my life easier. (What I’m really saying is: no more pressing that damn button to prove I’m not spam!)

          To your point: yes, absolutely. People love to point out what the US has gotten wrong, but I’ve pretty much reached a mindset of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Despite a few isolated, extreme cases of governmental abuse, I have seen absolutely no reason to fear my personal safety or freedom of speech in this country. I know enough to understand most of the world can’t take that for granted.

  2. I’m Canadian, so I can’t speak from experience obviously. There is a certain relationship that we have with the Americans, but it’s not so much me with other beautiful humans, but more along the lines of sovereign and state. We joke about the differences south and north of the 49th parallel, but for the most part, folks are folks. I might have issues with certain laws in the States, but I also have them about Canada too. It is what it is. I understand how others see your country, and as you mention, all you can do is try and connect with others on a human, fundamental way. The rest is politics and horn blowing.

    Wonderful tribute to a country you love so well 🙂

    Paul

    • “For the most part, folks are folks.” <–Well said, Paul! After visiting twelve countries – So many more I want to see! – this is what I have concluded, too. Blogging is the single best way I have found, so far, to connect with people from other countries in a "human, fundamental way."

  3. We lived in Portugal for a number of years (and loved it there). One time we were in the states, my husband was talking to some folks about how the Portuguese love to come to the USA. A teenager came up to him after he finished talking and said, “Why do they want to come to America? What’s so great about America?” I think you have touched on the soul of the answer to that question.

    • When I was a teenager, I would have said the exact same thing. I never loved my country so much as I did as an adult, when I come home to it after two years away. I adored Mexico, but home is home, for so many reasons both tangible and in-. And yes, I do love “our” collective spirit.

      • Still, I left half of my heart in Portugal, and would go back if I could. I love the Portuguese people and felt more at home there than I did in the US. The worst culture shock I ever experienced was walking into the grocery store and seeing the cereal aisle. I had to get a grip and get out of there. Which I did post haste. Eventually, I had to go back, of course.

        • Oh, I love that truth in that tiny story! I had the exact same experience when I got back, and still avoid big box stores like the plague. It isn’t even about a moral issue… it’s just total, unasked for sensory overload. I’ve also heard similar tales from friends who volunteered with the Peace Corps, and friends who took extended wilderness trips.

          I think it’s marvelous that you found a second home that fits you even better than your first. Still, what would it be like if you had to pick one or the other, and never return to the one that took second place? Whenever I posed that question to myself – Mexico or the US, forever – I chose the US. On the other hand, thankfully, life doesn’t work that way… so do you think you’ll ever live in Portugal again?

          • I can’t imagine NEVER visiting, but I have three married children and some grandchildren. The thing that I loved the most is that it was a slower paced culture. People took time to talk and especially to listen. You can’t buy those kinds of things, and we have precious little of them in the states. Still, I spent a lot of years missing my Portuguese friends, and now I can see them on FB. That helps some.

          • I understand. People do listen more in certain places, and it’s almost as if having that much attention given to what you say makes you choose your words more carefully. That’s a good thing, I find. 🙂

  4. very interesting . . . and frankly nice to hear. I may feel the same way if I had not had the first hand experiences that I have had . . . (won’t go there) but I have no rebuttal as to your viewpoint.

    What I may add is that I have found common folks in every country I have been in to be pretty much the same and wanting pretty much the same things . . . why we allow sociopaths to lead us into wars and invasions and thievery of all sorts is beyond my comprehension.

    • OK, I won’t ask. But… I’m sorry. And yes, like you and Paul have both said, people are people are people. Every country has folks that run the gamut from just plain despicable to being worthy of the highest praise. I think the US catches a lot of flack because we are big, and privileged, and loud, but none of those things are things that in themselves we should feel guilty for. Better than guilt would be making sure the messages we’re shouting so loudly are good, thoughtful ones. (My dad once said that if you’re not an idealist when you’re young, you have no heart, and if you’re not a cynic when you’re older, you have no brain. I’m clearly hoping to prove him wrong!)

    • Thanks a lot. It’s funny – I can see what I’d change now about my voice from six months ago… but I left every word how it was. I’m no Marty McFly, to go altering the past. 🙂

  5. As Canadians, we still hate on Americans all the time, but it’s nothing more than epic envy. We know this to be true. You guys have a great country, I hope you all believe it.

  6. I’m Canadian, and I disagree that we “hate on Americans all the time.” For the most part, I think we get on extremely well, sans envy – I don’t think that any other two countries can say that. Maybe Australia & New Zealand?

    Fabulous tribute to your home and native land. Well done! 🙂

    • I agree! I never hear Canada spoken of in anything but the positive. Great health care, beautiful scenery, thriving culture, kind people… (I won’t mention a certain mayor, because he isn’t Canada’s fault).

      I’d like to visit Oz and NZ and see how they’re doing! I wanted to get there for my honeymoon, but it’s just so far away. If it’s for the sake of important sociopolitical research, though… maybe I can get a grant? 😉

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