1000 WORDS ON…THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Written : November 8, 2004
My Uncle Jim lived in Brentwood, a tiny community out in the East Bay in California, about 70 miles from San Francisco.
I can’t quite remember his friend’s name, let’s call him Buddy. If Jim wasn’t quite the personification of rural America, Buddy certainly was. He wore jeans, a tank top, and one of those horrible square baseball caps. It was the summer of 1986, and the three of us were seated at the kitchen table in my uncle’s house at mid morning.
To all extents and purposes, they were the experienced 40 something elders, and I was the raw impressionable 17 year old over visiting the USA for the first time since emigrating to Ireland nine years before. For this reason I kept quiet as they carried out their discussion.
They talked about several different topics, mostly of a local nature, but Buddy’s attitude changed the minute Jim happened to mention the Russians. His face became consumed with anger. He leaned forward on the table and made this solemn proclamation: “I’m tellin both of you right now, as sure as I’m sittin’ here, if the Ruskies land on the shores of California tomorra, I’m grabbin me a piece!”
My astonishment was not from the prospect of him holding a gun, for his appearance pretty much suggested that image anyway. Despite whatever education and various media information would have been beamed in this guy’s direction for the past forty plus years, he actually believed it was feasible for the Russians to “land” on the shores of the USA. Presuming him to be an exception rather than an example, I looked over to my uncle, who to my horror was nodding sternly in agreement.
This experience was one which first got me thinking about exactly what America was and what it stood for. At that tender age I could be forgiven for thinking the whole nation felt that way. Today, especially with the 51/49 split of the popular vote in the recent presidential elections, I am more aware than ever of the divide that is right down the middle of American opinion.
On the domestic front, I have to admit that I know very little. My experience of the divide between the city dwellers and their country cousins was limited to trips on BART from my mother’s apartment in foggy downtown San Francisco to my uncle’s place out in the sunny East Bay. Quite a contrast.
Half the people believe the USA should take its rightful place among the nations of the world; the others believe their lives would be easier if the other nations weren’t there, and so want to either ignore them or attack them. The stark disparity between those who are willing to debate what they believe in, and those who are willing to be told what they should believe is mind-boggling. One side wants the right to bare arms amended in the constitution, the other hopes to tinker with free speech. It’s a chasm that perhaps can never be bridged.
But this can’t just be a rant about America’s negative qualities, for I am all in favour of promoting its positive ones as well. For me, they mostly come from the country’s history.
I often hear rhetoric about what “the founding fathers” intended when they created the mechanisms of the state back in 1776, so being a passport holder I feel I have the right to throw my own interpretation into the ring. What they appear to have been doing when they drew up the incredible document that was the original Constitution was endeavouring to create a nation which comprised 13 states, each of which would retain their own separate values and cultures, but would also put aside these differences when necessary for the sake of the greater good of the nation as a whole. They also made the wise provision for the addition of other states in the future.
It’s an awe-inspiring concept; united we stand, divided we fall. Would it be too improbable to hope that one day these principles could be applied to the world as a whole? A Human Constitution perhaps? Maybe not with today’s United Nations, a title which I believe to be a contradiction in itself. But were such a global document to be drawn up one day I believe it could not do much better than to take inspiration from the 1776 masterpiece.
Unfortunately, many of my countrymen seem to think these principles end at their own borders. Instead of seeing its Constitution as an example to the world at large, many consider it to be a way of distinguishing America as somehow superior to all other nations. This apathy to the rest of the world is stupefying, and does much to fuel the fire of anti-American feeling around the globe.
Were it not for the Bill Clinton years I would probably be ready to throw away my passport for good. Say what you like about the whole Monica Lewinsky thing – he was a damn good ambassador for his country, and for me anyway he set the standard for the image a president should project to the world. He may not have actually found solutions for the conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, but at least he made an effort which would befit the founding father’s intentions of unity among separate nations.
When Americans slap their hands on their chest and beam with pride as they sing their national anthem, I often wonder do they realize that the last line of the song is actually asking a question, perpetually posing a challenge to all US citizens, for I certainly do.
“Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and home of the brave?”
My answer is “not just yet”. True bravery will be shown by taking our place alongside the other nations of the world rather than isolating ourselves from them. I hope against hope that one day it will happen.
© JL Pagano 2004
NEXT, #32 : 1000 WORDS ON…MY SON