Monday, July 01, 2013
Notes from my Knapsack 7-04-13
What is America, anyhow?
It was disconcerting to read a letter to the editor in a recent Sentinel expressing the hope that a writer whose opinions disagreed with their own would not be heard from again here.
These pages, and the columns of any American newspaper, are ideally a place where the rich, full, complex and diverse range of community viewpoint can be aired, where they may find themselves in open disagreement, and where they might be able to exchange full and frank arguments about the basis of their respective perspectives.
To say not "I disagree with you, and here's why," but rather "I wish you'd go away and not come back" is . . . well, to me, that's not America.
What is America?
America is Eugene V. Debs, and William F. Buckley. This country has given birth to the Republican Party, and the Democratic Socialists of America. We are Mother Jones, and Mother Angelica. We’re Rachel Carson and Dorothy Day, Carrie Nation and Hillary Rodham Clinton. This nation is Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd, Harold Stassen and Norman Thomas.
Woody Guthrie's song reminds us we extend as a nation from California to the New York island, even as Irving Berlin's song asks God to bless America; we also encompass the train they call the City of New Orleans, and the Big Rock Candy Mountain, and on beyond the hundredth meridian.
Within this very week, committed pacifists will enjoy martial music from marching bands as fireworks explode overhead, while elsewhere on the ground in broad daylight SEAL teams in combat zones will use alternative dispute resolution techniques to end arguments peacefully. Those are both very much America.
America is "Howl" and "Leaves of Grass" and "Casey at the Bat." We are Phyllis Schlafly and Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Our nation has been led by elected officials like Harvey Milk, Richard J. Daley, Barbara Jordan, Bella Abzug, Salmon P. Chase, and James Traficant.
To our bemusement and amazement, we are "Birth of a Nation" and "Die Hard 5," but we're also "The Trip to Bountiful," "Places in the Heart," "Days of Heaven," and "Field of Dreams." Of course, we're also "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
In music, we're the inspiration if not the nationality of the composers of "From the New World" and "Grand Canyon Suite," while we're certainly "West Side Story" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." We are the Ramones and Frank Sinatra; we're Etta James and Janis Joplin and Joan Jett; we're Willie Nelson and Mark Mothersbaugh. America is jazz and rock and roll and elevator music, we are jukeboxes and iPods and streaming downloads, we are for good or ill the home of MTV and BET and CMT as much as we are Univision and Telmundo.
America can be Scout troops and soccer leagues, art academies and drill teams, amateurs and professionals working side by side with children underfoot and interns doing the heavy lifting. We're capitalists and state socialists and social democrats. We're media celebrities if only for fifteen minutes, and we're small town publishers of weekly print products that work three times as hard to sell the same amount of ad space.
As Walt Whitman, that great unacknowledged legislator of Camden, NJ said, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
And we need us all, for it is only from "e pluribus" that we get our "unum"; it is only out of many that we can find our common oneness. Because that's what America is: a one that only can be found through the many, and as for that many, as Uncle Sam's finger points out, this means you, too.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him where you find America at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.