The Paradox of American Identity
by Chris Thrailkill
Happy Fourth of July to everyone reading this! Traditionally, people use this day to ruminate on the founding of America, spend time with friends and family, and generally enjoy their local community and national character. It’s a holiday that speaks to the promise of our country, and one that always fills me with renewed optimism in the promise of America.
Unfortunately, this particular Fourth of July has turned into another controversy surrounding Trump’s military parade in DC, something not seen since the victory parade for the Gulf War in 1991. This also comes off a poll showing a historic low in national pride by American citizens. Certainly, in a time when the country is rankled with political conflict and genuine discussions about the fundamental American character, it might be hard to find common ground and pride in our country. In the spirit of the holiday, however, I thought I’d take some time to talk about some things that America means to me.
There’s a scene in Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again, where Captain America is tasked with corralling an AWOL Cold-War era super-soldier. In the scene, the military liaison states his gratitude to Captain America for his loyalty, and the captain responds by grabbing the flag and stating he’s “Loyal to nothing general — Except the Dream.” When I first read this scene in middle school, I remember being struck by the symbolic power of the superhero literally dressed in the national colors stating he’s not loyal to the country or government, but to the dream; to an ideal.
The ideal of course, is the most famous line in our national creed: “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.” Every American native, citizen, and immigrant was born with this as their birthright, or came to this country hoping to realize this creed for themselves. Every fight and discussion regarding our national character and identity stems from the fundamental question of what it means to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, and if all men truly are equal in the eyes of the American nation and law. Coming to terms with how we’ve succeeded and failed at living up to our ideals over the generations is the tension that fundamentally shapes our cultural and political divides.
The audacity of those momentous words have been commented on quite literally millions of times over the years. Yet it never hurts to remember what a game changer it is to found a nation based not on ethnicity, religion, or blood and soil, but on the premise that every single person who has ever been born is inherently equal under the law, and possessed of the exact same fundamental right for self-determination. It is political philosophy, rather than an ethnic culture, that binds 300,000,000 people together in relative peace and security. And this allows for myriad cultures and traditions to thrive together under the American Banner.
Think about how fundamentally different The American experience has been for disparate people. This is a country where diametrically opposed cultures have managed to spring from the same experience. Some Americans born in the era of slavery lived to see the passage of civil rights. Some Americans lived through women’s suffrage and the Sexual Revolution. Some Americans lived through the Stonewall riots and the legalization of gay marriage. Conversely, The Confederate war of secession was equally American. People lived through the Confederacy to join the Ku Klux Clan and pass Jim Crow. The Trail of Tears and the disenfranchisement of Native Americans is tied directly to Manifest Destiny and the westward expansion of American territories. Even today, the Westboro Baptist Church is a wholly American group looking to condemn LGBTQIA Americans.
Disparate political forces have shaped the fabric of America as well. The Sexual Revolution and the Moral Majority have both shaped the American experience for entire generations. Influential coalitions include Suffragettes and Abolitionists. The Black Panthers and the Worker’s Movement. Unionization and corporate monopolies. The Alt Right and the American Nazi Party. Not to mention discrimination against the Chinese, Irish Catholics, African Americans, Trans Americans, Mexicans, Southern traitors and Northern elitists among others all are intrinsic parts of the historical American experience.
We’ve been capable of great good as a people. The liberation of Europe and The Marshall Plan. The fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. The first major defeat of Imperial Britain. The Gulf War. The Establishment of the UN. We’ve also been capable of great evil as well. Our continued support for Saudi Arabia and our newfound support for North Korea. Our poor record in Latin America. The Vietnam quagmire and the intractable wars against Terrorism and Drugs. The genocide of our Native American brothers and sisters. Slavery. It’s simultaneously true that America has historically been a shining beacon promoting human rights and democracy while still being a country with historic marginalization of people of color, LGBTQIA communities, and plenty of mistakes on the international stage.
For every American supporter of these goods and evils, there have been American detractors and opponents. And that is how it should be, as it’s ultimately the people of America who have shaped our cultural identity. Our individual citizens are the leaders of businesses, the founders of artistic movements, philosophers and poets, farmers and hunters, and scientists and engineers who have led the world in pioneering the future for generations. Just think of some of the great Americans who have fundamentally left the world a better place. America is Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth. Ford and Rockefeller. Spielberg and Spike Lee. Beyonce and Selena. Stan Lee and Toni Morrison. Cesar Chavez and Billy Graham. I.M. Pei and Neil Armstrong. Albert Einstein and Norman Borlaug.
Equally powerful are the great art forms spawned by our country. The creation of film and Hollywood. Broadway and the American musical. The Hip-Hop movement and the Rock Star. Break dancing and the Charleston. New Orleans and Louis Armstrong. Nashville Country and Seattle Grunge. The Rio Grande Valley and Kansas Barbecue. New England and Plymouth Rock. Our inventions have shaped the everyday experience of people around the globe as well. The smart phone and the automobile. High yield grains and the Internet. The Airplane and Television. These inventions and artistic movements were pivotal to the creation of national regional identities, from New England and the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest and The Western Rockies. Appalachia and Hawaiians. Miami and the bread basket. Urban cosmopolitanism and rural pastoralism. Ultimately, America is made up of more disparate cultures than any nation known to civilization, from the territories such as Guam and the Virgin Islands, to the Native American reservations, to Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City. It’s given America incredible depth and diversity, while still being bound by our common bonds in our national identity as Americans.
There are those who see the historical injustices and disparities in America and see nothing to celebrate about our country, despite the great good we’ve done. Likewise, there are those with blind loyalty to every action ever taken by our nation and never question errors or atrocities done in our name. But the truth is America, like any living thing, is a mess of contradictions and paradoxes that has both noble and terrible qualities. Ask 100 Americans and you’ll get 100 definitions of what being American means. These myriad viewpoints paradoxically create the singular defining trait of American national character: the ability to self-define. For me, America is the country that took my grandparents and parents in and gave them a new life. It’s the country that lets me have the opportunity to pursue any dream I might have. That’s still not true for everyone, but everyday average citizens, public servants, and community leaders do their part to make the country a little better for the people in their lives. Until the day we live up to our creed, and everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams, we remember where we came from, what we’ve accomplished, and work towards the next step towards a more perfect union.