Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Thinking Back On Being an American

This blog was originally posted nearly fouryears ago. It received more response andcomment than any other blog I've everposted. In this time of political chaos, Ithought it merited a reposting.

I’m proud I’m an American! Please understand that. America is a great nation which provides enormous opportunities for people. But, it is all so much more complicated than that and it is foolish not to wrestle with the many Charlie Leck
The wonders of being an American were, sort of, drummed into us as elementary school youngsters. We learned the pledge and how important it was to be reverent about saying it as we saluted THE flag. We were also taught to sing the national anthem with a sense of reverence. And, from the earliest grades in school, it was also hammered into us that America is the greatest nation on earth and its constitution the single most important document in the world’s vast history.
There was no room for debate or dissent about this!
And now, in these latter years and in the quiet, protective surroundings of my home, I allow myself to think about these “indisputable matters” and wonder…
What makes America so great?
In what areas may we have failed?
There is no doubt about this: the Constitution of the United States of America is an extraordinary document – complex (and sometimes mysterious) and wonderful in its promises. However, the goals of the great constitution are, perhaps, more clearly defined in our nation’s original Declaration of Independence from the control of the British Empire… (as here related in Thomas Jefferson’s original draft…
“We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable; among which are the preservation of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The promises that America made to itself are extraordinary and beautiful and nearly reverent. Let there be no doubt about that. They are also immense, full of depth and nearly undeliverable. That’s what I am thinking on this remarkably beautiful morning here in this spectacular setting that I call my home.
I find myself wishing that Tom Jefferson was sitting here with me in this remarkable place, looking with me at the rising of the sun in the eastern sky. I would urge upon him a cup of my remarkable coffee and, after he has had a sip or two and we have chatted about minor matters, I would ask him: “What has gone wrong?”
His head would tilt only slightly to the side and he would squint in that manner, so known to us all, and ask me the inevitable question.
“What in heaven’s name do you mean?”
“This chart,” I would begin as I unfold it for him, and then stutter onward, “what does it mean and how did it happen?”
He would rock forward a bit from my favorite chair in which he now sits; and he would take the document from me. It is actually a survey from the respected Pew Research Center. As he glances at it, I would continue on.
Jefferson is so brilliant. His eyes fly over the information. Nearly one-fourth of the nation’s population has said that it has trouble putting food on their tables. I could compare these figures for him with those of many other nations that have far less problem feeding their people. I’m aware that I don’t need to. It is irrelevant. We are talking about America.
Nevertheless, I want to scream out: “How the fuck can you pursue happiness when you are hungry and can’t feed your family?”
Again, I know I need not; for we are talking about America and the question is so blatantly obvious to him.
Jefferson was able to quickly examine the data. His eyes rise up from the printed document and look into mine. They are brilliant, clear and remarkable eyes.
“It was, of course,” he says slowly and with careful consideration in reference to his sacred and undeniable truths, “only a promise, you know. And by promise I do not mean a certain guaranty, but something achievable and attainable. These goals must be achieved, maintained and guarded with great respect.”
I nod, respectfully, and see a certain firmness of will and wisdom in his eyes. They are locked on me and I realize they are expecting difficult questions.
I point out through the big glass doors to the east and then open my hand and wave it across the remarkable, blue sky that is visible above the tall, tall trees.
“There is so much wealth and comfort,” I stutter out and seek the simple, but wisest words, “and yet there is so much poverty and need. Is the great promise only for the swiftest and strongest among us?”
He does not quickly reply. He shows his respect for my question and appears to ponder it.
“The stability of any great society is dependent upon the health and happiness of its people,” he says very slowly. “Any great nation of people will make it possible for its entire people to pursue that which is their natural, God-given right. And that is, of course, the freedom to pursue life and liberty. It is incumbent upon all the people of the land to make sure that it does not become impossible for certain of its people to continue in that pursuit.”
I am intrigued with how slowly, thoughtfully and clearly he speaks. I sit, transfixed, and continue listening to him.
“A hungry man,” he says, “and, by this, of course, you must know after all this time, I mean woman as well, cannot pursue with full measure any of these desirable and undeniable rights. That income and wealth would not be fairly and justly distributed we never imagined. An even and classless society is not a possible dream and it is not a part of the promise. It is only just, however, that every man be given an equal and fair opportunity to achieve such levels of success.”
We sipped more coffee and nibbled on the fresh strawberries contained in the large bowl I’d put upon my desk; and we talked more about the promises and guarantees of the Constitution and the manner in which it had been interpreted by various Supreme Courts and its justices over the years.
The end of slavery did not surprise him. He knew the institution was not intellectually justifiable. There was an identifiable tone of apology in his voice as we chatted about the subject. He had not seen his own slaves as prisoners and property. He was startled, however, that it had taken such a costly and painful war to settle the issue when the courts could have so simply and constitutionally settled it long before the first shots were fired.
“It has been one of America’s great failings,” he said quite directly, “to respond to issues of difficulty with the call to war. Perhaps it has something to do with manner in which we were born; that is, being withdrawn from the womb in the midst of war and agony. Yet, with all that set aside, it is time for this nation and its leaders to grow out of that childish manner of response to every alarm. War must always stand down to the opportunities for honorable peace. Men of great patience will be peacemakers always.”
The sun continued to rise as we rocked in our chairs. It was a brilliant and peaceful morning. Through the screen door, we could hear the songs of the various species of birds.
“Forbearance” was an important word for Jefferson and he used it and its synonyms regularly.
“All men of a great nation,” he said so many times and in so many different ways, “must have the forbearance to work for peace and liberty. It is difficult to secure lasting freedom through war; for war breeds more war; and most treaties of peace are forced upon the unvictorious and not graciousy accepted by them. Temperance should be the attitude of those in Congress when they consider acts of war. By that I mean that self-control and longanimity are mandatory in the character of those who lead a great nation.”
To stretch, after a time sitting in our rocking chairs, the lithe and handsome man rose and wandered among the books in my library. He pointed to one of the green bound books from the Harvard selections.
De Officiis was one of my favorite books,” he said. He was referring to the classic written by Cicero in the last year of his life. “It is about the duties of a leader of the government – On Duties – and there is some important wisdom in it.”
On Duties (or On Obligations) is a short work. I had read it once upon a time, but I didn’t remember much of it; but Jefferson’s memory was sharp and accurate.
“No man can be brave who considers pleasure the highest good!” Jefferson recited the line to me first in English and then followed it up with the Latin. Of course, I understood only the former and perhaps did not even understand that fully.
“And he further wrote,” said Jefferson with some dramatic flourish, “We are not born, we do not live for our ourselves alone; our country, our friends, have a share in us.”
He took the volume from the shelf and admired the binding and the type set within it.
“Such a proclivity for books the world has now. And how beautifully they are printed and bound; but does the world read them and understand?”
I nodded and remained silent as he shook his head in wonder.
“Cedant arma togae concedat laurea laudi,” he said in Latin. He saw me looking quizzically at him. He appeared disappointed that I did not understand.
“Let arms yield to the toga,” he said in interpretation, “and the laurel defer to praise.”
He looked at me, searching. I did not reveal any understanding.
“To the orator’s tongue,” he said with some lack of patience. “Let arms yield to the orator’s tongue!”
I nodded very slightly, but enough that he could see my assent and agreement.
“America is too quick to war! It must learn to seek out those who will speak willingly and openly about their grievances and how they might be addressed and redressed.”
The brilliant man slipped the book back in its place and returned to where I stood nearly frozen by his manner and brilliance.
“I must go now,” he said as he offered me his hand, “but you must continue to beg America to be a more patient and caring land. Never has anyone taken advantage of a land’s wealth as Americans have here in this bounteous land; but you and your fellows have missed the vastly more important opportunities to lead the world toward peace and prosperity for all. Being a great nation is no longer important. The goal has somewhat been achieved and is no longer relevant. Now the goal before you is the great peace and prosperity of the world. My goodness! You have the means to communicate instantly with fellow humans everywhere on an instantaneous basis. We never dreamed it in our most visionary moments. You can travel to nearly any spot on the globe in a matter of hours and not months and months. With such opportunities, men should become fellow citizens and not distrusted enemies. America’s greatness is only the beginning of the dream and not its end. It can happen; though it will not come about easily and without sacrifice and compromise. Imagine it, however! Think of it! A world of nations and peoples cooperating so that, truly, all men may have the right to freely pursue life, liberty and happiness.”
He turned and left me there.
“What had he said?” I stood there, asking myself. Was it that the American dream, though not completely fulfilled, had to be bigger now?
Had he said that the American dream could not fulfill itself until it was also the dream of every land and every people? Certainly he had said the dream of man’s equality had not yet been fulfilled even in America; yet it was time to move on and install the hope and the dream in every land and in every place.
I had returned to my desk and sat looking out at the wide, blue and totally free sky above. What had been such a vast world to Jefferson was now so intimate and small and I felt as if I could see it all.

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1 comment:

  1. You sound, in equal parts, both sad and confident. I'm so far behind you...just sad. I don't believe either of us will live to see and America that is generous in it's opportunities to all. For years now, our prisons all filled with blacks and our law enforcement staffed with anger. We pretend to educate all, and year after year we fall further and further behind the rest of the world. This is nothing you don't know. I feel hopeless.