The Fourth: A Few Thoughts on Being American

soldier down

For the 6th year in a row, I’ve spent the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, outside the US. As you can imagine, it’s uneventful outside the 50 states. I almost forgot about it today until someone at work reminded me. I immediately went into an impromptu, semi-sarcastic, quasi-nostalgic, rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. As usual I forgot a few lines and mangled some others, and even slipped in a little “O Canada” in there just for fun. It wasn’t pretty, but I did my patriotic duty.

Picnics, Fireworks and Perfect Weather
The Fourth is one of the best holidays in the US. It’s never been about patriotism for most of the people I know. It’s a day off work to get out and have a barbecue, drink some beer and hang out with friends and family somewhere outdoors. At night, there’s fireworks. I don’t remember a rainy Fourth of July, ever. The weather has always been perfect. And everyone is chilled out, happy to be relaxing with people they like.

Some of my July Fourth memories include:
• Climbing Cucamonga Peak that overlooks the Los Angeles basin and watching over 50 fireworks shows going off simultaneously, like tiny distant supernovas.
• Hanging out with friends at a Eugene Emeralds game (a minor league baseball team). I think there were a dozen home runs during that game. And then lying on the outfield watching the fireworks.
• Looking forward to my allergies magically disappearing. My theory is that all the fireworks burns off the pollen in the air.
• Picnics, picnics everywhere. On beaches, along rivers, in backyards, in the forest. And always some live music.

Views of America
For every year I’ve spent away from the US, I’ve grown to appreciate a little more of some of the good things about America, and being American. This has been no easy task mind you. I’ve spent most of my life critical about my country. Still am, actually. But being away, in the rest of the world, I’ve developed a wider perspective. Okay it’s not really the whole rest of the world. It’s some parts of Western Europe, East Asia and Southeast Asia. And these are some of my observations of the good things about America.

America is More Evolved in Terms of Race Relations
For all the terrible racism that exists in the US, it’s a lot worse elsewhere. America has evolved to the point where if you have racist views, you are roundly criticized if you voice them. A popular sports radio personality, for example, was recently fired because he said some ignorant things on air. Elsewhere, people just shrug their shoulders and wonder what’s the big deal. In the US, there’s heated debate and discussion at the very least.

I experienced more racist comments directed at me on the streets of England in two years than I have in all my life in the US. It was unbelievable. In fact, what would be considered highly offensive racist and sexist comments in the US, are casually spoken on TV, by politicians, and in the newspapers. There was virtually no awareness of or debate about the institutional barriers to opportunities for women or people of color. This was remarkable especially in academia.

American Cultural Influence Extends Beyond Starbucks

People outside the US separate the US government and the American people. The government is roundly ridiculed, but the culture and people are admired. Rap, movies, TV shows, books, academic journals, dance, basketball, the anti-smoking movement. I hadn’t realized the extent of the spread of American culture beyond the platitudes of fast food and malls. It’s genuinely admired by most people I’ve talked to on the street.

America Accepts Everyone
I took for granted that almost anyone can come to the US and get citizenship eventually. This is just not the case elsewhere. Most countries make it very very difficult to impossible to naturalize.

America is the Most Diverse Country on Earth

It’s no contest. Growing up in California especially, the most diverse State in the Union, I was surrounded by people from all corners of the world. Even in the middle parts of the country, it’s a myth that there are only white people there. It’s just not true.

The US is the European Union Evolved
I find it increasingly useful to think of the US as a continent, rather than a country. Geographically and population-wise, it’s comparable to Europe. Just like you wouldn’t generalize Scots and Greeks, French and Germans, or even Catalonians and Basque within Spain, you wouldn’t generalize between New Yorkers and Californians, or even Los Angelenos and San Franciscans within California. Heck, there are huge cultural differences even between cities separated by a highway.

There are Few Places Freer

Liberties have been badly eroded in the US over the past decade by the Bush Administration and by increasing corporatization of the mass media. But the press is largely unfettered. And joining the political process is much easier than in France, where all the political elites graduate from one university, or in Japan, where the one party system rotates power among a handful of families.

America is far from perfect. However, most of the destructive, negative tendencies are magnified because of it’s continental size. The same destructive, negative tendencies exist in most countries but on a smaller, less-scrutinized scale. That continental size could contribute to a powerful positive global influence. Let’s hope that happens during the next presidency.

In the meantime, I close with THE best version of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Formerly, it was Marvin Gaye, singing a transcendent version back in the 70’s. Now, it’s this version, of his daughter Nona Gaye harmonizing with him on that version.