Thoughts on the 4th of July

I know some of you have served in wars, almost all of you have more experience on this Earth than I do, almost all of you have sacrificed more at some point than I have by spending a few weeks in Africa this summer.

So I don't think I have some scholarly analysis into the human condition or American culture or anything. But I suppose distance does make the heart grow stronger, and so while 5,000 miles away, I've been thinking about my country -- and how it'll look when my generation is shooting up with Botox, starring on trashy reality television and whatever else we'll choose to do with our heyday. And so, as I start approaching the age where I complete the transition from boy to man, as my generation starts to come of age and lead 21st-century America, I feel it's as good a time as any to share some thoughts on the Fourth, however disorganized they are, however reflective they are of a kid still struggling to make sense of the extraordinary world around him.

First of all, I need all you guys to consider me reasonably intelligent, so I'm going to try to shy from discussing my personal political views on the site. I don't know why, but I have always been strongly patriotic, a rarity for any student at a top school over these past 10 years. After all, it's easier to mock and point out your country's failings than it is to realize that we've done a better job than anyone promoting "all men are created equal" over this last quarter-millennium. And so, like a bunch of 13-year-olds, unrelentingly sarcastic because they lack the courage to show a genuine attachment to anything, most of my peers throughout college have kept US-bashing in vogue for as long as I can remember. (Admittedly, we've made some pretty bashable mistakes in recent years.)

But being in Zambia has helped clarify my views. Here, everyone's too poor, too desperate to pretend anything other than that they want the better life the US represents. No echoes of the complaints I hear daily. The visual pollution of suburbia's ubiquitous McDonald's doesn't look so jarring when you're scrapping daily to find food. The price of parking downtown doesn't look so bad when only the very, very rich have enough money to fill up the tank, let alone have a tank to fill. (Ninety percent of cars I've ridden in here have the arrow hovering right atop the E.) And so Zambians don't hide their aspirations for a better life, and to the rest of the world, the US still represents that better life, now more than ever. For one thing, I pass the Obama shopping complex whenever I go into town, but perhaps most telling is simply the way people's faces light up when you say you're from America.

Between the economy, the war, the rise of China, global warming, whatever tomorrow's crisis du jour presents, I know the perception out there is that our country's influence mirrors Dow's -- at a low and dropping (and now without GM). I'm told our future will be worse than our present and that our culture's circling the drain, (which I partially agree with. Watch any Wheel of Fortune episode and I guarantee your fourth grader will beat all the contestants handily.) But to see a kid here make the food-in-mouth gesture as he begs, shoeless, or get practically trampled by a 20 year-old in his eagerness to befriend you in hopes that you can get him a job and, one day, a green card, or see the disgust with which everyone views the government's corruption and the fear it'll scare away USAID dollars... I don't know what to say. No, not a rhetorical device there, I literally am out of words. I give up. Maybe I'm not old enough, maybe I'm not a good enough writer, maybe the thoughts aren't clear enough in my head. Well, in true American fashion, let me dust myself off and try again.

How about this: the combination of our good intentions, our power (economic, military, cultural, soft, you name it) and the willingness to combine the two, to use our power in support of our good intentions, makes us unique among all the nations in the world today, and perhaps ever. And yeah, we've bungled the execution horribly when we've tried to do good throughout the years. We've killed innocent people and violated our most sacred principles. We've carried out the most horribly selfish acts in the name of a greater good and, being human, we'll continue to do all the above to some extent. Certainly none of that is to be taken lightly, but what the America-bashers -- and those countries that have sound, democratic principles and the military impact to make a difference but are committing only to talks and sanctions in Darfur (and stalling US-led efforts to push the UN to action) -- fail to realize is that missteps are inevitable as we march into every corner of the world in promotion of peace. As Teddy Roosevelt knew, the honor belongs to the man in the arena. The honor is in marching in the first place.

Indeed, as we were throughout this century, we'll again be the leaders in the push to try to make our union, our world more perfect as far as I can see into the next. So my peers can continue to step aside and jeer at our mistakes, but wherever I am, I'll be wearing the flag with pride, trying to help my country lead the way to those ideals.

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Just as a writer, to reread the Declaration is incredibly moving. Like most beautiful things, the structure's amazingly simple. Here's our basic premise -- the whole "all men are created equal" bit –- and here are the 52 ways the King has violated these premises. (This is the most humorous part of the document, as it hasn't aged as well. Some complaints sound rather far-fetched today.) Finally, here's our conclusion -- we have no choice but to part. It's written so well that you can't help but agree, why yes, it is an inevitable consequence of England's actions that we seceded, much like when someone drops a ball, there is no other possibility than it soon hitting the ground. And to me, the beauty of the document is that the Declaration convinces you, without you realizing that it ever made the argument, that England, not the US, initially dropped the ball, and further, that once released, it was as inevitable as gravity that a full-fledged Revolution would emerge.

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Whenever we'd study Americana in school, teachers would always point out the flawed reality of the times, which certainly deserves analysis in its own right, but also unfailingly served as a mechanism by which to knock the Founding Fathers down a peg or two. (Can't I have my heroes? What's next, Santa didn't really slide down all those chimneys?) The critique went, "How can a man say all those words and still own slaves?" The conclusion I inferred – or rather, the conclusion I inferred I was supposed to draw -- was that the Fathers' hypocrisy stripped the documents of their power, and I suppose that was that for most of us. But all these years later, I think I believe the opposite. The founders' failings make their aspirations all the more noble. (After all, how great must the temptation have been to use the chartering documents, to validate the founders' existing way of life, slaves, Sally Hemmings and all, as countless other rulers have?) You don't have to be a Jesus or a Ghandi or an MLK to have tremendous impact on the world. All us mortals can make a difference too.

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Perhaps partially because his dad's a rags-to-riches immigrant, my best friend feels the same love for this country that I do, and so we'll call each other to [cough] and moan when we feel the PC crowd is set to castrate us both for being straight, white, American 23 year-old men and, to add insult to injury, unapologetic for all the above. [And speaking of coughing and moaning, c'mon, now. Your generation won't let me swear or see a boob on TV, but half of you are divorced and, if our elected representatives are any guide, every other Bible thumper is having an affair? Coarsening culture indeed.] Anyways, I had recently decided to order an American flag the other month for my grad apartment. A while later, I'm back home, and so I go to Jimmy's apartment after having last seen it half a year ago. What do you know -- the stars and stripes are hanging there too. My first thought was, wow, no wonder he's my best friend. My second was, you know, we're bright, we're going to be the ones making decisions soon enough, and we both have a sufficiently strong understanding of this world, and our country's role within it, to be incredibly proud of our roots. Maybe our generation's going to be okay after all.

Happy Fourth, everyone.


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