I was back at work today after a tumultuous week full of hospitals and doctors’ visits and drugs for the whole family. It was a pretty ordinary day, but a few colleagues did stop to wish me a happy Fourth of July, or a happy Independence Day. The office canteen served up American style pancakes as well as American-style pork and beans, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. Thankfully no one in the office tried to stick up American flags all over my desk, I think that would have been a bit much.
The truth is I’m not feeling very celebratory. Partially, it’s because I’m still wrecked from everything that’s gone on the last week or two. It’s hard to muster up enthusiasm for a holiday that is being celebrated 3,500 miles away when you just want to limply collapse on the couch after work but you can’t as your toddler is having a meltdown because he wants TV before dinner.
But I’m also not feeling very celebratory because it feels like there is precious little to celebrate for my first adopted country as it careens down a darkened, twisty rail track like the coal cart in Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom. Somewhere along the line it definitely took a wrong turn but there’s no stopping the juggernaut.
I am a former refugee. An immigrant twice over. I have spent almost all of my education, my formative years, in America. I have been welcomed and assimilated into the hodge-podge mix of hyphenated Americans. I have scaled the American ivory towers of education on the backs of my parents’ hard work. I have lived, and watched my parents live, what is considered the average American dream. But today, as Americans celebrate the victory of the Founding Fathers more than 200 years ago, I wonder whether the country really ever finished its fight.
This past winter I discovered the Hamilton musical – the amazing creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And as I listened to the lyrics over and over and over and over again I realized that America is still fighting the same battles today as it was during the days of Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers.
“And if we win our independence? Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? … We need to handle our financial situation. Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?”
~ Alexander Hamilton (“Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
The truth is I think America has never really figured it out. Its history is fraught with an endless balancing act of state versus federal power, rural versus urban development, black versus white, Christian values versus the enshrined freedom to worship as one pleased, financial power versus agrarian and manufacturing economy, people versus corporations, individual survival versus community welfare. And in the middle of these dichotomies stretching back two hundred years, the country has let in that which its founding document was meant to guard against – special interests, lobbyists, and dark money. Accountability is no longer given to voters but to those with the deepest pockets. We celebrate independence but we cannot agree on which vision was the one promulgated by our Founding Fathers. And while the country may be industrialized from sea to shining sea now for over a hundred years, the frontier has never vanished – it has simply moved into politics. Healthcare, welfare, food stamps, birth control, pensions – these are all proxy wars for the ultimate question of what America represents now: a country that leads other first world nations in the ever-changing landscape of social values, where the most vulnerable are looked after by the most wealthy, or a country built on the backs of pioneers who lived or died by their own wits and work and luck?
But the flip side of keeping the Wild West alive in policy debates is the belief that if the highest achievement of being an American is to succeed, then those who fail must responsible for their own downfall. How else can one explain this unfathomable (to me) notion that being poor is somehow your own fault? Or the belief that you can simply will yourself into a full time job with sufficient pay and benefits, and if you can’t then you must somehow be lazy? The notion that someone born with lifetime needs does not deserve the same chances as someone born healthy?
The truth, I believe, is that we are still fighting our war of independence, but 200 years later, victory is not a clear cut surrender on a battlefield. If we cannot agree on what the country is meant to represent, then how do we know when we succeed?
Featured photo taken by me on 7 April 2005 on board the USS Constitution.