“ What the people want is very simple — they want an America as good as its promise.” — Barbara Jordan
In 2016, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a civil war.
This was surprising to me. After all, I hadn’t time-traveled to the Earth’s past. All I had done was move to the United States from my native habitat.
And yet, as far as my time period is concerned, I don’t think I could have picked a more volatile time to move to the Washington, DC Metro Area.
By the time I had finished unpacking, I had realized that I relocated to the center of the most polite civil war of all times.
All around me, lines were drawn in the sand. Insults were hurled across those lines. People blocked each other on a strange platform called Facebook that soon fell from grace.
All this American angst made me appreciate the relative tranquility of politics back on my home planet, Alien-a. Recent politics outside American-a tend to be blissfully boring in contrast.
But that didn’t exactly help me, given that I now lived in this strange place. So, I found myself trying to understand what was going on — with the awkwardness of a visitor who unexpectedly finds themselves in the middle of a couple’s heated domestic argument.
After witnessing this for a while, I realized that it had become popular among Americans to see the United States in simple terms — all good or all bad.
To some people, America is a beacon of light, spreading democracy in the world (American exceptionalism, anyone?).
To others, it is a symbol of shame and oppression, built on a history of slavery and genocide.
If we look at the evidence, it seems that America is incredibly complex and contradictory.
It has a horrific history of massacres and slavery— and a strong, inspirational civil rights movement.
It has an active political dialogue — and elections that are heavily influenced by money.
How does all this fit together? How can I make sense of it especially as someone who is literally a “legal alien” in this country?
As the yin-yang symbol teaches us, darkness doesn’t exist without light (and vice versa). And, like many countries, America has a lot of darkness and light.
So, I tried to capture this complexity in a letter:
As far as countries are concerned, you are the original revolutionary. You broke away from tradition to forge a new path, to usher humans into modernity.
Here’s your story in 5 acts:
“One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.” — Viktor Hugo
Or, in other words, nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.
And, boy, did you have an idea, America!
You boldly stated that “all men are created equal.”
Of course, just like the French revolutionists a little bit later, you had a very, very, very limited definition of who counted as “all men” (white, rich, male)…and, I’m a bit offended that at the time, you wouldn’t have included me in that definition, just because I have two X-chromosomes.
Still, we have to give credit where credit is due: you did change the world when you declared your independence.
You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t beg. You didn’t propose it. You declared it. There’s power in that.
”Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” — Jacques Mallet du Pan
You wanted to break away from nobility.
But you ended up creating a bigger wealth gap than any other major developed nation.
You said you wanted equality, but you practiced slavery and then racial segregation.
Black soldiers — whom you continued to treat as second-class citizens — risked their lives to fight on your behalf against the toxic race ideology of Nazi Germany. When they returned home, you thanked them for their service with continued discrimination.
Despite your many shortcomings, you were unstoppable. You rose from being an underdog to a position of power — lots and lots of power.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — John Dalberg-Acton
The 19th century was Europe’s. The 20th century belonged to you and you used it to meddle everywhere, often with military force that led to disastrous results.
You didn’t just shape the world through wars, though. As far as imperialism goes, your reign was pretty benign compared to your predecessors.
One way in which you inspired, influenced and shaped the world was through entertainment. You dominated culture. Science. Hell, you planted your flag on the moon!
And when 9/11 happened, the hearts of people worldwide filled with compassion for your loss. In that moment, you went from being an imperial giant who was admired and feared to something more. Having seen you at your most vulnerable, the world suddenly realized it cared for you. You weren’t just admired… you were loved. We grieved with you!
Do you understand how rare that is for someone with your amount of power? Do you think the Roman Empire or the British Empire had a moment when people worldwide genuinely wished them well and felt a lot of compassion for them?
Speaking of Empire, at the start of the 21st century, the leader of your former colonial power was accused of being your “poodle.” (Talk about a role reversal…)
And well, let’s just say you didn’t handle all that power very well.
You started the Iraq War, created Abu Ghraib and waterboarded prisoners.
You insulted your allies and accused them of being “old Europe” (whatever that is supposed to mean), even going as far as renaming French fries.
In 2004, the Pew Research Center reported that your popularity worldwide had plummeted. You no longer were loved by the world and you only had yourself to blame for that.
And it didn’t get any better:
“I can’t breathe.” — Eric Garner and many others
While you were celebrating your birthday, a lot of your people literally can’t breathe. You didn’t just disappoint the world, you also continue to disappoint your own citizen.
As you really should know by now, a pandemic is killing your people… and you are not doing enough to protect them.
Another pandemic, one of injustice, is continuing to do the same.
Dear America, you really, really, really have to do better than that!
What happened to all your grand ideas?
What happened to the beautiful ideals that you (sometimes) espoused, at least on paper and, well, on your Statue of Liberty?
Was this mess what you wanted when you showed King George III the metaphorical middle finger?
I dislike Empire as much as you once did, but if this current mess is what your revolution was for, one might say it was a waste of good tea!
Let’s explore how you could do better in the future:
“Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.” — Viktor Frankl
Dear America, when looking at the state of you, it is easy to argue that your story is incomplete.
You have told us one side of it: the part that is focusing on freedom. But there is more to life than just that.
Viktor Frankl, a famous therapist and Holocaust survivor, explained that:
“Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
Does that ring a bell for you? America, are there ways in which you have promoted freedom without also accepting responsibility? (Yes, that is a leading question!)
What then, is a potential solution for this?
Given how many statues are currently being pulled down, perhaps it is time to build a new one that reflects where you should be going. Frankl has a good suggestion for a candidate:
“…I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
And, Frankl is right.
Independence and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t declare yourself independent of your parents and not take responsibility for your own actions.
That’s why Independence Day also must be Responsibility Day.
You fully accepting your responsibility to your people (all of them!) and to the world would be something truly revolutionary.
In that sense, happy birthday, America!
Originally published at Elephant Journal.
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