Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Birthday America

Tis the season to reflect on what it means to be an American. What is it we’re so proud of? What makes this country unique in the world?

Is it our “shared values”? That hardly seems possible since we so often and so vehemently disagree on so many of them. Is it capitalism, democracy? No, those are great things, but not unique to America.

So what can we point to and say “That’s what being an American is all about.” I would submit that America’s greatest asset is not its capacity to induce conformity to a common way of thinking, but its capacity to enable hundreds of millions of individuals with a wide variety of opinions, viewpoints, perspectives and values to live, work and play together in relative peace. Our uniquely American common value is the recognition that so long as we agree to a few fundamentals rules of engagement among individuals, we don’t need to all have the same values.

When I see political opponents going at it tooth and nail one minute and making fun of themselves and each other the next, that’s America. When I look around the grocery store and see whites, blacks, hispanics, asians, and arabs browsing and greeting each other and nobody’s throwing rocks or blowing anything up, that’s America. When I’m at a social gathering and an openly gay person is debating a fundamentalist Christian about gay rights and they agree to disagree just before moving on to discussion of the Bronco’s prospects for next year, that’s America.

In other countries around the world discontent and dissent are expressed with violence and a seeming urgency that if one group’s view doesn’t win out over the other group’s view, life as we know it will come to an end. The emphasis is on the group, whether it be a political party, a religion an ethnicity or some other entitity that has been raised above the individual.

What has made the American experiment a success is the recognition that the core of independence, the foundation of freedom, is the individual. That doesn’t mean we all agree with each other. It doesn’t mean we all accept the validity of other’s choices. In fact the word “tolerance” has become widely misused and misunderstood. If you agree with or accept something, you’re not tolerating it. When you disagree with something or someone, but allow them to be as wrong as they want to be so long as they do you no harm, that’s tolerance.

It’s an odd dynamic. We are a diverse group held together by the will to preserve our individuality. That’s what makes us strong. That’s America. That’s what our men and women in uniform put themselves in harm’s way to protect and preserve every day.

I hope we never lose sight of that. Happy Independence Day!

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