What It Means To Be An American

Flag Retreat at Magic Kingdom Park, Disney World

Nothing is quite as unsettling as a dream. Unreal in the present, yet plausibly achievable through some uncertain combination of struggle and luck, an unshakable dream can call forth muse or madness, often both.

These are the words penned at our founding, which best describe who we are:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Our founding credo is a work of divine madness. While the ink was wet behind Jefferson’s furious quill, not a word of these self-evident truths was evident anywhere in the world. There was no human society, not even his own, based on these ideas.

Jefferson himself owned other men, regarded as so unequal as to be sub-human. In his lifetime, he would own his own children as slaves. Yet, few Americans can mouth these founding words without a welling of passion. Like a spell, this mad vision of a society yet to exist in Jefferson’s time or in our own, calls to our spirits. Nothing is quite like America. To be an American means living on a knife edge between vision and madness, a tension that drives us forward, making us truly great and occasionally terrifying. Americans are a people who live in dreams.

To make real what is not real, requires at least a modicum of madness. It means rejecting what is, in favor of something that doesn’t exist. Nothing in our founding vision was real when the first Americans bet their lives, and their families’ lives, on that dream. The United States was founded by people who wagered their existence on something that didn’t exist, and never would in their lifetimes.

In retrospect, we say that they succeeded because by some miracle of luck (and French intervention), they didn’t die as traitors in the gallows. Instead, they defeated the most powerful force on the planet to establish a new nation. If, however, we define their ambitions by Jefferson’s words, they did not win, they merely failed to lose.

What our founders carved out for us was an inheritance of dreams, an unfinished and inherently unfinishable vision. Imagining a society in which life and liberty are protected equally for all under the law was ambitious enough by itself, but then you get to that last phrase, the “pursuit of happiness.” Even if Americans achieve the unimaginable and build a place where life and liberty are equally available, we are still left with an eternal “pursuit.” And we’re pursuing something as intangible, even undefinable, as “happiness.” Americans are born to be restless and unsatisfiable.

We are united by “The American Dream,” fluid and ever-elusive. Ambitious salesmen tell us it’s a house or a new car, but our faith in those baubles just moves money around. We are, in fact, the people of the dream, people whose ancestors possessed the mad defiance to build a country on the impossible. At our best and our worst, Americans are driven by the unreal. Americans’ gnawing restlessness invented much of the modern world and is steadily creating humanity’s next future.

Why do we never ask ourselves why we built, and revere, a place like Disney World? A plastic fantasy blasted from swamp, heat, malaria and vermin, Disney is our Vatican, the place where the American God communes with his people for a godlike fee. Even our downtime is consumed in a teeming, noisy dreamworld, where our fantasies are fed by cheap ornaments and clattering distractions.

A nation that vacations in Disneyworld works in Silicon Valley, a place where every day billions of dollars chase the unreal. In that half-mad forge of vision, yesterday’s science fiction becomes the mundane reality of tomorrow’s everyday grind. Americans build the future out of our restless dreams.

Arguably the only American of latter times who has joined the sainted pantheon of our founders is best remembered by this phrase: “I Have a Dream.” His dream joined our original dream as an incomplete vision of who we want to be, but are not yet. His vision was so powerful that we revere him and we murdered him. Our destiny is an unstable, dangerous pursuit.

I have a dream.

Our greatest dreams are our most dangerous, our most volatile. No one said the dream would be cheap.

No civilized society has ever existed without kings and aristocrats. No civilized society can exist without slaves. Democracy doesn’t work. Women cannot compete with men. Women cannot rule. Nation-states can only survive on the unifying force of a singular ethnic identity. Nations cannot be built on an idea alone. You can’t reach the moon. No one will buy an electric car. Animated by vision, Americans live on the churning margin where the impossible is converted to the mundane.

Americans did not build a stable nation on established, successful principles. We built a mad contraption on the refuse of the rest of the world, melded together only by our restless pursuit of an insatiable hunger. On that insane proposition rose the wealthiest, most powerful, most exciting nation human beings have ever witnessed. As long as we have the stomach for this ride, we will only grow greater, our reach and influence more pervasive.

Life as an American comes with a burden. In every generation there are those who want to stop this ride and escape our inheritance. Americans are restless, creative, unsatisfiable; the engine of the human future. There is no peace for an American this side of the grave.

America dies when we shrink from the pressure of the dream, when we replace Jefferson’s striving vision with an exhausted sigh. America dies when we grow fearful, small, afraid of the new. America dies when we trade in our relentless legacy of striving and growing for a lazy, ordinary identity based on blood and soil, language and culture, a village within a fence; a sad, lazy definition of ourselves based on what we’ve already achieved. America won’t die in a blast. It will die in a shrug.

Long live America. Long live this clanging, mad, incomplete vision. Long live the people of the dream, whose audacity imagines into being what does not exist. Long live the people of Disneyworld and Silicon Valley and Hollywood and the places and ideas we’ve yet to see. As another birthday comes and goes, America still has a dream. Long live that dream.

29 Comments

  1. I cannot not post this. What new despicable acts are left for this administration? From the AP: ” Some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged, the Associated Press has learned.”

    It is difficult to focus on the good that I know still exists in our country when heinous acts like this repeat and repeat. The turmoil and chaos and sheer meaness of it all is more than I can fathom. Who can be this demented and mean?

    https://apnews.com/38334c4d061e493fb108bd975b5a1a5d

  2. A friend of mine was at the park pavilion on the forth and noticed one red MAGA hat in the crowd. The band asked everyone to please stand and remove hats for the national anthem. Everybody stood and removed their head gear and only one person did not, the person wearing the red MAGA hat.

  3. July 4th has always been a day I celebrated with great enthusiasm. There’s a big demand for live music, and my band has been polishing up the old standards. But I have a much diminished enthusiasm this time, and its root cause is something EJ touched on in the previous post- that there are too many follow Americans looking at all the lies and bullshit, the deliberately cruel behavior, the corruption, the bad treatment of our staunchest allies, and deciding that it’s not worth doing anything about.

    I’ll enjoy playing the music this afternoon, but not as much as before.

    1. I felt the same way at our town’s fireworks the other night—I felt more sad than proud this year. But I had a much different reaction during today’s 4th of July parade, seeing the Scouts, the kids sports teams, the various marching bands all decked out in red, white and blue…maybe it was hearing the clapping for the Democratic Town Committee float (theme “The Blue Wave”) that made me feel a little hopeful for our future. (No Republican float this year—go figure.) The deplorables are welcome to the Confederate flag, but let’s not cede American symbols to them also—it’s our country just as much as it is anyone else’s, and we deserve to wear our flag pins with pride.

      Love, love, love this post Chris. It really captures the American spirit. Thank you.
      Happy July 4th everybody!🇺🇸

    2. EJ

      I hope you had a good time nonetheless. The weather here is too good not to barbecue.

      The meaning of symbols can be changed. The rainbow flag wasn’t given to the LGBTQA movement at the beginning of the universe; they claimed it and kept using it, in the face of derision and hostility and open violence (from the authorities as much as from anyone else) until it was theirs. Anyone can do this with a symbol. Red hats didn’t always mean fascist, pink hats didn’t always mean feminist, pieces of green paper didn’t always mean oligarchy, and a man kneeling during a national anthem didn’t always mean anti-violence.

      Independence Day is also a symbol, and it can be changed. It can be a celebration of welcome to refugees. It can be an acceptance of the guilt for the genocide of indigenous peoples. It can be an apology for the ongoing legacy of slavery. It can be a promise to form a more tolerant and diverse society. The only thing that needs to happen to change it is for people to use it in the new meaning, and keep using it in the face of derision and hostility and open violence, until it’s yours.

      I would like to encourage you to do so.

  4. I used to believe that
    But the more I learned the less truthful the whole rebellion bit became

    The Declaration of Independence
    A whole raft of complaints about “The King of England”
    But these were educated men – they KNEW damn fine that George was a constitutional Monarch with no real political power
    The declaration should have been to Lord North – the Prime Minister

    Then I had a look at how wealthy the Presidents were
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States_by_net_worth

    I was struck by how wealthy the early ones were
    The richest was George Washington with $580 million (216 dollars)
    But that was with a GDP that was about a fiftieth of today
    So I normalised with regard to GDP to get an idea of how wealthy the early presidents were
    This puts
    George Washington — $25 Billion,
    John Adams ———— $462 Million
    Thomas Jefferson ——$3.4Billion
    James Madison ———- $1.2 Billion

    Then no more Billionaires until Trump

    You know what that is telling me – Washington was the biggest ever PIRATE – he stole a whole country and persuaded EVERYBODY that it was some sort of populist rebellion

    1. Duncan,

      One needs to be careful here. I will concur that George was a constitutional monarch. He did however have considerable power. I am weak on my British history, but at that time Britain was not yet a democracy, as the House of Commons had not yet gained full control. However, the early US was not a democracy either. Certainly the Constitution severely limited the power of commoners and was tilted towards the enslavers and the wealthy, who largely controlled all the levers of power.

      I have a great deal of respect for the governmental system Britain has developed, and I believe that a parliamentary system has a great deal to recommend it. That does not mean it is the best, nor is it an endorsement of the presidential system of the US. Both systems have their good and bad points. Incorporation of some parliamentary aspects into the US system might be beneficial. I have not formed an opinion.

      To me the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence is the most salient part. True it is aspirational and we need to strive towards more fully incorporating it into our government. The same holds true for Britain and other nations. The Preamble falls into the same category as The New Colossus on the Statue of Liberty Pedestal. It is an ideal that we need to all strive towards fulfilling, rather than going back towards an imagined better time. That is what I liked about Chris’ current post and what I commented on earlier. It is the sentiment in Horsey’s current cartoon, published today in the Seattle Times and linked below. After being fired by the LA Times, he has returned home.

      https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/fourth-of-july/

      He also updates ihis cartoons on his Twitter account, although this one has not been uploaded yet.

  5. @Aaron regarding two posts ago
    I would mainly agree that Zizek is full of shit, though I am going only off of the one treatise. While individual passages make sense, the overarching thread is a non sequitur. I didn’t exactly recommend his book; I just thought it was odd, and an odd recommendation. I quoted his version of an event because it was on hand. The Strange Death of Europe I do recommend 9/10.
    All I’ve heard of Jordan Peterson is maybe 3h total of him lecturing his class. He seemed quite reasonable. Regardless of what you think of his crowd though, Zizek’s not in it. Part of what I found fascinating about Zizek is how much his style makes me think of the humanities’ ivory tower while not exactly fitting that mold. The public intellectual crew with their podcasts and books are much more direct about what their claims and evidences are. I study math, and I like to think I can parse through bullshit if I have to but prefer to not do so. But maybe that just means I’m a layman reading trite philosophy. 🙂

  6. Excellent post! That is the America In which I believe and I strive unsuccessfully, since I am human, to live in accordance with Jefferson’s and King’s Dream, but I do make the attempt.

    Unfortunately, we live in a time that some of the people are dreaming of an America that in their minds existed sixty years ago (1950’s) and want to go back to that time. As most realize, the America of those dreams did not exist for many and by staying there, we would be a stagnant society, that is not striving towards the DREAM of Jefferson or King. That is not the America in which I wish to live. Alas, many of the powerful including the current President are dreaming of the mythical America of the past, hence the phrase “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”. That phrase is inherently reactionary.

    Long live the DREAM, not the sentiment incorporated in the phrase, MAGA.

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