A few days after September 11th, I remember two boys fighting on my school bus. These two often fought but today was different. They usually would hurl insults back and forth until the bus driver intervened or a few fists would replace the words. On this day, it was easy to tell one boy just didn’t have it in him. After the insults finished, and force would speak in its place, the blond-haired boy said he would not fight because of the state our country was in. Even at 10 years old I found this profound and I can remember what it felt like hearing those words. “What does that mean?” I thought. Maybe the blond-haired boy was grabbing for an excuse, or heard a parent use those words. This may have been the first time the idea of American identity was palpable or even real to me. Country and being American is about location to a 10 year old, and I couldn’t grasp why the country would have an affect on this boy. As if the few seconds of violence they would create would somehow tip the scales, sending our country into chaos and anarchy.
(And that’s how I became an American Studies major!)
Rewind 130 years to Walt Whitman. Democratic Vistas is rallying cry, and a very long one. Whitman has witnessed thousands of men die in the Civil War and the country he loves has been ripped apart by inherent differences. But how can folks from the same country be so different? What was inside of them that made them so different? What is inside of us that makes us so different?
Whitman recognizes and answers these questions, but sees the opposite of what they ask. It is not whats inside of us, rather what isn’t inside of us. He writes “It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul”. The US is growing in wealth and size, but still suffers. “I say that our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects”. In his view, despite all the wealth and power the US amasses, our society still suffers from a lack of identity. This is not something that can be legislated or funded, but created from people.
______________Everything below here was written first and is yet to find its place with Whitman, but surely it will______________________________________________
American democracy is indescribable. There is no single word, or phrase, or even explanation that can encompass it. Growing up I was indoctrinated with patriotism; The US represented opportunity, no other country had the freedoms we did, and I was lucky and should be grateful that I was born here. I also learned that the US was generous, powerful, a melting pot. Soaked into us from an early age, we want to reflect our appreciation, value, and values we receive from our impeccable society. We show kids our ideal image and history of America; a country that we all want but have not achieved, a country we may never live in. We teach kids the ideal America because that is what our country was founded on; the perfect way a democratic republic can be structured and governed. Is this even possible? In his book American Politics: Promise of Disharmony, Samuel Huntington writes:
In terms of American beliefs, government is supposed to be egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups. Yet no government can be all these things and still remain a government.
I think what he is driving at is that there has to be a conceding party in every debate; someone has to lose. Our democracy cannot fully serve all, all the time. Yet we believe and will instill in future generations a belief that their country is infallible and thus so are its citizens. To be clear, I do not believe the US and Americans are incapable of fault; quite the opposite. But I do believe that we share an identity of refusing to believe those who differ from us in opinion, creed, or morals are capable of being correct or legitimate.