Whose America Is It?

By Ross Richendrfer


When America is going right, we all rush to claim it. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. When America is going wrong, we’re quick to blame it on someone else. Not my America, I didn’t sign up for this.

For some, America is greatness personified, perfect in construction and of unimpeachable character. Those who dare to question the nation’s greatness aren’t of America, but alien to it, hostile toward its perfection. They hate us for our freedom.

While this group has a rigid idea of what America is, they are subjective and inconsistent in their support for the freedoms that are at the core of their America. Rights, and who has access to them, are a privilege reserved for those who are the most American: those whose status in Club America is unquestioned due to past and pedigree. Red, WHITE, and blue, through and through.

Minorities, immigrants, the poor, and other disenfranchised groups have a tougher time carving out their own sacred space within this version of America. The fluidity with which American traditionalists define the parameters of the nation allows for constant sanitization of dissent and the expulsion of any perspective considered critical of their arbitrary construction of America’s essence. You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.
 
Without realizing it, this crowd distorts and perverts America from its purer, kinder essence. As a sacred object, America needs constant supervision by Those Who Know Better. This has nothing to do with the very real threats that America’s very real heroes protect us from, but the phantom threats of dissent from within. The Champions of American Outrage have this down to an art. Vague threats to American life are constantly unearthed as a justification for the assertion (and reassertion) of control by those who fear the diversification of the American dream. Make America Great Again.

It’s all so cheap. It objectifies America, distilling the greatness of the nation down to its accoutrements — flags, anthems, etc. — instead of its people. It casts America as a mere possession to be guarded by stewards who know what’s best for the country and its citizens. Patriotism is rigidly defined and jealously policed. You say you love America, but you don’t love it in the exact way I do, so I don’t believe you.

When we treat America as an object, we lose sight of America as an idea, which is where all the good stuff comes from.

Conceptually, America’s power lies in the very fact that it isn’t perfect, but strives in earnest to be so. It’s not about a flag and an anthem, it’s about the people who sew them and sing it. It’s about everyone — both the people who are winning and the people who are losing. It’s about progress toward the nation’s most beautiful and enduring ideals: liberty, justice, and equality. The Shining City on the Hill is never finished; we’re constantly tinkering with it in a generational quest to get it right. That we’ll never get there, but will always want to, is where the beauty lies.

Pointing out a misalignment between American reality and the American dream is its own form of patriotism. America only for a few is an America that’s broken. Saying so isn’t a threat, it’s an act of conscience. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The rub lies in how we move the conversation forward. Free speech is a right, but it’s also a test for both the speaker and audience. It demands grace and conscientiousness. Criticism of America won’t always be accurate, it won’t always be fair, and it won’t always be delivered in an articulate fashion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out. But we need space to disagree on views of America without making the leap to that’s un-American or you aren’t patriotic or you don’t support the troops. These are nothing more than verbal grenades, McCarthyisms designed to denigrate the speaker at the expense of engaging their ideas. It’s cheap, it’s dumb, and it’s beneath us.

Above all, we need to acknowledge that our America might be different from someone else’s America. Progress only comes from the work that goes into bridging these views and moving toward a better, shared view of America.

Make America Great Again, indeed.


This post was inspired by reaction to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem due to his views on America’s treatment of African Americans. Several lines from the post appeared in earlier tweets from the author.

A lifelong Washingtonian, Ross’ mood on any given day is bound to be influenced by how his favorite Seattle sports teams performed the night before. Ross is married to a dynamo named Taylor, with whom he has an eight-year-old Minecraft fanatic named William, a brand new baby named Aidan, two indomitable cats (Ash & Khaleesi) and a hoodie collection of every other 31-year-old who really thinks he’s 18. You can follow him on Medium at Ross Richendrfer.