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In 1765, when the American Colonies erupted over the Stamp Act, King George didn’t get it. Weren’t these subjects well treated? Did they not prosper from benign neglect? And this taxation they were incensed about was meant to cover the expense of defending them. What was their problem?
Our problem is essentially the same now as it was then: whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure. The colonists were jealous of their liberties as Englishmen at first. The Stamp Act protests, some of them very ugly and violent, came out of the assumption that free citizens could not be taxed without their consent. But by the summer of 1776 the issue had crystallized: They were fighting for their rights as Americans. Whatever that meant.
The United States comprises only about one-fourth of the Americas, yet we are the “Americans,” pursuing an American way of life. Sometime during the late 20th century that proud adjective took an ironic, even cynical, turn. To take just a few examples: American Psycho (a novel about an uptown serial killer), American Beauty (Oscar-winning movie about soulless suburban life), American dream (said with a sardonic twist). Also “American Tune,” Paul Simon’s anthem to the 1970s, with its wistful refrain:
But it’s all right, it’s all right / We’ve lived so well so long / Still, when I think of the road / we’re traveling on / I wonder what went wrong.
“O my America! My new-found-land!” John Donne described a woman that way, but it’s not a bad metaphor for the nation: a newfound land for ideals and idealists, “America” as the undiscovered utopia we’re blundering toward. Even those who have been taught to hate her, hate her for what she might supposedly have been: O my America—you let us down.
A nation promising liberty and justice for all can never square competing visions of liberty and justice.
Think of all those extravagant hopes: a city on a hill; the last best hope of Earth; Give me your tired, your poor; with liberty and justice for all.
Do other peoples expect so much? From their government, no less—from men and women in a far-off capital city who tend to pursue their own interests first? When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, his stated purpose—that he would keep kneeling until the flag lived up to its promise—sprang from the same root as that of the flag-waving right-wingers who bitterly denounced him.
High ideals make for high expectations, leading to rage when they’re not met. The vitriolic chatter among the left is an echo of the vitriolic chatter from the right five years ago. Neither side is likely to be satisfied; a nation promising liberty and justice for all can never square competing visions of liberty and justice.
But from the beginning, there was a less idealistic, more commonplace vision, of ordinary people finding room to make a decent life for themselves. True, they were almost all white at the beginning, but increasingly black and brown. Our Founding Fathers set their ideals just high enough to strive for, with limits on the power that tends to curb individual striving.
Humanity being what it is, we’ll never quite get there, and our failure to get there pushes expectations even higher. The right pushes for liberty, the left for justice. Cynical opportunists take advantage of both. We in the middle can’t hear much but the shouting, and it leaves us anxious and confused.
Paul Simon based “American Tune” on a Bach chorale most of us know as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” I don’t know what the Jewish boy from Queens heard in that melody to complement his rueful resignation: “You can’t be forever blessed.” But it reminds me that Jesus, bowing His sacred head on the cross, was the ultimate realist. He knew perfect justice will never happen on earth, nor perfect liberty. But as justice was satisfied in heaven, and liberty secured, so will be our greatest expectations.