First of all, Happy (Belated) Fourth of July! As someone who has had the opportunity to travel outside the country a few times, as well as live in two other countries, I can safely say that while my out-of-country experiences have been wonderful and educational and have allowed me to meet people who I treasure dearly, they have also taught me that there’s no place like home. At first, I was going to specify that by home I didn’t just mean my small sliver of Western New York, which I do cherish as the place where I grew up, but then I had a realization. For me, America is, in many ways, Western New York. While there are parts of the USA that are certainly more familiar to me than others, there is still a pervasive feeling that, no matter where you are in the United States, you’re home. I’ve seen Florida, Maine, West Virginia, Delaware, Arizona, Massachusetts, Illinois, Nevada, Connecticut, and our nation’s capital, and their differences make them unique but it is their similarities that make them special to me.
As children, we grow up hearing a lot of rhetoric about how America is the greatest nation on Earth, about how democracy is the greatest political system on Earth, how the Bill of Rights is the greatest insurance of freedom on Earth. Adulthood has taught me that there are more shades of gray in life and that perspective is everything. For example, look back on the immigrants who flocked to a nation they thought had streets paved in gold only to be confronted by prejudice and poverty. But the magic of America is that if you look ahead a few centuries, their descendants are part of the American fabric of life. America has had a long and difficult history of accepting difference, but it is because it has been a testing ground for how democracy and difference can work together. Women’s rights, the rights of people of color, and LGBTQ rights may still be contested, but as a nation we continue to fight to understand how lofty ideals such as “all men and women are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all” become everyday practices.
We aren’t a perfect country, and we aren’t even necessarily the best in the world at many things, if you believe a headlining article featured on CNN two days ago. But what we are is a young nation that still has ideals, that still has passion, and still makes mistakes. Yesterday, some of my Facebook friends posted things about how they are ashamed of America, or how they wish they didn’t live here. My answer is not to move away, but to engage with this country. What is it about America that makes you ashamed? The power of a democracy is that you can do something about the things that irk you. Government doesn’t have all the answers, after all, so if you’re tired of seeing trash alongside your street then pick it up. If you find the state of education in this country to be appalling then volunteer to tutor kids after school. There are ways that you can improve America, and those don’t stop outside the voting box.
I used to hate the JFK quote that implored American citizens to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. I thought it was a presidential cop-out. A kind of “don’t look at me. Fix things yourselves.” What I’ve come to realize, though, is that JFK was empowering people to make the changes they wanted to see without bureaucratic intervention. The biggest changes in our society have come about not because the government tells people what to do, but because the people tell the government what they want to see. The beauty of America is that we don’t have to have a revolution like the Arab Spring to get our government to listen, although I know there are some Americans who would strongly disagree with me. At the very least, America has a history of achieving change without massive amounts of bloodshed, and while the process is often painful, it is a process we go through together.
So this fifth of July, I challenge you to find something that you care about in America, and to make a change. Then, maybe next year, you can enjoy the fireworks and the barbecues and the family and friends that surround you, and be proud to be an American.