Land that I love

July 4, 2011

I used to make a point of calling this holiday “Independence Day.” Its major feature was, for me, the specific point of national pride in seeking independence from a foreign master. It was about standing up, declaring “this is what we stand for,” and being willing to back it up with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

I know a little more history these days, enough to know that few persons’ deeds ever match their rhetoric. Those who talk freedom are not always the ones who sacrifice of themselves to win it. And American freedom has far too often been at the expense of others’ bondage: slaves, women, native peoples, the poor in this land and others.

The very term “independence” rings oddly when we know that independence is a fiction, whether we are talking about “individuals” (who only exist in families and communities), the global political-economy, or the interconnection of all things (dependent origination).

Yet the fourth day in July is a good occasion to remember and reflect what is best about this land that I love. This Fourth, I'd like to highlight three things I value about my native land.

Freedom is linked to opportunity and justice. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [people] 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.” Parse these any way you like, but these words were the opening salvo of American democracy, which led to our Constitution and Bill of Rights, one of humanity’s best attempts to structure a just civil society. We can enumerate the myriad ways which, since the beginning, this nation and our people have fallen short of this ideal. But the vision cannot be negotiated away without losing our soul. It is a hope and a promise and a guide.

Fighting spirit. While we may be too quick to engage in war, and not dedicated enough to the practice of engaged, disciplined diplomacy and peace-making, I do love the backbone behind this fighting spirit. We see it in the impulse to serve – in the military, in civic service, and in helping professions. And we also see it in the way Americans often find ways to pull together in times of crisis. I remember 9/11 – especially for the response of thousands after thousands of people to step up. We see it in most disasters. If we look, we see it every day. I sometimes dream about what our world would be like if we would put down the remote control and buckle down to tackle poverty, sickness, and injustice the way we can fight a more easily-defined enemy.

Welcome the stranger. In his book The Island at the Center of the World about the early Dutch history of New York, Russell Shorto sketches an intriguing case for the way New York City’s flagship role in the American experience is due to the relative openness and tolerance practiced by the Dutch and carried forth by their polyglot heirs.

The United States of America, except for our native peoples who first inhabited the land, and for the descendents of slaves, brought and kept here against their will, is a nation of immigrants. Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Our culture is jazz – which is to say we are the beneficiaries of the frisson, or sizzle which happens when cultures meet, ideas and goods are exchanged, peoples intermarry.

And despite the many points of conflict and even violence, by and large this is a story of people being able to work it out, to work and live together.

The illustration to the right is the American flag at Chuang Yen Monastery, a Pure Land Buddhist and mostly Chinese community near Carmel, NY. It flies outside the Great Buddha Hall, and overlooks statues of Buddhist saints and the community's large ceremonial drum. In every age, immigrants have come to America to make this land their land, and to enrich the rest of us through their presence.

God bless America - land that I love.

The Post-9/11 American flag painting hangs at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, artist unknown.


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