Thursday, September 13, 2012

America (a novel)

I remember the first time Meg and I went to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. We were with Chris and Nick, who were teenagers at the time. It was exciting to be able to show our sons such an engaging depiction of the birth, infancy and adolescence of our country. Look at our fascinating history, boys. Look at the funny hats and muskets from that long time ago.

Meg and I were back in Philly a few days ago, and we went again, just us this time. It’s a different thing looking at our country’s history through my own eyes rather than my children’s--as a part of who I am, not just a history lesson.

The program begins in a theatre in the round, where an actor takes you through the revolutionary war and the uneasy alliance of states that followed. When the lack of cooperation among the states began to make them easy prey to other countries, they convened the Constitutional Convention and hammered out something of a political miracle.

It's impossible to sit through that dramatization of our ideals and aspirations and come away cynical. I'm not embarrassed to admit I had a tear in my eye. For eight years we fought bravely for our freedom and then, after we had won it, we bickered among ourselves for another dozen years. When at last we came together to forge our constitution there were great differences among us, on great subjects. We did not storm out of the room, though; we did not shut down the government before it even got started. We persevered. We found common ground. If I could, I'd send our current crop of politicians to that dramatization of how those first Americans worked out their differences.

The points of contention at that first convention--the balance of power between the states and the federal government and, at the federal level, among the three branches of government--continue to divide us passionately. We fought bitterly over them in the Civil War. They were at the heart of the populist revolt against the Gilded Age. They inflame today’s Tea Party. I don't think the Tea Party is on the right track for where we are now, but after seeing again how the clashing of our antagonistic founding principles has made us stronger, I appreciate the reminder that when the first shots were fired at Lexington we were all libertarians.

We have some tough issues before us today, but here are a few things we don't have: slaves; women who can't vote; working conditions from Dickens’ England; water too dirty to drink; air too smoky to breathe. There is more to do, much more. We should not rest until all of us have a realistic chance to escape poverty, until all our children can get first-rate educations, until no one dies for lack of food or health care. But we are making progress. One cannot look at our society today and compare it to any other time in our history and not think we are better off.

America is a long story. We are still in the early chapters, I hope. We think we know the plot, but new characters keep getting introduced and, as they say, character is plot. There are surprising twists and turns, and cliff-hangers, but the story goes on. Like every great novel I've ever read, I don't want to put it down, and I don't want it to end.


  1. Very thoughtful. But regarding educational disparities. There are cultural pockets in our country, especially in the black community, where not being 'a part of' seems to be worn as a badge of honor. So what do we do? The educational opportunities seem to be there. Are we doing a service to those who ignore educational opportunities by lowering standards for everybody else, producing 'artificial' success for all? Or do we maintain higher standards, and allow for failure early on, letting the decision to succeed be that of the individual? I vote for the latter. It requires only higher expectations.

  2. Very true Mac! And well written. It is hard not to be optimistic about our Country when I see how far we have come (and how strong was our beginning).