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WHAT IS AMERICA TO ME?
There is an inspiring World War II song, “The House I Live In,” that asks:
What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see;
A certain word, democracy.
What is America to me?
It’s a question we don’t consider often enough, if at all. But today, a kind of soul searching is needed. Our understanding of America will profoundly shape our actions—and those actions will leave their mark on America and the rest of the world. How we see our country and our role as citizens will either lead us to protect, defend, and nurture her—or sit idly by as our precious heritage slips away.
At this moment in our history, when we face so many challenges at home and abroad, we need to consider anew this crucial question.
What is America to me?
Who are we as Americans? Who do we want to be? What traditions and principles do we need to preserve as we move forward? What of our American experience is worth fighting for? (And just because you might not wear a military uniform, don’t think you are exempt from answering that last question.) These are queries that should be pondered by all Americans and all those who wish to be.
To me, America will always be a land of unbridled opportunity, unrivaled beauty, and unlimited possibility. It is a place where each of us has a shot to reach our potential. Rooted in truth, decency, and timeless values, America is ever forward looking; constantly innovating while inspiring the rest of the world. Echoing John Winthrop (and the Bible), Ronald Reagan captured it best when he described America as “the shining city on a hill.” In his farewell address, he unpacked this vision and explained what we are, and must be, in this new millennium:
In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still . . . after two hundred years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
Just reading the words puts a lump in my throat. Which isn’t an isolated occurrence. I also happen to get choked up at ball games. Not by the game itself, but by the National Anthem. Every time I hear it sung or see a stadium full of people with their hands over their hearts, I feel a little tingle. Whenever I spot a veteran standing at attention before a passing flag in a Memorial Day parade, tears inevitably well up in my eyes. It’s not sentimentality, but an emotional reaction to this truth: many have sacrificed for what those stars and stripes represent, and the sacrifice continues. How can one help but be moved and humbled by the long trail of blood and sweat that established our “city on a hill” and defended her promise around the world?
Our challenge now, as engaged citizens, is to translate our emotions into clear principles, practices, and habits that rise above the political or cultural winds of the moment. What can we do, personally, to expand the greatness of our country? What steps can we take to extend the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom to make choices?
I believe that our work needs to begin deep within ourselves. We the people must refine ourselves, as individuals, before we can refine our community and our nation. No one else will do it for us. Not the government, not the media, and certainly not the “international community.” We are the ones who will either stand up and defend what we know to be true, or permit others to twist and destroy the last, best hope of mankind. What is at stake is our way of life, our ideals, and our very future.
The house I live in,
A plot of earth, a street,
The grocer and the butcher,
Or the people that I meet;
The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That’s America to me.
Like the first settlers in this land, people continue to come to our shores seeking freedom. They embrace and celebrate our ideals in ways that shame native-born Americans. The English writer G. K. Chesterton, in his work What I Saw in America, put in this way: “[T]he great American experiment . . . a democracy of diverse races . . . has been compared to a melting-pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must not melt. The original shape was traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy; and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship.”
What gives our country her “shape” is our shared, common belief in what America is. Chesterton observed that we are the only nation founded on a creed. That creed is found in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson wrote: “ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Embracing and advancing this vision is at the heart of what it means to be an American. We are not observers in this country, but participants. Citizenship requires that we struggle to protect these ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We must all do our part. But the troubling question we face is: Do we all really believe in the American creed?
THE DIARY OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
January 20, 2009
. . . Hell, yes, it’s the first time we’re proud to be Americans! I can’t believe these people actually voted for me! What a place this country is! A measly stint in the Illinois legislature and a breath or two in the Senate, add a few groovy iconic posters and some “Hope & Change” and . . . bingo! I am the f---ing president! They actually bought it when I said I wanted to “form a more perfect union.” I think Aretha was crying beneath that Easter basket hat of hers when I said that line . . . hey, I am the perfect union! Good looks, big brains, and a damn fine jump shot at my age.
You should have seen the way BeyoncÉ looked at me at that ball tonight. Damn! I played it cool though. I didn’t even look back at her. I grabbed Michelle’s hand, did a few twirls with her in that toilet paper dress, and made my way offstage like a cool cat. They were yelling for me to come back, but I just gave them a wave over the shoulder. I like to leave ’em fired up and ready to go.
Pastor Jeremiah was right; to hell with “America the Beautiful.” It’s the era of Barack the Beautiful. Long may I reign.
Unfortunately for Americans, the leader of the United States and his intimates have a deeply distorted view of America. Throw in unhealthy doses of class warfare, envy, and narcissism, and the long-cherished vision of America becomes almost unrecognizable—like Nancy Pelosi after a long Botox session.
Leaders from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan celebrated this country apart from themselves; praising her virtues, her ideals. President Obama takes a different tack. To understand where he is coming from and where he means to take us, it helps to look back.
In March 2008, while on the campaign trail, then-senator Obama offered this touching salute to America: “. . . for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
No matter the topic, no matter the occasion, whenever Barack Obama is talking, rest assured that the oration will somehow relate back to him! His personal narrative is always in evidence. Like Rome, all roads lead to Barry. Even America and her long, noble history must bend to accommodate the “story” of Barack Obama. But at least he is consistent. He always sings in the same key: Me, Me, Me, Me, Me . . .
Michelle and Barack Obama have a truly lamentable track record when it comes to celebrating America as the greatest country on the face of the earth. Probably because they don’t believe it’s true. Now, for those who think I am being petty—with apologies to the president—let me be clear: I’ve been around politics long enough to know, if you want to understand what a person really thinks and feels, don’t listen to the scripted speech. Listen when they speak off the cuff. Listen for what they don’t say. The truth is far more likely to come tumbling out when the teleprompter is off. And it has tumbled out.
On February 18, 2008, at a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin, Michelle Obama uttered the now-infamous proclamation about America: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country—and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and not just feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.”
“For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country . . .”
Can you imagine reaching the age of forty-four and never having been proud of your country? Michelle Obama couldn’t find one American virtue or laudable quality that stirred pride in her heart in all those years? Wo...