By Kelly Jean Cogswell
It's almost the Fourth of July again, and time to get out the barbecues and sparklers, and watch the fireworks explode over the East River like so many dreams of American democracy. I believed in all that patriotic claptrap as a kid. Maybe I still do. Equality to me is self-evident. In the midst of our national amnesia, I still believe that even aliens have certain inalienable rights.
My problem is that being an American feels a lot like being a tiny hair on a charging bull. Alone, you don't have much say about where the creature's going. Even large groups only amount to a toenail, or hoof, though if you've ever seen the effect of an infected one, you can still hope to slow the animal down before everything in the china shop is broken.
Lately, all I see is wreckage, despite the wave of Democrats in Congress, and progress on gay marriage in New York. On Tuesday, the ACLU held a Day of Action in Washington, and the civil liberties group couldn't muster more than an eyebrow's worth of participants to demand that Congress end torture, and restore habeas corpus and the rest of the rights that used to make America America.
The streets should have been filled with hundreds of thousands, millions even, demanding the reinstatement of basic things like trials for when a single soul is up against the imprisoning power of the state. But most Americans don't even know what habeas corpus is, or how on earth it could get lost. Did someone leave it on the subway, or in the mall parking lot? Maybe if we all checked our pockets...?
Abstractions aren't our forte as a nation.
When did you last think about what liberty meant, or justice? What about that phrase "for all?" That's taking it too far, surely. We prefer to keep our literal-mindedness for the Bible, thank you very much.
For all our flag-waving and the use of Old Glory to decorate everything from used car lots to sheet cakes, we rarely contemplate what it means to be an American. We're content with the fireworks once a year, and now, brief distress at the flag on dead troops in Iraq.
Most of us float along unthinkingly because our distant borders let us avoid being an American in America. Identity is relative after all. Where would queers be without the straights? How can you be an American in the Midwest or South? Planted in Louisville, you're only from Kentucky, not uptight Indiana by comparison, or hippy-dippy California. You don't think about Canada or Mexico or anybody else.
It requires an enormous effort to feel the size of the place around you, the weight of the U.S. as it moves through the world, and an almost religious experience to accept it.
I didn't for years. If Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner could be excluded from the list of American writers, and considered separately in the "Southern" genre, why not me? I embraced that banner as a young writer. When people bashed American meddling in Latin America, I'd declare I wasn't really from the U.S., explaining the cultural and political difference of the South. Surprisingly, people actually agreed.
Later, I hid as a New Yorker, and separated myself as a queer. After 9/11 I thought a lot about secession and whether or not we could pull off an occidental Hong Kong. The rest of the country hates us anyway. Let them get along without us, and we'd quit taking it on the chin.
I'm more resigned now. Leave the U.S., get on a plane with the passport you ought to have, and up above the clouds, in the context of all those other boundaries, those other nations, there you are, the hair in the soup, responsible for that great stampeding beast you tried to leave behind. For good or for ill, you're an American, heir to Martin Luther King as much as George Bush and Rush Limbaugh.
Even the people at the top don't quite hold the reins. Condoleezza Rice was in Paris last week for the summit on the genocide in Darfur. She looks older than she did just a few years ago as a freshman Secretary of State when she thought she could handle Iraq.
Cheney mongered the war to gain oil, but Condi had the smell of ideology about her, reshaping the Middle East not just for self-interest but for some abstract idea of good in the world.
What American ambition. What a disaster. She still seems stunned behind the ravishing smile, wondering how mostly good intentions could have gone so wrong. It's only to be expected.
As big, ungainly, and dangerous as we are, our foreign policy should be Hippocratic, First do no harm.