By Mike Koetting July 3, 2018
In preparation for the Fourth of July, the Washington Post recently asked its readers to describe how they identified themselves and what did that mean about being an American. Those seemed like good questions for a Fourth of July post.
I believe the most fundamental thing about how I identify myself is an idea: All men are created equal. (And, just so there isn’t any question, that means all humans, not just males.)
My identity isn’t religion. I was raised Catholic, and while that was an influence, I don’t think much about it anymore. Nor is my identify found in ancestry. My name is pronounced in a way that makes no phonetic sense in English or German, which may be okay because, depending on the year, those folks were from France. And, in any event, I’m decidedly more Irish than anything else. My wife has entirely different ancestry, my step-daughter is half-African American, and her son, my grandson…well, it’s too complicated to call him anything but American.
For my identity, though, when you scratch me, what does bleed is the idea that all people are created equal. Like the country that gave me this idea, my actions don’t always meet this aspiration. But there is no question about the goal. It’s the goal I celebrate every year this week, together with millions of other Americans.
Of course, if you give the idea any thought, it is manifestly apparent that “All men are created equal” doesn’t stop at the 49th parallel or the Rio Grande or even the Atlantic Ocean. All men are all men, women and children.
So, what does it mean for me to be an American?
First, it means I’m grateful to come from a country that articulated that goal as a standard and has—however imperfectly—tried to achieve it. One can reasonably focus on the awful deviations from this goal, some built into the same national foundations. The transgressions are numerous and horrible in scope. Still, it is worth giving pause for a moment to celebrate how truly remarkable it was that the idea “all men are created equal” did get built into the national foundation and was intentionally embodied in a set of institutions with some capacity for self-correction. We can look at this from today’s perspective and see very clearly the original proposition was limited. It excluded women, Indians and slaves. But measured against all history before that time, it was a clear break. Other times and places nibbled at this idea, but America said it and created a national goal for itself.
And, over the course of 250 years, as a country we have learned, made numerous course corrections, tried to rectify missteps, and, on our better days, been willing to carry the message around the globe. For the most part, we have tried to see our country as an attempt to fulfill this aspiration. It’s been an uneven course and there’s much work left to actually reach the goal. But it would simply be wrong to not acknowledge the shared nature of the goal and the zig zag efforts to reach it.
Currently a large part of the country has turned its back on this goal. There have always been pockets who actively opposed it, and from time to time they have had more influence than we would like to remember. But it is hard to recall a time when the official government as openly and outright renounced this goal as does the Trump regime. Whether we will recover from this loss of the American moral compass remains to be seen. But there is a history to build on if we choose.
My wife and I exercised our Constitutional rights along with 50,000 other
like minded Chicagoans seeking a more humane immigration policy
Second, I appreciate that America offers a framework of laws and customs that systematically protect my rights. Citizens of many countries can not count on this. Hannah Arendt observed after WWII that only the nation state can guarantee civil rights. While we may believe in a higher law of human rights that transcends the law of the states, that abstraction—however compelling—does not guarantee we actually have rights we can exercise. Those are guaranteed only in the context of a civil government that establishes rules enshrining rights and acts to protect them over time.
Here again, America’s record is spotty and inconsistent. We have taken rights away from many of our citizens—or defined citizens in such a way as to claim those rights were not conferred. These have not been isolated events and in many cases remain core issues in the day to day lives of minorities and others. Nevertheless, over time we have tried to repair many of those oversights and extend both the definitions of civil rights and the groups to whom they are extended. While it’s true that I got my head busted open by the Chicago police in 1968, it is also true that 30 years later, while on the board of Illinois Planned Parenthood, I gratefully voted for a motion thanking the Chicago Police for their role in protecting our clinics and patients during a period of particularly vitriolic protests. By no means are the Chicago Police books balanced, but, like all of America, the accounts are complex.
Third, America is the place where I vote. If civil rights can be guaranteed only by the state, unless I believe the state will somehow automatically guarantee civil rights, I need a place and a way to participate in the state. History shows it is not the case the state automatically seeks justice, in America or, indeed, anywhere. To protect what we have achieved and to get to closer to the goal, we need mechanisms to lend our voice. So my identity in this particular time and place is shaped by the social framework where I vote. And by that I’m not just talking about voting, per se, but about the entire project
of civil society through which I am able, indeed called on, to contribute to the effort to improve society’s realization of our national aspiration, to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. So while I am passionately committed to the idea that all people are created equal regardless of country, I am also committed to the idea that I best make my contributions to that goal within the context of the American political system. Among other things, that requires some specific definition of who is and who is not a citizen. And it requires certain trade-offs and compromises that encompass the varying visions and desires of people within the country, as opposed to people everywhere. In other words, to maintain themselves countries have legitimate self-interests that are developed in the give-and-take of political systems. By participating in the system, I agree to abide by those—at least as long as they are legitimate in terms of the proposition that all men are created equal.
It’s probably not the best Fourth of July to be talking about the things to appreciate about America. But it may be one of the more important ones. It appears we are at an inflection point. We will either turn our back on the better angels of our sometimes remarkable country or we will somehow make one of our turns toward better realizing the national goal. Each of us must decide how strongly our own identify is tied up with the idea that all people are created equal. And act accordingly.
It will be a long slog. I hope we all have the energy.