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What Makes America? Essay

America is commonly characterized as the greatest country in the world, the glorious “land of the free and the home of the brave”, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. We began as a group of rebels who fought the status quo in order to earn our rightful place as a nation. “[We] stood up for freedom, honesty and justice; [we] protected the innocent,” (Atwood ¶4) even when all odds were stacked against us. We say that our doors are open for people to become new Americans, those who are just like we were when we joined. We call ourselves the land of opportunity, the place where everyone has a chance to strike it rich. This idealization of the American identity conveniently focuses on what people want to believe and blurs out most everything else. In reality, Americans do not live up to the dreamscape created by our paragons, and we never really have. America is no longer characterized by its freedom and democracy, nearly every first world country can afford that luxury. Nor are we set apart by the abundant opportunities given to our people, for those are far from universal. We aren’t equal, we aren’t unified, we aren’t the leaders that we used to be, we aren’t even truly free, not anymore. It’s easy to find the shortcomings of American culture, all the things we are not, but the things we are have proven to be more elusive. First, let’s examine the nots.

American life isn’t characterized by equality or fairness, despite our founding principle that “all men are created equal” (Jefferson ¶2). Although we acknowledge that each member of humanity bears equal value, we fail to provide them with such equality in life. Racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are two factors that prevent America from being equal. Frederick Douglass identified this gap between value and reality for Americans when he found himself “not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary” (¶3) of the Fourth of July, “a day that reveals to [the American slave] more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim” (¶15). Although he spoke those words in 1852, they still ring true for many Americans who have experienced racial injustice. Amy Tan and her mother suffered as a result of anti-immigrant sentiment when “People in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her,” (¶8). This example is not simply a piece of anecdotal evidence; it is indicative of a widespread, but not universal, lack of equality in the lives of Americans. While differing beliefs and opinions are conducive to the traditional American ideology, the discrimination and prejudice of some is not. However, our Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, as well as many other laws, condemn racism and injustice and promote immigration and equality. Shouldn’t that be enough to make our culture fair and equal? No, how can it be when Donald Trump’s fear mongering and hatred have garnered him so many supporters for his presidential campaign? Simply stating that things should be equal does not lead to a universal implementation of equal treatment and opportunity. Yet inequality in America still persists. Hence, America fails to live up to its standard of “liberty and justice for all”.


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In addition, American culture is not unified, which is clearly visible in the current presidential race. On almost every issue, there seems to be a steep divide, with every American, and every candidate, firmly planted on one side or the other. The primary candidates range from Bernie Sanders, a “democratic socialist”, to Ted Cruz, the “true conservative”, warring between themselves for votes as their supporters fight each other for airtime. Alan I. Abramowitz, in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, characterized America as “two different countries”: the Republicans and the Democrats. In his metaphor, the “citizens of these two nations look at each other with deep suspicion and hostility” (¶4), even seeing each other as enemies. This idea is relevant because it goes beyond a relationship of civil discourse and ventures into the region of ideological warfare. Every morning, at nearly every school in America, our nation’s children pledge allegiance to an “indivisible” nation that is very much divided. We have strayed so far from our tradition of unity that we are weakened. But there was a time when we were strong and unified, at least ideologically. Our nation began as a consolidated movement to throw off the “long train of abuses and usurpations … under absolute Despotism” (Jefferson ¶2).

Then, during WWI and WWII, we were unified because we had a cause for action, we “fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and [we] did not fight in vain” (Obama ¶2). Even during the dark time of the Civil War, a majority of America was united in a crusade against slavery. Despite the rebelling confederacy, we were at least somewhat together. It was later that we really went astray, when in our anger at the USSR we rashly fought in Korea and Vietnam without distinct reason; sacrificing our solidarity, our people, and our moral reliability for a shot in the dark at defeating an already unstable union. Once we started interfering in the matters of other countries’ politics rather than simply promoting democracy by example, it all fell apart. By deviating from our policy of isolationism and implicitly retracting our belief in “just powers [derived] from the consent of the governed,” (Jefferson ¶2) we became more like our British ancestors: controlling, demanding, irrational. We betrayed ourselves in the worst ways: forcing unwilling locals to fight, installing corrupt puppet rulers, sending our unconsenting men on a fruitless mission that few believed in. It’s no wonder why some of us were upset. What other reaction is there when you find that your only home is transforming into an ideological wilderness? Were we meant to stand by and let our nation run off the rails? How did anyone justify such grisly means to the Cold War’s ends? How did it get this serious when so many of us were trying to stop it?

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