Thursday, December 22, 2016

An end-of-the-year letter to my fellow Americans

Dear fellow Americans,

Someone recently asked me: “Since you’ve spent a lot of time abroad in both Germany and the UK, with which nationality do you identify?” Funny—there was a time in which I’d have been glad to consider myself British, or indeed German, or any number of other things. I grew up out in the country in Tennessee and thought that was so boring and uncultured. I desperately wanted to get out and experience the world—to go live somewhere “important.” Several years ago my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. She said she wanted to come to America to experience our culture and our way of life. I thought, Why on earth would you want to do that? How could this incredibly boring, redneck place possibly have any appeal for someone from Europe?

Well, the earth has made a few trips around the sun since then, and I finally made it out of “backwoods” Tennessee. I ended up studying in Germany and subsequently in England, where I’m presently pursuing a master’s degree at my dream school: The University of Cambridge—aka “somewhere important.” But now that I’ve seen “bigger and better places,” there’s a yearning in me to return to insignificance of small-town America. My experience abroad has been a journey of self-discovery in that sense. Getting out of my own country helped me to see it differently, and to realize how big a part of my identity America really is. So to the person who asked me which nationality I identify with, my answer was “American.” It’s what I am. Spending time overseas has only served to make me more sure of that answer.

I realize now that I allowed myself to be lead astray by the ever-growing crowd that thinks “the grass is always greener…” In recent years it’s become trendy to talk about how bad America is compared to other places. Social media is full of videos, memes, articles, etc. that try to illustrate just that. America is backward, or so we are told. This election season has compounded the problem, creating huge internal strife that has made many Americans feel ashamed of their own nationality. People are burning flags and refusing to stand for the national anthem, and tensions between races, religions, and political parties abound. Upset by all of this and deeply dissatisfied with the results of the election, more Americans than ever—whether half-joking or serious—are talking about moving to Canada.

Then there was the whole Standing Rock issue. During Thanksgiving week this year, lots of people posted on social media in an effort to guilt-trip their fellow Americans for even celebrating the holiday—as if to imply that, because of what was going on at Standing Rock (and America’s whole history of mistreating Indians), we should feel embarrassed and guilty about celebrating Thanksgiving. (That said, I frankly doubt that any of the people posting those sorts of things didn’t celebrate).

Granted, our country does have a lot of problems, and that’s discouraging. But what’s almost more discouraging is how quick so many people are to write America off. I’m not a big Ted Cruz fan, but at the RNC this year he said something that speaks to this issue: “America is more than just a land mass between two oceans. America is an idea, a simple yet powerful idea: freedom matters.” We must resist the temptation to discount this simply because of who said it. This is not politics—it’s truth. America is an idea. That realization should be a game changer. I submit to you that that idea transcends all of the dogma, all of the violence, racism, hatred, bigotry, greed, and bureaucracy that has claimed its name over the years. The notion that America is somehow inherently evil or that, in Donald Trump’s words, “the American dream is dead,” is founded on the fundamentally flawed premise that America is not above the misdeeds of those who claim her name. It’s the same false premise that blames Jesus for the hypocrisy of his supposed followers, or indeed that blames all Muslims for the actions of extremists.

So when I say that I’m proud to be an American, that doesn’t mean I’m proud of the mistreatment of Indians. If I fly an American flag, it doesn’t mean I’m a racist. When I stand for the national anthem, it doesn’t mean I’m an islamophobe. Granted, to burn a flag or refuse to stand for the anthem is anybody’s right—because freedom matters in America, but to do so is to suggest that the harm wrought by the Donald Trumps of our nation somehow sets at naught the legacy of America’s greatest war heroes, humanitarians, and civil rights activists.

For every Donald Trump there is a Martin Luther King, Jr.—and it’s the legacy of the latter that we trample on when we act embarrassed about our nationality or dishonor our nation’s symbols. Dr. King understood this notion that “America is an idea” long before Sen. Cruz came along and said it in his speech because it sounded nice. If anybody had reason to write America off, it was MLK—but he didn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. In his most famous speech, he said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He made no apologies for that. He was not embarrassed to consider himself an American, because he understood that America wasn’t the real problem—America was the solution. The problem was that the people in power refused to live up to America’s ideals. 

Dear reader, I submit to you that that’s more or less the same problem we have now. And we have two choices: write America off or work to save her. If we have any respect for Dr. King and the countless great Americans who have gone before, we’ll choose the latter.

Ethan McGrath
December 22, 2016
Nahe, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany