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America, America: Who are we?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Life – December 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT SEEMS LIKE only a short time ago President Clinton was talking about that metaphorical bridge into the 21st century. Yet 2008 is right around the bend, and it’s been more than a decade since Clinton said, “At this last presidential inauguration of the 20th century, let us lift our eyes toward the challenges that await us in the next century….”

Clinton went on to extol the importance of America’s role in fighting terrorism and fanaticism, and how we must lead the world toward democracy, peace, freedom, and prosperity.

About terrorism Clinton said, “We cannot, we will not, succumb to the dark impulses that lurk in the far regions of the soul everywhere. We shall overcome them….”

About our place in the world: “We will stand mighty for peace and freedom, and maintain a strong defense against terror and destruction. Our children will sleep free from the threat of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Ports and airports, farms and factories will thrive with trade and innovation and ideas. And the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies.”

About our goals: “And so, my fellow Americans, we must be strong, for there is much to dare. The demands of our time are great and they are different. Let us meet them with faith and courage, with patience and a grateful and happy heart. Let us shape the hope of this day into the noblest chapter in our history. Yes, let us build our bridge….

Somewhat surprisingly, President Clinton sounds a lot like President Bush, ambitious, far-reaching, like a man chosen not to be the President of the United States but the leader of the free world, which begs the question: What is the role of America today?

And what is our role in it?

TODAY, EVEN THOUGH it’s hardly begun, Americans frequently express their disillusionment with the 21st century. At this point, it seems like we may have crossed the wrong bridge into the twenty-first century. Or maybe we actually missed the bridge and ended up floundering in the drink.

Or maybe this particular metaphor is what’s wrong. Why a bridge? Where’s the bridge? Was there a river between the 20th and 21st centuries? Or a chasm?

And in either case, why couldn’t we just stay on the other side?

A lot has changed since Clinton’s second inaugural address in January of 1997. But despite the blue dress, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, and the self-immolation of southern California some things are constant. Central Colorado spent the entire decade poised between a boom and a bust. Our region still has a scant supply of water, good jobs, and financial resources. We long for stability, security, and sustainability, but we get recessions and rebounds.

Ed went to the Headwaters Conference in Gunnison this November, and the topic was “Resort Communities in the Great 21st Century Transition.” I asked Ed what they discussed, and as it turns out, our 21st century problems bear a striking resemblance to our old problems: The cost of living keeps rising in rural resort areas while wages remain low. Seasonal economies foster jobs with minimal security and few benefits. Tourists drive up real estate prices beyond what working-class residents can afford.

But now there’s a new worry to sour the pot: All of our shaky tourism economies could collapse entirely if dwindling oil supplies and rising gas prices make getting here impossible.

It’s gotten to where I’ve heard about our economic problems so often that I was almost glad I couldn’t make it to Headwaters this year — even though the conference is always stimulating, with presenters and participants inevitably adding some fascinating personal perspectives on our problems. But hearing about our persistent political and economic woes (be they local or national), at conferences, planning sessions, and candidate debates, year after year, gets a little depressing.

Where are the solutions?

Actually, that’s who goes to Headwaters: the people who are charged with trying to resolve local problems — teachers, social workers, planners, city councilmen, grass roots activists, and small town businessmen. And they do have solutions, suggestions, and ideas that help.

We seem, however, to have grown impatient.

When you think about it, swift societal conversions aren’t necessarily beneficial, desirable or lasting — even when the cause is noble. Some of the world’s most notorious tyrants began as reformers: Torquemada, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Stalin Mao, Osama. So in the long run, it’s probably best to chip away at our problems bit by bit, year after year. Maybe fixing the world is like dieting. It’s best to avoid quick fixes and trendy theories because hard work and better choices insure long-term, sustainable change.

Or maybe crash diets, stomach stapling and liposuction are superior remedies.

APPARENTLY, commanding the free world is tougher than Clinton and Bush make it sound. The Bush administration’s renovation plan for the Middle East has taken more time than expected and hit a lot of snags. Recently, deaths have been down in Iraq, but there’s been trouble in Afghanistan, where one suicide bomber managed to kill 75 people last week. And now our guy in Pakistan has started playing rough.

And when things go badly on the battlefield, politics here on the homefront implode. Right now, Americans seem locked into some sort of glorious, never apologize, never back down, political stand-off to the death. Instead of arguing our way toward better policies and legislation, we’re raging into deadlock.

But don’t ask me what it’s about, because I’m not sure. It’s definitely not just the war; since we keep stale-mating on health care, medical research, immigration, and education, too. My guess is that our anger is less about issues than about how other people think. We just don’t like the way those people see things — from war, to God, to health care. We want to get along; the polls show it, and everybody says so. But they just keep saying the stupidest things….

HAVING MISSED Headwaters, I’m not entirely sure what the “Great 21st Century Transition” is. But I assumed, from the on-line literature, that the conference would be about the adjustments we’ll need to make in order to deal with regional growth, global warming, the global economy, peak oil, and other life-altering developments.

What’s less clear to me is who “we” are. And if we really share the same problems. And whether we can come together to resolve anything.

What is it that we all have in common — in our region, in our state, and in our country?

Ed told me the Headwaters discussion addressed the lack of affordable housing in Colorado resort communities. But even this conventional Colorado topic doesn’t really apply to a lot of our region. In Chaffee County, the cost of old-fashioned stick-built homes is spiraling, but trailers and modulars, though frequently disparaged, are comparatively affordable, and rents are still relatively low. In Saguache and Monte Vista housing prices are very reasonable in contrast to what they are in the rest of Colorado, but a lot of their buildings are empty. And at the southern end of the San Luis Valley, in Del Norte, San Luis, and Antonito, the economy relies upon tourist dollars, yet the towns are still so rural and distinctive, one suspects most people don’t consider them resort communities.

So should Central Coloradans be discussing affordable housing, which is clearly one of the most intractable problems in Aspen, Vail, and Telluride? Or are we merely trying to euphemize a more embarrassing problem: poverty?

And escalating sales prices on commercial properties are another matter. In towns that are doing well, commercial real estate prices keep escalating — beyond the means of many small town retailers.

In the November 1 Gunnison Country Times, Chris Dickey wrote that one of the reasons Salida surpasses Gunnison “in its cottage industry — those unique, small, owner-operated stores, restaurants and shops that give a community its character” is “the price of real estate. It’s cheaper.”

And last month, George Sibley surprised me by saying that mallwarts were leaving downtown buildings in Salida, Gunnison and La Junta empty. It strikes me that there’s truth in Dickey’s and Sibley’s observations; escalating prices are driving small shops out of downtown tourist districts, and growth in our region has attracted some chain retailers. But every town seems to have different problems.

People from Gunnison, where grass roots protests prevented a Wal-Mart SuperCenter from going in, have often told me how ugly Salida’s Wal-Mart is, and how many businesses a Wal-Mart of its size destroys. It would be silly, though, to pretend that Wal-Mart ruined Salida. If you want to talk about failing businesses and empty buildings, Salida had them big-time in the 1980s.

Although Wal-Mart may not be the squarest, fairest retailer in the world, Salida needs a big box retailer, and most of us realize that. Wal-Mart makes us a destination, a stop-over town for tourists, a market center for nearby communities, and a place you can live without making weekend trips to the city.

Gunnison residents worry about Wal-Marts more than Salidans, perhaps because their kids never nagged them to go to Citadel Mall in the Springs. Salida sits too close to the Front Range to keep people shopping at the Mom and Pop Market. Take away Wal-Mart and people here head to Target, Home Depot, the Outback, and Starbucks. That’s the way it used to be; Salidans used to spend their money somewhere else.

Despite their proximity, Gunnison, Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville, CaƱon City, Monte Vista, and Alamosa have surprisingly different problems. Gunnison seems to have everything — a college, hospital, multiple grocery stores, shopping district, river park, and nearby ski resort — but it’s really cold and far from the madding crowds which probably discourages some would-be investors.

Salidans would love to have a college campus. Monte Vista would like to attract more retail businesses. And then there are the other communities in our midst — Center, Saguache, Crestone, Del Norte, Nathrop, Maysville, Sargents, Almont, Granite, Twin Lakes — so close in miles, but a world away in concerns.

And what of the rest of the country? And the other side of the world? Is everybody facing the same Great 21st Century Transition? Or are we so splintered we can barely share the same planet?

AT THIS POINT in time, Americans don’t seem to agree on much. We’re all over the map regarding war, globalization, global warming, peak oil, growth, progress, real estate development, Wal-Mart, religion, conservation, health care….

We seem to be facing some sort of cultural crisis. But I don’t see it as an actual crisis, like those that people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Darfur face. It seems to be more a crisis of faith, not in God or religion, but in our country, leaders, culture, motivations, future, and fellow Americans.

Americans pride themselves on their diversity — on being a “melting pot” or “salad bowl.” But when the going gets rough, we tend to look at each other in askance, and wonder, “Who are these people? What do they believe in? Are they moral? Are they dangerous? Are they sane?”

POLITICAL ARGUMENTS have gotten pretty rancorous in recent years, but this isn’t the first time — or the worst time. There was Vietnam, McCarthyism, Jim Crow laws, the internment of Japanese Americans — and the Civil War.

And long before the American Civil War broke out, Southerners and Northerners hammered each other. The South battled it out in congress, imposing successively vicious Fugitive Slave Acts, which gave slave-owners the right to demand the help of Northerners in finding and recovering slaves, and made it legal to search the homes of Northerners, and to impose fines and seize the property of those who did not comply.

The Southerners insisted that Northern courts could not impose limits to their recovery rights or even demand proof of ownership when slave-owners came to reclaim their property, and thus unscrupulous Southerners kidnapped northern free blacks and sold them into slavery.

Abolitionists considered those kidnapped slaves Northern citizens, free by the right of their state laws and God. And they retaliated with “personal liberty laws.” But constitutional law was on the side of the South. Slaves were property, so you could no more find a run-away slave at your door, then feed him and clothe him without trying to return him, than you could keep a carriage you found in the streets. Hard-pressed by the Southerners, congress, and the courts, Northerners defied the law, and helped abolitionists establish an “underground railroad,” an elaborate system for helping slaves flee north.

In that era, the factions pushed one another to the breaking point, refusing to back down, compromise, or even consider the other side’s position. In many very public and bitter cases, Southerners wouldn’t even consider selling slaves for top dollar, when the buyers were Northerners who would set the slaves free. And that led to extreme ambivalence because some of the would-be buyers were family, friends, and even husbands, wives and parents of the slaves in question.

That was an era of cruel, mean-spirited political machinations. Whereas we only appear to be headed that way.

In the antebellum period, as happens today, political opponents used religion to justify their feuds. People cited their religion to support every side of the slavery issue (including some that are seldom thought about today).

Massachusetts Justice John Saffin proclaimed that God had ordained “some to be born Slaves, and so to remain during their lives.”

Mary Chestnut, on the other hand, concluded, “God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity.”

Black poet-journalist J.M. Whitfield contended, “I believe it to be the destiny of the Negro, to develop a higher order of civilization and Christianity than the world has yet seen.”

According to ex-slave Callie Williams, “Dey tried to make ’em [the slaves] stop singin’ and prayin’ during’ de war, ‘case all dey’d ask for was to be sot free….”

And in Great Slave Narratives, William and Ellen Craft related the story of Judge Scalaway who told the accused: “Margaret Douglass, stand up. You are guilty of one of the vilest crimes that ever disgraced society; and the jury have found you so. You have taught a slave girl to read in the Bible….”

Salem, the Civil War, the Klan.

BY NOW YOU’D THINK Americans would be more aware of the perils of towering self-righteousness and religious hypocrisy. We should know that being religious doesn’t preclude someone from being a bully and a tyrant. And even if we’ve forgotten our history lessons, you’d presume that recent scandals would illustrate that religious men can cheat, lie, sin, and equivocate just as brazenly as other men.

Yet during recent debates, Republican and Democratic candidates have been expected to bare their souls and explain their religious beliefs to the world. And they have, fawning before their inquisitors in an attempt to convince Americans of the depth and sincerity of their convictions.

Probably 7 out of 10 of them are not really sincere. But such intrusive inquiries have no place in a political debate, regardless. These people are running to be the U.S. President, not the national high priest.

THESE DAYS, Americans spend entirely too much time delving into what our candidates believe in and why they believe it, and way too little time trying to understand what laws, policies and programs their candidates want to advance.

I absolutely understand why Americans keep looking for someone who shares their values, beliefs, and moral sensibilities. But when they find that person, they should marry him or her, and save their vote for the person who shares their goals and has the experience, know-how, and savvy to accomplish things.

Today, we seem to be at an impasse on nearly everything — war, water, zoning, the environment, health care, medical research and more — and part of the reason is that we keep arguing about what we believe in.

But you don’t have to agree on everything from gene splicing to transubstantiation to take action. Nor do you have to have the same reasons for supporting a cause. You only need to agree upon what action needs to be taken.

I don’t care if someone “believes in” global warming or not. Does he support alternative energy programs? Reducing fuel usage? Encouraging local food production?

Sharing rides? Reducing the speed limit?

Then let’s get this movement started. For better or worse, we’re in this together — and will doubtlessly sink or swim together (perhaps with the polar bears after all the ice caps melt).

After a trip to the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, a description of our country and its politics that’s so compelling Americans are still quoting it today. Tocqueville said:

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

“There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.”

“In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.”

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

At this point in history, most of us don’t spend much time musing about who and what Americans are. In political fights, citizens frequently characterize our country and its citizens as either the very best or worst, the most benevolent or evil, murderers or heroes, warmongers or wusses. But surely we’re more nuanced than that.

We routinely say that we’re a lot of things: a superpower, the leader of the free world, the world’s greatest democracy, and the world’s richest nation with the best medical system, justice system, and armed forces. But not so long ago, the USSR claimed half of those distinctions, too.

Who are we? What is our character? What is the motivation of our nation? And what should its goal be? Although Jefferson, Adams and Franklin mused about such things, modern Americans seldom have the time. But I think indulging in a little national introspection might help us understand how others see us, and why.

So I thought I’d try it:

AMERICANS ARE creative, energetic, passionate, hard-working, and prone to self-delusion. We think we are logical, but we are not. We think we are scientific, but we are not. We think we are right, when we are not. When it comes to science and math, our education is mediocre at best. Our culture is saturated with wizards, dragons, and vampires. We prefer science fiction to physics and chemistry.

In America, super heroes rule! Mediums, psychics, and ghost busters ply their trade on “reality” TV. In the book world, there are vampire mysteries, romances, westerns, and comedies. Rhonda Byrne’s big bestseller, The Secret, advised people that they could get anything they wanted from mansions to miracle cures simply by thinking about it, and Americans bought it.

Americans have embarked upon the 21st century, and it’s steeped in medieval sorcery and supernatural magic. I don’t know whether we’re trying to escape into fantasy worlds or are looking for mythical heroes to come to our rescue. But either way, we don’t need super heroes, demigods, or high priests to run our country. We need leaders who will help us pull together to achieve our goals.

People will tell you that being a great leader requires character. But perhaps it’s more a matter of examining where you’re going and why — before you lead people there.

Quotes about slavery are from Slavery in America From Colonial Times to the Civil War by Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider. Alexis de Tocqueville quotes are from numerous sites on the Internet, where aside from his writings you can readily find Tocqueville’s biography, picture, and critiques of his work.