I Am An American…

I am not a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or “other.” I am an American. When I see or hear discussions concerning the current state of the American nation and the upcoming elections, I sometimes wonder whether I come from a nation of Americans, or one of Republicans and Democrats. Many issues regarding the economy, foreign affairs, health care and other social services, etc. come up, and news piece  after news piece strives to shed light on what will happen if one candidate or the other is in office come January 2013. Most news sources are tainted by loyalties to one party or another, but, by putting different sources together, we can form some sort of understanding of the different candidates, and how they plan on addressing the issues in question. This has given rise to countless other discussions in the form of opinion pieces, TV interviews, and non-stop social networking conversations regarding which party’s stance is more favorable.

Like many other Americans, as well as many foreigners, I am also very interested in the outcome of the elections and its potential effects on the country. However, unlike many who place their hopes in a given candidate or party, I do not believe that either candidate is the answer America needs. In fact, I do not believe ANY candidate can give America the solutions it is looking for – I believe that the answer does not lie in the hands of the government. The future of America, its values and quality of life do not depend on the two political candidates for the presidency currently in question; rather, they depend on ME – I am an American… If you are an American, they depend on YOU as well.

I do not believe that either candidate – regardless of whether they cut taxes, lessen the country’s deficit, improve relations abroad, better health care and raise the job market or not – is capable of satisfying the American people. Why not? Because right now, there is a big question mark over what it means to be an American. There is a great divide among the American people and how they think. Given that Americans, as a whole, know their opinions, share them and fight for them, this divide has found its way into the realm of politics, as voters go back and forth, using the political arena and the selection of their nations leaders as a platform to promote their own beliefs and values. There is nothing wrong with this – I believe that one should, in conscience, vote based on their beliefs and values. However, the back and forth between party majorities, the bickering, the barely won elections, and the inability in recent years of either party to successfully carry forward its agenda due to constant obstacles put in place by the opposing parties reflects not only a difficulty in government, but a deeper rift in the American people.

Over one and a half centuries ago, this nation was in the middle of a civil war over slavery. I believe that, today, the country has commenced another sort of war, also over slavery. The slavery giving rise to the first Civil War was visible and clear, represented by the servitude of an entire race. The division of sides was likewise set: North verses South. It was a war of blood.

The slavery in question today is harder to pinpoint, because it has no color, race or particular group of people. It is an ideological slavery, in which people’s actions, words and fiscal affairs can be controlled, scrutinized and manipulated by law when the central government adopts the ideology of one group or another and uses its authority to impose it on the nation as a whole. This is not a war of north vs. south or east vs. west; it is a war that stretches from coast to coast and has each state, county, city and even families divided within themselves based on moral and ethical beliefs. It is not a war of blood, but a war of words, ideas and power that touches the very fabric of the nation.

I think a lot of this ideological struggle is the result of an identity crisis that has arisen as more and more people have departed from some essential values this nation was founded upon. While countless values and ethics could be debated, all the current issues seem to center around the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the reason behind America’s separation from Britain. All three of these rights are currently endangered, and I believe that the ideological divide within America is between those that respect these rights and those that have lost sight of them, or sought to redefine them.

The Right to Life

The debate over life issues, such as abortion (already mentioned above) and birth control, euthanasia and the death penalty, come to mind immediately as issues that threaten the right to life. Those in support of such actions have lost sight of this fundamental right. They do not deny that these practices threaten life, but they put the right to life as second to some other desired good (e.g. freedom to choose for abortion, compassion or convenience for euthanasia, or safety for the death penalty). In these cases, which largely affect the most vulnerable in society and thereby those that most deserve protection rather than rejection, the right to life is put in second place and then forgotten.

The founding fathers did not make that mistake. When writing the Declaration of Independence, they placed the right to life FIRST. Perhaps it was just a fluke, but I don’t think so. Thomas Jefferson selected his words carefully and well, and I believe that the order he chose was also deliberate. It is ultimately impossible to uphold the rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness if the right to life has been overlooked. Without life, there is no liberty. If the right to life is selective, overlooking, for example, the unborn and the elderly, then the right to liberty immediately lacks universality, as it is not extended to those that have been deprived of life, and those being deprived of their life are automatically deprived of their right to pursue happiness as well.

The moral defense of the right to life is most important, but it is also most discussed, so rather than representing the moral arguments, I’d like to point out that actions against the right to life have negatively affected society as well. Currently, the American social security system is at great risk of crashing as the number of people drawing on social security surpasses the number of working Americans paying into the system. As a result of smaller families, there aren’t enough in the younger generation to support the system. Who will suffer from it? Either the older generation will suffer from not receiving back what was promised to them as they contributed to the system during their working years, or the government will have to make up the difference, thus increasing the deficit and causing another problem.

Even more importantly, whether we realize it or not, there are now countless individuals missing from our society that would otherwise be there. I have two children, and love them both immensely. As a mother, I know that it is impossible to choose between the two. Both of them have a special and irreplaceable place in my heart, and both of them are actively contributing, in different and unique ways, to our family, and will begin to contribute more and more to society also as they grow. Had I chosen not to have one of them, which one would I now be missing? It doesn’t matter, because they are both equally precious. Even if one of them had never joined us, he would still be missing – there would be an empty place in my heart, my husband’s heart, and our other son’s heart that would remain unfilled. There would also be an empty place of society.

Each person that comes into being has different talents and capabilities, different emotions, thoughts and actions. Perhaps many of the difficulties in society today have arisen because the people that may have prevented or solved them were never allowed into this world. What if one of the unborn babies had come up for the cure for cancer? Or been able to prevent a war? Improved the legal system? Decreased crime rates? What if the economic state of the U.S. would be better had someone deprived of the right to life been born and led the U.S market in a better direction? There are many things we complain about – things we want different, yet we have prevented from being born many people that might have contributed to fixing these situations.

Liberty

Freedom is still valued, but gravely misunderstood. Instead of being oriented toward an objective good, personal convenience and desires often take priority in governing people’s actions. Many issues in today’s society, including not only the right to life, but also the push for unlimited tolerance toward personal behavior, lifestyles and actions ultimately becomes intolerance toward people that believe in objective values. This stems from a warped understanding of freedom. Defining freedom simply as the right to do as I please and the need to allow others to do the same is convenient; it exonerates me from both personal and social responsibility. Any action can be justified either by my own desire, or toleration of the desires of others. To acknowledge that there is a “right” implies that there is also a “wrong”, and acknowledging that something is wrong suggests that one should avoid doing it, even if it is attractive. To bring right and wrong into the picture therefore gives rise to tough choices, since people might have to choose something even if they don’t want it. It is easier to deny the existence of right and wrong under the guise of “tolerance” that it is to assume responsibility for personal actions and associations. This sense of tolerance has turned into an “I can do no wrong” mentality in society and has thus actually become intolerance for anyone that believes in objective right or wrong. This somewhat explains the struggle and ideological persecution that many Christians and other religiously oriented people are suffering from in the United States. Since they claim that there is a right and wrong, and that people should be held accountable for their actions, they are branded “intolerant” and accused of infringing upon freedom.

In reality, however, freedom cannot be divorced from responsibility. Freedom is unique to man, because it requires an intellect. Man innately realizes, because of his intellect, that there is a right and a wrong; he can experience, that some things are good and others are not. He can also experience that some good things are better than others or more important than others. Freedom should be used to obtain and protect the good and to do what is right. Identity is largely defined by an individual or group’s values and perspectives. America was founded on certain values, including freedom of religion, the concept of responsibility and, the right to life. The concept of freedom in America and for America was therefore largely seen as the freedom to protect and bestow these rights for each individual. Today, the idea of freedom in America has strayed far from protecting the rights and values the nation was founded upon, and is being used to impose different ideologies often in direct opposition to the original values to the nation. The discrepancy between the concept of freedom in today’s society and the values that guide it is large enough to raise the question of whether the “America” of today is really the same country that was founded a little over two centuries ago.

Compared to other countries and cultures, America is still very young. It has had a rapid rise and now stands at a pivotal point. If the departure from its founding values continues, I believe the division in America will intensify and lead to a gradual demise. We already see how division over economy, morality and the role of government has prevented productive progress in the country. Given that the country is still young, however, and that I truly believe many Americans still do value the identity of the nation as it was founded, it is my hope that today’s social and moral crisis will pass, leaving the true America intact for our children and their children, generations into the future.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Everyone wants happiness – they always have and always will. In America, happiness is important – important enough to have been mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. I do not believe anyone has forgotten about their desire to be happy. I do believe, however, that much of the country has forgotten about the importance of the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence did not promise happiness. It did not say that the government is accountable for the happiness of each individual. It did not say that each individual was guaranteed a happy life. It stated that each individual has the right to pursue happiness. This implies that happiness is possible, but it also implies that some might reach it and others might not, and some might achieve a greater degree of it than others. I believe that many of the social problems in American society today, including squabbling over health care and what it covers, government aid, prices, minority rights, etc. are the result of a society that is demanding happiness without wanting to pursue it. Instead, many people are waiting to be handed happiness by the government. This gives rise to another problem – the government, in giving in to demands made by people that aren’t working for those demands or making a just contribution to society, takes wealth justly earned by people that are contributing to society, and gives it to those that aren’t.

Does this sound unjust? It is. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that the government should stand by and let people starve and die when they have no means of feeding themselves, or leave people on the street when they have no way of finding shelter. I am saying that there is something wrong when people on food stamps and government handouts have more discretionary cash and personal goods than people that honestly work for a living, when the dependent is living off of taxes taken from those doing the work. If a person can have a better life living off handouts, where is the motivation for them to work, to develop their talents and contribute to society? In fact, they have a better lifestyle by staying below the poverty line than they would by being slightly above it and living off their own work. Waiting for handouts, standing by and complaining about a bad job market or bad housing market will always lead to discontent. Even if the government gives people a decent life through handouts, without damaging the hardworking population, people won’t really be happy because they won’t be fulfilled.

Personal success and hard work is one of the ingredients for happiness. Happiness begins in front of us. It is in reach, but we must advance toward it and take hold of it. When we eliminate the “pursuit” of happiness, it will always remain a step ahead of us. America is known as a place of ambition where dreams come true because it was founded by a group of people intent on pursuing the happiness they had not found across the ocean. It took years of toil and hardship for them to obtain that happiness. They knew that half of the key to happiness is found in the journey toward it, so they set up a land of opportunity, where each individual is invited to pursue his own happiness. Now we are in the middle of an experiment as much of the country tries to see if they can be handed happiness without pursuing it, and this has already negatively affected the economy and significantly contributed to the nation’s debt. I hope the experiment ends and more of the country returns to the honest, hardworking route to happiness before the country is permanently scarred from a failed experiment. I hope there are enough Americans out there that care about their country and its appeal to honest, hardworking individuals to put the “pursuit” back into “pursuit of happiness” on all levels.

Conclusion

If you are an American heading toward the poll booth this November, look me in the eye. Don’t tell me which candidate you like better or what party you are affiliated with. Don’t tell me what you want the next administration to give you or do for you. Tell me rather who you are. Tell me what you are doing to help our society. Tell me what you are doing to protect the future of America and to secure a decent life for your children. Tell me whether you resonate with the ideals of America, including, to begin with, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. An American is someone who loves his country and appreciates it, not someone who seeks to use it for his own advantage without repaying society for the benefits obtained.

I have lived abroad for many years. I’m on foreign land, surrounded by a foreign language, eating a foreign cuisine. I may return to live in the U.S. with my family in a year or two, or I may never make it back there again… only the future will tell. But no matter where life takes me, and what happens to the 50 States, I will always fight for these fundamental rights and values. After all, I am an American…

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. 

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home.

2 thoughts on “I Am An American…

  1. Ellen, this is a really interesting and thoughtful piece, and your conclusion is just beautiful. I love the way you exhort Americans to take personal responsibility for ourselves and for the governance of our country. What a better country this would be if all citizens had a tenth of your integrity and will to do good! Over and over again in history, economic success (the kind that lifts millions out of true, starving and homeless poverty) treads on the heels of economic freedom. When governments get out of the way, the starving masses do pursue happiness.
    I’m just a little unclear about your definition of freedom. When you say, “Freedom is still valued, but gravely misunderstood. Instead of being oriented toward an objective good, personal convenience and desires often take priority in governing people’s actions,” I’m not really sure what you mean. How do elected officials orient freedom? The founding fathers’ idea was to limit government because they believed that it was NOT the author of men’s rights, and therefore had no authority to dictate morality to its citizens. Hence actions that did not directly violate the rights of another were considered the provenance of religious power, not governmental power, or at least not federal power. The founding fathers certainly understood that responsibility and freedom could not be divorced, but very specifically said, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Rights are endowed by the Creator, protected by the government, and government derives its power, not from God, but from the consent of the governed – the citizens. I know that the Catholic church teaches that all authority comes from God, but the idea Jefferson and his cohorts had was that God gives authority to men, and men, in order to protect themselves from others, organize government and loan it some of the authority God gave each of us. In that sense, we do give up some of our freedom to act as we please, but their idea was that we give up as little as possible, and as locally as possible, so that the morals and desires and rights of one group would be less likely to trample those of the others. Most of the signers of the Declaration and the delegates who framed the Constitution were at least uncomfortable with slavery, but they were willing to allow other states to contravene God’s law so that the Union could survive against powerful enemies. The rights of the majority thus superseded the rights of slaves because the Framers put a priority on protecting the rights of those who were freely giving up some of their God-given personal authority to this new federal government. They felt it was necessary to ignore a glaring injustice so that they could preserve the freedom of a carefully defined group called citizens. After all, they said “all men are created equal,” but they did, “all white males over the age of 21 are equal.”
    John Adams said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
    Maybe you already know and feel these things, but I think it’s important for Americans to remember that government works best when its reach is very, very limited. The more power and authority we give to elected officials and bureaucrats, the less autonomy we have to pursue our happiness, including our religious and moral happiness.

    • Megan – I agree with you. I meant that sentence about freedom differently – I wasn’t referring to the government’s role, but to the individual governing their own actions. For example – if it’s more attractive for a teenager to go to a late night party than to responsibly finish their homework, they invoke their “freedom.” Their choice is based on convenience and pleasure, not on responsibility or what is actually most important and best for their own lives. When the guiding force behind freedom becomes “what I want” and “what I want” is often determined by pleasure or convenience, there’s a problem. I was not trying to give a definition of freedom – I think that’s an in depth topic that would have to be covered separately. I was just trying to say that freedom when freedom is divorced from responsibility and directed by pleasure rather than a greater good, it leads to division and disorder in society. It is no longer the “right to freedom” spoken of in the Declaration of Independence. I agree completely with what you said regarding the founding fathers knowing that freedom cannot be divorced from responsibility. I also agree that God does give authority to men, and I don’t think that conflicts with the Catholic teaching that all authority comes from God. He is the source of all authority, but he chooses to exercise it through men. That is clear in the Gospel when Jesus is before Pilate and indicates that Pilate has authority because it has been given him by the Father. I also agree that some personal freedom is willingly given up when a government is accepted, but, like you say, as little freedom as possible should be sacrificed. I think that’s the problem today – A LOT of personal freedom is being sacrificed as government interferes more and more on every level in a way that is not necessary and certainly is not protecting the fundamental rights… I think what you say at the end (John Adams’ quote) is true and summarized the issue we have today – the values of our constitution cannot be upheld by a government that does not share those values… Just like capitalism, as a system, works, but only if the men involved are moral and ethical. Regarding slavery – we also have a saying similar to what you said: “all men are created equal, but not born equal.” That means that there are differences in life, but that inequality surfaces in plenty of ways – differences of ability and differences of opportunity, for example. It should never come from men arbitrarily taking away equality from another group for their own benefit, as was the case with slavery… At that point, abolishing slavery wasn’t the focus of the founding fathers – they had to first establish certain rights (which they did) – these rights became the basis for later abolishing practices, like slavery, that contradicted them…

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