There is a school of thought in the study of American history—now considered anachronistic and politically incorrect, but quite popular a hundred years ago—called “American exceptionalism.” Its premise is basically that, because of the circumstances of its founding and the ideals of its Founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, America is unique. Because America could (depending on how you look at it) be considered the most successful modern democracy, it is somehow special. Worthy of note. Exceptional.
Of course, such an idea fell out of favor later in the 20th century, when historians and everyone else began to talk about the fact that for all that America might have seemed exceptional to white male property owners, it routinely disenfranchised racial minorities, women, the economically disadvantaged, immigrants, LGBT folks, young people, old people, the disabled, and really anyone who didn’t meet the profile of a Founding Father. It’s all very well, historians and civilians realized, to celebrate the ideals to which the Framers of the Constitution aspired, but it is also necessary to be aware that America has been an “exception” in some incredibly awful ways—slavery and its legacy being a prime example, of course. Indeed, one of the incredible things about the system of American government so celebrated by the exceptionalist school of thought is its imperfection. Throughout its two-and-a-quarter centuries (give or take), it has seemingly disenfranchised nearly as much as it has enfranchised.
But despite all this, what is truly incredible about America (and what, I believe, is worth celebrating on this most patriotic of all days) are the voices that come from this tension between America’s ideals and its all-too-frequent failure to live up to them. Sounds of struggle have defined America for as long as it has existed, and while those sounds may include the conventional narrative of battles to win independence from colonialism, or a fight to keep the fragile union together, they are at their strongest when they represent the voices of the oppressed and downtrodden, those Americans who have been relegated to the sidelines, who for whatever reason are not canonized in the elementary school social studies curriculum.
One of the greatest successes of the whole “American ideals” thing is the freedom of expression. This evidences itself not so much in the court battles fought to defend that right on formalized grounds (though those have often been remarkable too), but rather in the general cultural sense that there is no reason why Americans should not use their voices. This has given American history some of my personal cultural heroes, people whose poetry or music or political battles I celebrate despite the fact that they usually are not incorporated into the usual list of American heroes. I am talking, naturally, about Walt Whitman, whose poetry is adulatory of humankind in such an American fashion, and who lived so much as part and parcel of his time, reacting to the turmoil of a young country struggling with slavery and division—you could consider the Civil War the greatest test of those exceptionalist ideals, and throughout it all Whitman’s themes are unity and universality and “the varied carols” of “America singing.” I’m also talking of the folk heroes of the 20th century, such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, who were reacting to and singing through other great tests of American exceptionalism: the Great Depression and the McCarthy era. Despite impoverishment, despite blacklisting, they sang songs like Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which aspires to an America “made for you and me,” or his “Pastures of Plenty,” which is written from the perspective of a migrant worker who, despite his disadvantaged life on the outskirts of society, will fight to defend America “with my life if need be/For my pastures of plenty must always be free.” I would be remiss, of course, if I did not mention the incredible vocal tradition of the civil rights movement, which had a dream, which sang “we shall overcome someday.” I would be remiss if I did not mention the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, and students who could not vote until the 26th Amendment was passed in 1970 and who therefore shut down their campuses instead. I would be remiss if I did not mention organized labor’s struggle for living wages and fair treatment, and the fierce sense of unified defiance that came from those battles. There are far too many other struggles to name, so many that my mind is racing with those I have left out.
These heroes of American history—not the usual American exceptionalist heroes who fought the British, pursued Manifest Destiny, defended the sanctity of the union, became captains of industry, and made the world safe for democracy, but heroes all the same—speak to this incredible contradiction between what America has aspired to and what it has been. They speak to the universality of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness in the American psyche, and the fact that, whatever our situations in life (and in this country, they certainly do vary greatly), we have learned and been taught that we have the right to aspire to something greater. We continue to do this, as Americans, on a daily basis, whether it’s in our personal struggles to give our children better lives than we had; or in politics, when we make choices at the polls or when we march in the streets in celebration or protest. Throughout it all, the culture permeates, and our art and our music and our literature and our film and our commerce and our daily lives reflect the constant fight to make sense of the dichotomy of promise versus practice, to understand what we are to do with the ideals Thomas Jefferson and a few other overeducated middle-aged white men with land and slaves entrusted to us.
I largely passed today by not observing the Fourth of July, which didn’t seem strange to me: the day is essentially an arbitrary one on which to wave a flag, and as someone who grew up in the wake of September 11, flag-waving has been pretty much spoiled for me. I have spent too much of my life being told that I am a traitor for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with my class, or for questioning the justness of the Vietnam War, or for vocally opposing the Christian rhetoric of “In God We Trust” and “one nation under God” to feel any differently now. But at the end of a long and delightful normal Saturday, I went up to my friend’s roof to watch the DC fireworks explode over the Washington Monument, the first time in many years that I’d seen a fireworks display, and as I watched I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of excitement. Today is as good a day as any to say that I exult in the cultural legacy of enduring and irreconcilable contradiction, the exceptionalism of ideals that are nearly impossible to achieve, though not for lack of trying and trying and trying again.
I am seeking a conclusion to this pattern of troubled perseverance with which I can end this essay, and of course my favorite American to quote provides one by moving us forward in the ongoing struggle. At the end of a 1956 poem about his relationship to his country, he writes, “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” That’s always struck me, at least, to be as good a plan as any.