There was something about Black Friday bleeding into Thanksgiving that made me very sad, like something irrevocable was being lost. It wasn’t just the rapacious greed of corporations – of course, that’s to be expected from organizations that exist only for profit – but the docile willingness of people to go along. Mix all this with political gridlock, a coarseness in our national discourse and the more grotesque and base aspects of our natures and I asked myself: do I still believe in America despite all these things? Despite how things are today?
When I was little and a new immigrant, I often heard “America” and “Americans” being talked about like foreign creatures, even though they lived just outside my high basement window. There are images I can see and a feeling I can call up – blonds with blue eyes, fancy cars, poodle skirts (although they had been in fashion 20 years before), my fancy-looking Barbie doll with her luscious long hair and her hot pink outfit, the Brady Bunch with their big car and live-in maid… these were America. I found it intoxicating, a foreign film into I walked in late and which was playing with subtitles but which I wanted desperately to understand.
It was the early 1970s, but I was blissfully unaware of the Vietnam War or the aftermath of the civil rights movement or the inequality of women or anything other than success and optimism. My first memory of anything political is of watching my father hold his head in his hands while a man held up his hands in two victory signs and stepped on a helicopter – Nixon resigning. I was four years old, but I remember clearly what my father said, “I can’t believe these people would treat their president this way.” For a man who valued respect above all, I could tell something terrible had just happened.
When my parents called our relatives back in Argentina, they asked if it was true that the streets were lined with gold and whether anyone could get a job in a day. I didn’t know if those things were true, but I felt the magic of this borrowed place, the wonder with with my parents always exclaimed how green everything was in America, how rich, how pretty. There were other, less favorable things too, like, “These people are so cold, all they care about is money.” Even then I wondered why we were different, since we had come here to make money too. It would be years before I would ask those questions. But one thing was clear: we were different. We didn’t belong. It made me love America with the yearning with which one loves someone that you know will one day leave you.
As I grew up I made it my business to stop feeling so disoriented here. By twelve years old I was watching Meet the Press and Face the Nation on Sunday mornings. I read everything I could, learned the words, memorized the terms. Eventually, I began to feel part of the conversation.
As is inevitable, when you finally step inside the ballroom that you’ve been watching, nose pressed against the glass, you begin to notice the things you hadn’t before. A blind devotion to the president of my adolescence – Ronald Reagan – gave way to the political awakening of my college years and to the Clinton administration. The Lewinsky scandal in my mid-twenties gave me a disdain for political bloodsport. The botched non-election of George W. Bush broke my little-girl belief in fairness and “the truth.” By the time I watched us re-elect a president that had started a very real war on a very fake story, I was too disillusioned to keep on watching politics the way I used to when I sat rapt at Meet the Press so I could learn everything about everything.
And that was just politics. Stepping into corporate culture taught me other things that broke my heart, like that the smartest and the most creative don’t always rise to the top. And that it’s better to kiss up than tell the truth. I began to notice the blind entitlement of people who have been middle class for generations – the lack of understanding and compassion that comes from a life where you’ve always had enough of everything. I found it isolating, like there was no one in my tribe of one. Like maybe decades of pounding down the door had revealed a party that I didn’t really want to attend.
But, of course, this America, the America of the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, of young middle managers with no milk of human kindness, also is the America of the many people who have extended a hand to me. Like my first boss who gave me extra money to buy a coat when I was 18 and he knew I was on my own and only wearing a flimsy jacket against the impending winter. Like the blind Episcopal priest who gave me a copy of a literary magazine and told me I should submit something a decade before I got the courage to do it. Like the people who told me to keep on going with my book when I couldn’t bear to read one more rejection email from agents.
We can say these are friends, these kind people, and that friends exist everywhere that humans are. And they do. But there is something very special about Americans – foibles, crazy political beliefs and all – that is unreplicated in other places I’ve been. A country founded on a crazy dream (one which, yes, hurt many in the process, there is no whitewashing that) that humanity could roam and explore and expand and make a home in the wilderness… there is something in the spirit of those people, brought together by the will to achieve rather than by ancestral roots. There is something different here, and hopeful and magical.
So, yes, despite it all, I still believe in America. I believe in it despite the power of polluting and exploitive corporations, despite the greedy, craven politicians, despite our penchant for war and our love of reality shows. Because, everywhere that a can-do attitude exists, there is hope to make things better. And if there is one thing I have learned that being American means, it means that we believe we can do things even when they are highly unlikely. And that optimism has made my heart sing every blessed day I’ve been here.
So, thank you.