Last week I celebrated my first Fourth of July as an American. I was sworn in a few weeks earlier at a ceremony that would have sent chills down Pat Buchanan's spine. Seated in a noisy Brooklyn auditorium, more than 2,000 new citizens--almost all black and brown faces with the odd British banker looking around nervously--listened to introductory speeches in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Hindi. A young woman of Indian origin gave us an earnest lecture imploring us to do our civic duty and always vote. After a short, sweet speech on patriotism and the Oath of Allegiance, it was over and we emptied onto the streets where a small welcoming fair had been set up. You could eat pizza, sign up to join the New York Police Department and get your picture taken with a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. In some cities the Daughters of the American Revolution host tea parties for new immigrants. Not in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
It's funny, but I don't feel so different as a citizen. That's probably because ever since I left India to study in the United States almost two decades ago I have involved myself deeply in this country's life. I can still remember, years back, the first time I used the word "we" when writing about the United States and wondering whether anyone would object. No one ever has.
Every immigrant has his own corny sense of why America is special. What has always struck me as unique about this country is that it welcomes anyone and everyone to be part of the American experience. If you want to be an American, then, in so many people's minds, you are an American. (The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a somewhat more technical standard, which is why it took me as long as it did to convert desire into reality.)
For most of the people in that Brooklyn auditorium, the United States represents the future. But Americans these days seem increasingly interested in their past. Over the last few years the country has developed an insatiable appetite for tales of great Americans of yore. The extended multimedia homage to the World War II generation had barely abated this spring when it was replaced by a Founding Father chic. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, have all been the subjects of recent, extravagant hagiographies. Even dour, dyspeptic John Adams is now cool.
This is odd. Most of these men were highly controversial and bitterly disagreed with one another. Admiration for one might reasonably imply dislike for another. How can one regard Jefferson and Hamilton as equally praiseworthy? Give me a founder, people seem to be saying, any founder.
We hanker not for heroes but for heroic times, circumstances that brought out grandeur in the nation, vision in leaders and the best in everyone. That is the true appeal of Tom Brokaw's books and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Living in times of peace and plenty, when even a recession is something that can be contemplated calmly, people are searching for something more ennobling than next year's bonus. This vein of disquiet was richly tapped by John McCain when he said on the campaign trail last year that he wanted Americans to serve a cause "greater than themselves."
This is a worthy impulse. But what is distinctive about America is that it is not a country in search of great national causes. It has constructed a political order in which people can pursue their own private conceptions of goodness--whether they be coaching Little League, starting a company or volunteering--and these private acts are honored. Indeed they are what America is all about. This is not an invitation to hedonism. It is the definition of "the pursuit of happiness." John Adams said that he studied war and politics so that his sons could study navigation and commerce, so that their sons could study poetry and music. (OK, so we're surfing the Net rather than studying poetry, but you get the point.)
When America was threatened, as it was in World War II and the cold war, it rose to the task. And it will when the next crisis arises. But you can't manufacture a great cause out of a sense of nostalgia for old ones. There is still important work to be done, and if one were to look abroad the tasks are immense. (Think of AIDS in Africa.) But there is no faking it. The stakes in American politics are low, lower than in decades.
Most countries in the world are not so fortunate. Eradicating poverty is a constant, Herculean challenge. Political, ethnic and religious divides are such that if one group comes to power, it often means the oppression of another. Politics can get deadly. People are certainly tested by these trials. But I think that most would prefer a more quiet national life.
A South African judge recently addressed a group of students at a major American university. She began by noting that the newspapers in the United States seemed full of trivia. Then she explained her deep and fervent hope that one day the newspapers in her country would also have nothing serious to report. For me, and I would guess most of the people in that Brooklyn auditorium, the big news about America is that there is no big news.