--Alexis de Tocqueville,
“Democracy in America”, 1835
Thirty-nine and counting. That’s how many states in the United States of America I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to visit on my various road trips through the years. Just eleven more states to go. The last place I checked off my U.S.A. bucket list was North Dakota. Drove in for the day and visited The Roger Maris Baseball Museum in Fargo. It’s right off Interstate 94 at the West Acres Shopping Mall. Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record in 1961, with 61 home runs for the New York Yankees. The mall museum is a sweet little piece of Americana. Even got a refrigerator magnet to mark the occasion.
Being from Massachusetts I might be tempted to just skip seeing a place like North Dakota. Our two states couldn’t be more different. One ruby red Republican, the other blazingly blue Democrat. Harvard versus heifers, right? Then there’s size: seven Bay States could easily fit into one North Dakota, with room to spare. One is land locked, the other coastally contained. Truth is many northeasterners view states like North Dakota as “fly over” territory, you know those big square states we pass over on the way to going somewhere else.
But not me. I want to see all of America, every last star on the flag. I want to remember and claim all of America as America. So I want to eat powder sugar covered beignets in honky-tonk New Orleans and rubbery deep fried cheese curds at the Minnesota State Fair. I want to watch gnarly surfers tame the waves in ultra mellow La Jolla, California and South Dakota farmers bring in the wheat on a windy July Great Plains afternoon. I want to witness a gay pride parade in Miami filled with the boisterous and the proud and walk side by side in a scruffy Brooklyn neighborhood with Orthodox Jews, all back suits and beards.
Because America is all those places and all those people and then even more. NRA hunters in Utah and gay marriage advocates in Maryland. Conservative Christians in Kansas and assured atheists in San Francisco. Pro-life activists in Georgia and pro-choice proponents in Chicago. Aspiring new immigrants in Tucson and blue blood Daughters of the American Revolution on Beacon Hill. All Americans, right? Each one, as much a part of this land of the free and the home of the brave as you or me, correct? Well….
In political, media and even Main Street circles a common complaint these days is how divided our nation is in 2013. How maybe there really isn’t one U.S.A. anymore. How we’ve cracked so wide open and split so far apart along so many ideological, theological, social and cultural fault lines that it’s hard to believe in the “United” part of our name. Red state, blue state. Coastal elites and the Midwest heartland. The Bible Belt and the New South.
Look at Facebook and read as liberals and progressives mock conservatives with snarky cartoons and self-righteous rants. Watch Fox News and see conservatives critique and condemn liberals as “un-American”. “If only ‘they’ would be more like ‘us’ then America would be more American, the right kind of America.” Some even hint of giving up. “That’s it! I’m moving to Canada!” The civic sin here is a seductive one: believing that our national problems would go away if only we were all the same. Voted the same way. Thought the same way. Lived the same way. Worshiped the same way. Loved the same way.
That’s a pretty normal response to times of rapid social dislocation and change which marks life in early twenty first century America. But for me, what makes America, America, is precisely this social messiness. I don’t want it any other way. America is more a quilt than a whole cloth. America is more a stew with multiple ingredients than a monolithic melting pot. And I’m ok with that, grateful that our founding myth is not about just one race or culture or history or ideology or religion. Instead at our best we’ve always invited everyone to the American table believing it is all good when we listen to each other and appreciate the gifts each brings. It will all work out. “E pluribus unum”: from many can be one.
But first as a liberal I need to listen to conservatives. Straight, I am called to hear the concerns of my gay and lesbian neighbors. Rich, I must take seriously the plight of my poor brothers and sisters. Christian, I need to respect the beliefs of all faiths and no faith. White, I have to hear what it is like to be a person of color in this country. Lifelong New Englander, I need to remember there are 44 other states out there too, each as much a part of the United States as the place I call my home.
So: Alaska, Hawaii, Alabama, Mississippi, Utah, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas, I’m coming. It may take me awhile but I’m determined to visit you and find out what makes your place uniquely American.
Now that’s an American road trip.