America: This Magnificent Mess

America is a naïve, precocious, bashful, boastful, talented, lazy, generous, circumspect, helpful, vindictive, faithful, unpredictable, fearless, recalcitrant, big-thinking, and small-minded mass of people who have yet to come into our own.

Despite this rich, luxurious, and frayed tapestry that is America, we are, still at heart, greedy and sanctimonious – a trick we have accomplished for nearly 400 years. Before the rich cultural influx of immigrants from around the globe, America was defined by either those who sought a religious utopia based on a way of life free from the worldly trappings of wealth, power, and property or those who craved the adventure and monetary gain the New World could offer. Tragically, these groups completely overshadowed the Native Americans whose seminal influence we have all but razed. What the world now sees is the paradoxical melding of the sacred and the secular, the pious and the prosperous, the abstemious and the adventuresome.

Not only are we a nation of extremes, but also these extremes have influenced each other in startling ways. Religious America has grown quite adventuresome – however derivative – as it scrambles to produce "relevant" art. Christian-themed books and movies have made it to the tops of the charts, and everyone from hardcore rappers to pop idols now invokes the Deity in his or her CD liner notes and award acceptance speeches. Many pulpits have replaced revered hymns with "praise songs" accompanied by either prerecorded music or desperately sincere acoustic guitars, and hymn books and Bibles have bowed to Power Point presentations projected onto jumbo screens. Not since the days of the Old Testament has the message of prosperity as a sign of God's pleasure been so advanced. Suddenly prosperity and recognition, long railed against by the Puritans, seem inroads to the Unconverted and rewards for the Faithful.

And secular America is not beneath waxing sanctimonious whenever the occasion calls for it. People to whom a religious life means very little will cry out against everything from gay marriage to stem cell research, citing our country's rich Judeo-Christian heritage as a basis for national morality. These same Americans marry at the drop of a hat, divorce in droves, and wonder why our children run wild.

Where does the world get its view of our country? The media machine. Certainly some countries censor and edit world news, but we have long lulled ourselves with the notion that in a free country with free speech, the media reports completely and accurately. But for all the wonders of the media in America, distortion abounds. For fellow world citizens who have never graced our shores, two urban coastlines and an entertainment industry fueled solely by advertising dollars have defined us, unfortunately. Yet between the influential coasts are millions of individuals who, like most of the world, are just trying to get by: people who are not only unabashedly passionate, but optimistically flawed.

As a country, we rally against perceived attack, but, face-to-face, we want peace. Our religions have grown into institutions – something England and Ireland know a great deal about – but many Americans share a working faith that cannot be contained within the walls of temples and monasteries, sanctuaries and mosques. The majority of us are not represented well by Hollywood, and even when our poorer quarters are the subject matter, writers succumb to broad stereotypes, and the world continues to view us as property owners who drive expensive cars and spend our truncated lunch hours tapping away at wireless notebooks lest our stock portfolios dive, but this is not Average America. We do not all own guns, yet those who brandish them command our headlines. Our agencies claim they exist to fairly report the news, but advertising pays the bills and viewers pay the advertisers, so the most "exciting" and marketable stories make the cut. The news agencies in America strive to give the people what they think we want, not what we need. Just as "Middle America" is not a newsworthy export, simple truth in news and advertising is not interesting, either.

So what do we do with this extreme wild child that is the United States of America? When your mixed heritage is that of greed and piety, certainly extreme behavior is the result. How else can you explain why we rally against abortion yet refuse to adopt crack babies? Why the same Southerners who once sported "The South's Gonna Rise Again" bumper stickers now wear NYPD and NYFD caps and t-shirts in the wake of 9/11? Why we howl against rising gasoline prices yet would not consider handing over the keys to our SUVs?

Despite the troublesome things that we are, perhaps we should take a hard look at the things we are not. Though Christianity may predominate in the national debate -- perhaps to the point of annoyance to those millions of non-Christian citizens in our country -- we are not advocates of a state or national religion that mandates our behavior. Though civil strife has always been a part of America's heritage in one manifestation or another, we are not participating in governmental genocide. Though true equality between the sexes has not yet been fully realized, we are not sanctioning the raping, maiming, and killing of our women and girls. Though our public education system is far from perfect, we are not turning children away from an education based on their caste or financial situation.

As a country, we have far too much money, and we have far too many poor people. We spend billions of dollars on research to stanch the flow of debilitating diseases such as AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and muscular dystrophy, yet we spend billions of dollars producing mindless television programs. We value public education, yet we pay our teachers obscenely low salaries. We value political debate and free speech, yet many still do not manage to get out and vote. We love our children, yet we hardly spend time with them. We crowd into our houses of worship, yet we continue to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of many. We are the most powerful nation in the world, yet we are one of the youngest countries on the globe.

America is a naïve, precocious, bashful, boastful, talented, lazy, generous, circumspect, helpful, vindictive, faithful, unpredictable, fearless, recalcitrant, big-thinking, and small-minded mass of people who have yet to come into our own.

In our adolescent hubris, we Americans would never come right out and beg patience from our neighbors, but it is exactly what we want. Our responsibilities are staggering, but our resources are vast. So far we have avoided a total hell by not doing all that we are able to do, yet we have fallen far short of heaven by refusing to do everything we can. It is not easy when so many petition us, ignore us, imitate us, revile us, look to us, and shun us, but, God willing, we will straighten out this magnificent mess!


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