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Actions make a real American (as published in the Tampa Tribune)

Does anyone know anymore just what makes an American … an American?

Americans used to be everyday action heroes – a nation, once, of people who worked hard, saved for luxuries, ate meals together, and air-dried their laundry.

Possessed of a general decorum, reasonable manners, and a more worldly understanding and attitude toward nations, peoples, and cultures not our own, we were a nation some might have called an empire. We behaved, spoke, wrote, and governed, for the most part, as a nation worthy of our esteemed status and role on the world stage.

We walked our values, back then, way more than we talked them.

These days, however, it seems we’re increasingly a people of symbol-suckers and word-mongers obsessed with nailing each other – particularly those in the public eye, particularly those who would lead this country – to the wall for every unfamiliar hand gesture or ill-chosen word, for too many birthday candles on the cake or a scary-sounding middle name … anything, in short, that can be read as “un-American” by rabid reporters or hyped as humor by the Jon Stewarts of the world.

The result is the kind of canned speechifying that we can later vilify as “talking like a politician.” The result is a suspicion of anyone “different;” the result is a pervasive forced conformity we all have to adhere to if we don’t want to be labeled as “un-American” – a conformity that flies in the face of the individuality and freedoms of belief and expression for which we waged a revolutionary war.

Attention to the words and symbols of those who would lead us, is, of course, important. It is by those words and symbols, combined with evidence from the past, that we judge whether a candidate’s code of honor matches our own.

But it’s through our own actions as individuals that the collective honor of our country is revealed and carried out – regardless of whom we elect as president.

Andrew Carnegie said, “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say; I just watch what they do.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet warned of the dangers when we “lose the name of action.” And Robert F. Kennedy reminded us that our collective history is written by our individual actions.

Sometimes I think the most “American” American is the one willing to be perceived as un-American. The one willing to act in ways that might seem superficially unpatriotic – not wearing a flag pin, questioning the war, challenging the status quo – but that are inherently as patriotic … as American … as American gets.

After all what could be more patriotic than acting in ways that support the American ideal that all men truly are created equal – despite their age, their color, whether they have pins on their lapels or not?

Perhaps the most American thing we can do is to pay less attention to style and more attention to substance. To focus less on what others say or how they look, and more on what we, ourselves, are doing each and every day in the name of America.

To become our own everyday heroes again – by remembering that long after the lips of our leaders have stopped moving, the actions we take as individual Americans will continue to speak.

To remember that the important thing isn’t talking like an American – it’s acting like one.

Posted on July 4th, 2008Comments RSS Feed

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