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Fighting U.S. Reality with American Rhetoric October 10, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m not proud to be from the United States. The geographical accident that was my Corvallis, Oregon, birth, I feel, is nothing to brag about; historical happenstance rarely is. But I’m proud to be a part of “America,” the idealistic, non-existent place that we conjure up when we read, “We the People”; when we say, “That all men are created equal.” I believe in the promise of America; it’s the real-world manifestation of the United States that’s problematic.

It often saddens me that in yoga circles, “American” is seen as pejorative. It is, in fact, a quite neutral adjective, and it’s too frequently been my experience in yoga studios that ahimsic tolerance, acceptance, and amity extend only as far as the foothills of the Caucasus (or occasionally to the westernmost shores of the Atlantic). We forget that “America” stands for beliefs and principles as noble and virtuous as those of yoga. Admittedly, our political entity called the “United States” falls woefully short when it comes to putting these American principles into practice but, then, how many practicing yogis can actually claim to adhere to Patanjali’s sutras at all times, in all places?

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes,

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman proposes a very yogic vision for “America.” Each American’s small self — the wood-cutter, the ploughboy; the mason, mechanic, and carpenter — exists as part of the larger Self that is America. Expressed completely, our nation’s realized potential is not the “United States,” but it is America. Importantly, we are not “Americans.” Instead, we constitute “America.” When we strive to express our greatest selves; when we “om” together; or help someone up the stairs of the subway, we are singing our “American-ness” with full throats. This America is the unfulfilled promise of the United States.

In Spanish, American citizens are called estadounidenses, a word with no equivalent in English. Hypothetically translated, estadounidense, then, would be something along the lines of “United States-ian,”—an associate of this nation-state, a person bearing the temporal political classification that we assign to people depending on where they happen to have been born (or “naturalized”). It’s important to realize that “United States-ian” is not the same as “American.”  The Western Hemisphere is, of course, populated by North, Central, and South Americans alike, and the term “American” isn’t solely the province of the those of us who happen to live south of Canada and north of everyone else (With apologies to residents of Windsor, Ontario—you know what I mean here).

Martin Luther King Jr. implied this disconnect between America and the United States in his “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. King opened his oration by discussing the idealistic potential of America. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, he said, were but a

promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963

By invoking the language of finance and credit, King refuses to deny American ideals of liberty and freedom their intrinsic righteousness. His “insufficient funds” trope implies that, were those American ideals metaphorically paid to its citizens in cash money, and not in flimsy checks, then they would actually be present in contemporary society, expressed and enjoyed by the people to whom they’d been given. It is, then, the United States’ callously expedient method of issuing “credit” instead of actual “funds” that leads to the corruption and collapse of American idealism.

Indeed, before he rolls into perhaps the greatest five minutes of rhetoric in American history, King states, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” It’s noteworthy that Dr. King’s vision for the United States has as its foundation the “American dream.” He doesn’t seek a new promise, a new idealism for this nation; rather, he wants only for our present to parallel our potential. He doesn’t ask us to gaze across the ocean and replace American ideals with those of France, or China, or Russia, or India. Instead he asks us to work to turn the United States into America.

We can make Dr. King’s dream a reality, but we must remember that upon which the dream is based. It’s not radical, and it’s not new. It’s American, and it’s something in which we can all find hope, promise, and harmony.

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