Wednesday, November 03, 2004

“We're not Watusi, we're not Spartans, we're Americans... That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world.”

The Movie: Stripes, 1981 (Len Blum & Daniel Goldberg and Harold Ramis, screenwriters; Ivan Reitman, dir.)
Who says it: Bill Murray as John Winger, who ends up in the Army more or less by accident.
The context: Winger rallies his misfit brothers-in-arms to make a daring raid behind the Iron Curtain.
How to use it: To express patriotism – well, if you’re a U.S. citizen.

I was voter #997 at the Gardiner Town Office yesterday afternoon, a little after 4:00 p.m. Gardiner's official population is only about 6,500 people, and the Town Office wasn't the only polling station, so turnout was high. For what might be the first time in my entire voting life, I voted with the local majority right down the line: Kerry for President, the incumbent (Tom Allen) for Congress, no on the tax cap, no on the bear-hunting ban.

Anna and Tarren had invited me down to the Maine Republican Party post-election celebration, in Portland, and I really did think about going... some of the nicest people I know are Republicans... but when I left the Town Office around 4:30, the sun had already set, and it was pouring rain. I couldn't see driving all the way to Portland and then all the way back, late at night, in the rain, after a beer or two. So I drove back to China and settled in for a long night of watching returns on the TV and the computer.

After 2000, what mattered most to me was that we have a definitive election result by the end of the night. By 11:30, it was clear that we wouldn't, so I went to bed.

And this morning things still don't look certain, although we seem to have re-elected the President. I say "we," because we're all part of the voting public, regardless of how we voted. In the days ahead, newscasters will point to the map of the United States, with its blue votes for Kerry and its red votes for Bush, and say that this means we're two countries.

That, excuse me -- I'm going to use a word I really hate here -- is bullshit. I've just spent sixteen days driving across the country, crossing the red states to get from one blue state to another, and it's just not true that people in Missouri are a different kind of Americans than people in California or people in Maine. Anyone who says so is a dangerous fool.

It's true that lifestyles and expectations are different in different parts of the country. It's true that the nature and quality of our school systems vary from one part of the country to another, and that we still have important regional differences (growing less distinct all the time).

But we're all Americans, and for better or worse that means we share these uniquely American qualities: an expectation of upward mobility; a trust in the legal system to correct any injustices done to us; a belief that every American, regardless of birth, should have the same access to opportunity; and a belief that hard work and good intentions make up for almost any shortcoming, even when they don't. We might disagree on how the system is supposed to work, but we do share these goals.

Over the auditorium in Georgetown University's Intercultural Center is a quotation from the Jesuit paleontologist, theologian and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "The age of nations is past. It remains for us now to set aside our differences, and build the earth."

Teilhard was a little premature -- sometimes I think we're seeing a rebirth of the age of nations -- but it's a lovely thought. And maybe our last two Presidential elections suggest that the age of American political parties has passed, and it's time for us to figure out a better system.

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