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In 2016, I moved to the United States.
I don’t think I could have picked a more volatile time to do so. Suddenly, I found myself amidst the most polite civil war of all times.
All around me, lines were drawn in the sand. Insults were hurled across those lines. People blocked each other on Facebook (back when they still used Facebook, that is).
All this American angst made me appreciate the relative tranquility of politics back home in Germany. Recent German politics tend to be blissfully boring in contrast.
But that didn’t exactly help me, given that I now lived in the United States. So, I found myself trying to understand what was going on.
I realized that it had become popular among Americans to see the United States in simple terms—all good or all bad.
To some people, America was a beacon of light, spreading democracy in the world (American exceptionalism, anyone?). To others, it was a symbol of shame and oppression, built on a history of slavery and genocide.
If we look at the evidence, it seems that America is incredibly complex and contradictory.
It has the largest military budget in the world—and a strong anti-war movement.
It has a history of slavery and apartheid—and a civil rights movement.
It has an active political dialogue—and elections that are heavily influenced by money.
How does all this fit together? How can I make sense of it especially as a native German?
As the yin-yang symbol teaches us, darkness doesn’t exist without light (and vice versa). And, like many countries, America has a lot of darkness and light.
So, I captured this beautiful complexity in a letter:
As far as countries are concerned, you are the original revolutionary. You broke away from tradition to forge a new path, to usher us into modernity.
1. “One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.” ~ Viktor Hugo
Or, in other words, nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.
And, boy, did you have an idea, America!
You boldly stated that “all men are created equal.” Of course, just like the French revolutionists a little bit later, you had a rather limited definition of equality…and, I’m a bit offended that at the time, you wouldn’t have included me, a woman, in that definition.
Still, we have to give credit where credit is due: you did change the world when you declared your independence.
You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t beg. You didn’t propose it. You declared it. There’s power in that.
2.”Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.” ~ Jacques Mallet du Pan
You wanted to break away from nobility.
But you ended up creating a bigger wealth gap than any other major developed nation.
You said you wanted equality, but you practiced racial segregation.
Still, you were unstoppable. You rose from being an underdog to a position of power—lots and lots of power.
3. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” ~ John Dalberg-Acton
The 19th century was Europe’s. The 20th century belonged to you. At the start of the 21st century, the leader of your former colonial power was accused of being your “poodle.” (Talk about a role reversal…)
You started the Iraq War, created Abu Ghraib and waterboarded prisoners. In 2004, the Pew Research Center reported that your popularity worldwide had plummeted.
How could you do better in the future? For answers, let us turn to the words of a famous therapist and Holocaust survivor:
4. “Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth.” ~ Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl explained that:
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”
Frankl also called for the creation of something new:
“That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
And, Frankl is right. Independence and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t declare yourself independent of your parents and not take responsibility for your own actions.
That’s why Independence Day is also Responsibility Day.
So, let’s celebrate something revolutionary this year: American Independence and Responsibility Day.
In this sense, happy July 4th celebration, America!
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