I have really mixed feelings about the Fourth of July.
I lived in Belgium for several years growing up, and seeing America from the outside, and seeing how Americans often behaved abroad made a big impression on me.
I saw America as home, and I missed America continually, and I thought of America as a place of bright, great human achievement, but more than anything, I think, living abroad made clear to me that The American Way was not the epitome of every worthy human virtue the way we were raised to think when I was growing up. There are good, human things that other cultures do better than we do, and sometimes we are just ignorant, and childlike, and bullish compared to other cultures. Also, and significantly, until very recently, we’ve tended not to take a lot of time really learn too much about other cultures, and by not taking much care to know the other cultures in the human family, we also can’t really know ourselves.
In retrospect, the world in the second half of the twentieth century seems to have been like an older sibling striding around, followed by a gaggle smaller siblings, who engaged each other and admired the big sibling who had virtually no idea they little ones existed (that’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s apt in some ways, and pretty endearing. Then 2001, it culminated in monumentally tragic misunderstandings).
Anyway, in the 80s, I moved back to the U.S., and the feeling of distance I’d developed overseas persisted. It lingered, just a hint of interstice between me and ordinary patriotism, throughout my teens and twenties. Then, after 9/11, it exploded. I watched what seemed like virtually the entire country, confused, scared, and fiercely mobilized, march loudly and ravenously in directions I knew in my heart it shouldn’t go. By 2003, I retained my passport and my claim to being an American, and I remained in what had become “The Homeland,” but I internally had expatriated myself from the U.S. in a way from which I’ve never fully returned, and from which I might never. Since then, any number of changes have only added to a sense of separation from the mainstream.
So the Fourth for me is always, at best, bittersweet. I think about American ideals and patriotic pride, but all of the celebration seems essentially hollow to me. I am acutely reminded of what I feel has been distorted, tarnished and flat-out lost.
Today, though, I came across this absolutely beautiful talk, and it had me in tears. George Takei is holding up some of our highest values as a country: hard work, courage, innovation, the drive to do the impossible, and, also, understanding, compassion, wisdom, and forgiveness — by telling seldom-told stories about internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the brave acts of all-Japanese army units fighting in Europe.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes:
[My father] was the one who suffered the most under those conditions of imprisonment, and yet he understood American democracy. He told me that our democracy is a people’s democracy, and it can be as great as a people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. He told me that American democracy is vitally dependent on good people who cherish the ideals of our system, and actively engage in the process of making our democracy work.
Because of the heroes that I have, and the struggles that we’ve gone through, I can stand before you as a gay Japanese American — but even more than that, I am a proud American.
I am reminded what our elders have to offer. I am inspired, and I am reminded that the highest ways humans can live remain out there ahead of us always. Calling to us, always.
Thanks, George Takei.