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America Defined: Politics, Poetry, and Perspectives

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What is America?

On its face, this question is one that requires almost no thought. Obviously, America is a country. Not just any country, but the world’s most powerful and envied. To each of us it carries a unique connotation. For immigrants, America serves as the perpetual beacon of opportunities not available in their homelands. For those already here,  America is a constant whose very existence is frequently taken for granted. For terrorists from all ends of the earth, she is a hotbed of evil and devoted enemy of whatever their cause stands for. In any case, America is certainly something, for better or for worse.

I say that America is most definitely for the better. It is a nation unlike any other in the history of humanity. An intellectual result of the Enlightenment’s waning years, its politics were based upon the bedrock principle of individual rights. No country established before America can claim such a thing; they came into existence out of particularly destructive ethnic, racial, or religious conflicts. It is America’s clarity of purpose and truly noble heritage that make it so special to me, and never fail to remind me of how fortunate I am to be a citizen by birth.

Most folks trying to find different perspectives on America, turn to veterans, historians, or public officeholders. Any of these are fine, though that last one might be sketchy at times, but I often look to poets. Why poets? Because they provide a passionate insight to ideas and feelings, crafting them into an art of the printed word. They put to paper what so many of us wish we could communicate, yet are unable to do so poetically. Having a distinct vernacular structure perceived by the eye and discerned in the mind, poems are able to resonate with readers in ways unlike any other variant of literature possibly can.

One of my favorite poets is Emma Lazarus. She was a nineteenth century pre-feminist who believed very strongly in fostering and preserving personal freedoms. She wrote what is perhaps the United States’ most famous poem: 1883’s The New Colossus. Named for the Colossus of Rhodes, a massive Greek statue that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it detailed the purpose and mission of what would become the Statue of Liberty. Depicting the statue as speaking to refugees wanting to become Americans, Lazarus proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” With these words, she encapsulated what America meant and still means to countless individuals in impoverished regions wanting but a single chance to live life in the sweet land of liberty.

Another poet whom I admire is Walt Whitman. Like Lazarus, he was born and worked during the nineteenth century. A renowned poet, journalist and essayist, he paid a great deal of attention to merging the genres of mystical transcendentalism and existential realism. One of his most notable poems, I Hear America Singing, posthumously published in 1900, detailed the lives of seemingly ordinary Americans: a carpenter, a mason, a boatman and a mother. The poem illustrates how the fruits of their respective occupations are in fact vital contributions to the national scene. Simply put, they are the people who make the nation.

An important shared aspect central to both Lazarus’ and Whitman’s poetry is the individual. Without the individual, and his actions, society would be nonexistent. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that through times of peace, war, and tribulation, American culture has boiled down to one common denominator: the individual. The United States’ founding fathers understood this very well with their various Enlightenment philosophies and fought a war to create a country which more than 300 million human beings call home today. Indeed, America is a great experiment. It is up to each of us to see to it that our ongoing collaboration is an ultimately successful one.

So, to simply and neatly answer the quandary I originally posed, I would say that America is the sum of her citizens and legal residents in all of their respective pinnacles and pitfalls. Honestly, I have no reason to believe that it could ever be anything other. Some might not appreciate this, but I, for one, am very thankful. Living in a nation that is a reflection of life itself is undeniably an experience to treasure.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Igor

    #30-Glenn: I agree. OBL caped the bull (and still got gored!).

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Stan –

    I don’t believe Bush got played at all … bin Liner had no aim but to kill main and hurt.

    Actually, no, Bush did get played, and bin Laden had more on the ball than we thought at the time. In a book called “The Shi’a Revival” by Vali Nasr, who formerly taught at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and which book was recommended reading for U.S. Naval Officers, one finds a quote by bin Laden showing that years before 9/11 his goal was to draw America into an unwinnable war and to break our economy. And I can only imagine that bin Laden watched with incredulity while Bush invaded Iraq, for on the one hand Bush was doing much more of what bin Laden wanted in the first place…but on the other hand bin Laden (a Sunni) had to know what a great boon this would be for Shi’a Iran, for bin Laden would have known right away that Iran was the only possible winner in our invasion of Sunni-ruled-but-majority-Shi’a Iraq.

    It was a classic case of “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Bin Laden’s plan to draw us into an unwinnable war worked (see Afghanistan’s reputation as “the place empires go to die”), and very nearly broke our economy with LOTS of help from Bush…but things went awry (in bin Laden’s view) when Bush invaded Iraq. Simply put, bin Laden knew Bush was stupid, but he just couldn’t conceive that Bush was SO stupid that he would use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Sunni-ruled Iraq and unknowingly wreck bin Laden’s oh-so-carefully laid plans!

    Bin Laden’s plan was brilliant – one doesn’t have to love the guy to see that! But the stupid have ever been the nemesis of the brilliant…and bin Laden had to be tearing his hair out when he saw that Bush really, truly was going to invade Iraq because he (Bush) was Absolutely Sure that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with bin Laden!

    What a tragically cosmic joke!

  • STM

    I agree. However, I believe the will of the US to stand up to murderers like bin Laden transcends politics. Or it should. So far, the will is there. I think the only thing the islamofascists have achieved is to alert the world to the new reality that the US is NOT a paper tiger, and to reassure the US that she has more friends than she realised. I don’t believe Bush got played at all … bin Liner had no aim but to kill main and hurt. If he thought no one would do snything, he would have been sorely disappointed in the Bush administration. Good on them I say, even if I don’t like their politics.

    So far, the baddies have come off the worse for wear. For all the faults of modern democracies, they at least offer genuine liberties and opportunities so I ask this: why should any of us, having worked to get to this point over a couple of thousand years, bend to the bidding of people rooted in the medieval era who think a book written 1500 years ago gives them the right to murder and maim at will in the name of God?

    That path didn’t work out for Christians all those years ago, and it won’t work for these maniacs.

    Plus, if somehow in the likely event we DID all become muslims, given our technological know-how in the west and our experience of rule of law and what would undoubtedly be more liberal interpretations of islamic teaching, we’d still be running the joint and they’d still hate us. So what would any of it achieve?

    I just want to find an island somewhere and live quietly. Oh, hang on … 🙂

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Stan –

    I just have to wonder when the day comes, will America show the same steadfastness of character that England did from Dunkirk through the end of the Battle of Britain? That wasn’t just a triumph of a few leaders, but the strength of a nation truly united…and the more I read about it, the more awestruck I became. Of course there’s countless stories of the heroism of a nation, from Xerxes’ invasion of Greece to the Soviet Union’s titanic struggle against Nazi Germany to the North Vietnamese’ long tragic struggle against America.

    A case could be made that in the eyes of the Islamic world, bin Laden’s attack was not only incredibly heroic but came close to ending America’s economic (if not military) supremacy – and surely there has been no attack by so few that accomplished the attack’s intention to so great a degree (that last caveat included to forestall comparisons to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand). If anything, it showed how easily a ‘strong’ national leader and his advisers can be manipulated, for bin Laden played the Bush administration like a fiddle.

    But I think there are none quite so poignant as that of the Brits in the dark days when the Wehrmacht seemed invincible. As far as I can tell, that was indeed the finest hour not only of England, but of all the family of nations she brought into the world.

  • STM

    I can’t believe the US military fosters that ridiculous myth about saluting. The US military, like most militaries, has had numerous surrenders.

    One of the first major ones was the surrender to the British of an entire Army by General William Hull at Detroit in August, 1812. There have been plenty of others too but it’s not really about that.

    Myth-making (and believing) simply isn’t the study of history. The British were good at it too, but they realised at some point that they might have enough genuine glory in there over 1000 years to throw in the acknowledgement of their occasional complete incompetence and the odd major defeat as well.

    I take your point on Vietnam, too, Glenn … but that was more a battle of wills that the US lost in my view.

    At a certain point, the TV coverage and the body bags simply became too much in a war that no one in the US could really understand beyond the Reds vs Freedom rhetoric.

    Sadly, the even though that ostensibly was true (and the flow of refugee boats to places like Australia afterwards confirms the Reds didn’t treat their people too well), the propping up of a corrupt regime in the process made the moral high ground in that case a very slippery slope.

    It also set the groundwork for every tinpot idiot to believe that the US had become a paper tiger without the will or the moral fortitude to stand up for itself.

    How wrong they were (the tinpot idiots, I mean) …

    It must have been quite a shock when they didn’t wake up in heaven with 70 virgins, but down on the third level of hell instead with the devil poking them up the arse for eternity with a large, three-pronged fork.

  • S.T.M

    Mate, the study of history certainly goes a long way to dispelling the myths that we are ALL taught. Plus, it’s fascinating and a great insight into why we are the way we are (the English-speaking liberal democracies, that is). The ledger certainly comes out on our side, even though it doesn’t always look good at first glance. We have been the genuine defenders of personal freedoms, democratic government and liberty in the modern world. There’s no way any of us should be ashamed of that, either, especially given the price paid in blood over the past couple of centuries.

    Long may it stay that way, too. Someone has to do it. If no one else has the balls or wherewithal to do, I don’t see how that makes us the bad guys.

    That’s another myth, and a dangerous one – especially when it comes to murderous blokes who live in caves and compounds and wear tea-towels and want us to accept a wicked and evil medieval world-view that offers no freedoms whatsoever.

    As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others that have been tried.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Stan –

    Thanks for the education on the salutes – frankly, you’re right that we’re told in the American military that our ‘closed-face’ salute is because we’ve never surrendered. Well, our nation has never surrendered, right? Of course, that’s only because Vietnam was never a ‘declared’ war, and you’ve pointed out there’s a bit more to the War of 1812 than we get taught stateside.

    Before the current book that I’m reading, I just finished Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, a book called “Killing Rommel” – a fictionalized history of the Afrika Korps (which, along with what Shirer pointed out in his epic history, showed that Erwin Rommel was probably the single most honorable general of WWII), and before that, Keegan’s “The First World War”.

    You’re quite right that France’s heart simply wasn’t in their defense in WWII – they’d been bled white in WWI. And Shirer points out how very close a thing England’s collapse was in WWII, but at the height of the Battle of Britain, the Brits sent a bombing raid on Berlin which did little real damage, but caused the Germans to rethink their 1000-sortie-per-day strategy that had England on the ropes (though neither Hitler nor Goering knew that at the time). It strongly reminded me of how Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo did little damage but caused the Japanese to bring a significant portion of their air and sea power closer to home and thus took off the pressure and allowed us to win the Battle of Midway.

    All of which just goes to show how much a man can learn from books when the wife’s not at home. She gets here in a few days, and all of a sudden my reading time goes away….

  • S.T.M

    Glenn writes: “the “open face” salute” of the commonwealth.

    Only the Army salutes that way (and the airforce, of course, in modern times since it came from the Army in 1918).

    The Navy salutes the American way. Actually, since the Royal Navy was around for a long time before the US armed forces, it might be better to say that the US armed forces salute the British navy way 🙂

    I believe the army used to as well, but the open hand is more a modern thing and was aimed at saluting being consistent, ie in the right spot at the right angle all the time. It’s also NOT the French way of doing it, which is important.

    I read some rot once from an American (sorry!) about the US military not saluting that way because they’d never surrendered.

    Lol. Someone hadn’t studied their history books. Very few armies haven’t had the odd surrender of two … especially our old friends from across the channel. Which is probably pretty unfair because the poor bastards copped two million dead in WWI and DIDN’T surrender, so you can imagine the French reluctance to do it all again 20 years later. They were badly led in 1940, and geographically at a disadvantage. The only reason the Brits kept fighting in 1940 was because they could … they had a huge and proud navy, a brave little air force, a body of water between the British isles and the European continent, and a genuine disdain for murderous evil tyrants and dictators. The British Empire had three million-plus casualties in WWI … people forget that.

    Americans, though, should be hugely proud that they came to help the mother country fight the Nazis and Fascists in 1942. I think it was cannon on here who described the US as a loyal “colony”. Some truth to that. Some colony, too. The British remember, and are grateful, anyway …

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And because I just posted that, now I’ve gotta break out the Blu-Ray of Master and Commander again, the film with the best pun ever told on film (“The lesser of two weevils!”).

    See? From Oz to the Magna Carta to Trafalgar to a nursery rhyme to a film with a great pun. If you ever want to know what Attention Deficit Disorder is like, that’s it! It’s changing channels, seeing relations, connections between disparate snippets of information that others don’t see and could care less about. But that’s ADD – or, as my son calls it – ADHLAS, for “Attention Deficit Hey-Look-A-Squirrel!”

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Stan –

    Good to see you still around!

    I have a view that I won’t seriously contemplate living in any country that doesn’t have a Union Jack for a flag, or a Union Jack on it, or used to have a Union Jack on it.

    The US thus qualifies – and so Hawaii, just about perfectly placed on the other side of the Pacific and with the best state flag in America, would be my second choice.

    I’m still patriotic about America…but you know what? I can honestly say I’d be just as patriotic about anyplace that includes the Union Jack on it including my three favorite places in all the world – Hawaii, Tasmania, and (for 150 years until 1997) Hong Kong.

    I’d honestly feel just as patriotic waving the Union Jack as I ever did about waving the Stars and Stripes. I’d feel just as patriotic singing “God Save the Queen” as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Why? Because it didn’t start with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It started with the Magna Carta. England outlawed slavery long before America. For all practical purposes, the sun still never sets upon the Empire. The book I’m reading right now is about Nelson and Trafalgar (any retired Navy man’s gotta love ol’ Horatio). And from what I’ve seen, life IS better in Oz.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m still quite American. I cannot ever give the “open face” salute of the military of the Commonwealth, but can always give the “closed face” salute of the American armed forces (it’s a retired military thing). But I’d stand and sing alongside you, and proudly, for all the right reasons!

    P.S. On a mostly-unrelated subject, remember the nursery rhyme, “Jack Spratt would eat no fat, his wife would eat no lean”? Jack Spratt was a real man, a hero at Trafalgar:

    The English ship Defiance was unable to gain the upper hand against the French ship Aigle, and so a young midshipman named Jack Spratt swam between the ships and leaped on board, fighting alone against the entire French crew until support could be given from his ship.

  • being irreverent and self mocking about your country and your countrymen doesn’t mean you love your country or your countrymen any the less.

    Those words, mate, need to be printed on about 300 million magnets and stuck on every American household’s fridge.

  • roger nowosielski

    What I’m saying, I guess, I’ve overstayed my welcome here, my man. Sick of it.

    Once I’m done with my angioplasty, I hope I’ll be more like my old self and then who knows, may give it a shot, especially since I have a cousin in Melbourne.

  • S.T.M

    Rog, you’d be welcome down here anytime. What I’m hoping is that once the US goes to hell in a handbasket, we can offer Yanks a new – and better – place to live: the giant island paradise (plus Tasmania).

    On a serious note, there are lots of Americans living here permanently these days. I certainly no longer do a double take when I hear an American accent at the shopping mall (and my experience is that most of the new Australians with north American accents I’ve encountered in the past five years or so are actually from the US, not Canada).

    They’re not refugees from Obama, although some might be, or from GW Bush, or the GFC (which we escaped, mostly), although again, some might have been, but simply ordinary Americans genuinely looking for a better life in a country that’s similar to their own.

    If it strikes Americans as odd that some of their countrymen might do that, it shouldn’t be.

    Generally, while life is pretty damn good in the US, it’s actually better here overall.

    There is at least some certainty economically and standard of living wise, which is what one American emigre told me he came for. While he’s a red, white and blue Yank till the day he dies, he’s learning to love Vegemite and the idea that you don’t HAVE to put your hand over your heart and salute our national flag, especially when you can turn it into a really decent design for a beach towel.

    And that being irreverent and self mocking about your country and your countrymen doesn’t mean you love your country or your countrymen any the less.

    I’ve made a lot of ill-informed and wrong and muddle-headed decisions in my life. Deciding to stay here in Oz when I could have moved to the US wasn’t one of them, and that’s even without the benefit of any current 20/20 hindsight that might apply given the prevailing circumstances in America right now.

    I have a view that I won’t seriously contemplate living in any country that doesn’t have a Union Jack for a flag, or a Union Jack on it, or used to have a Union Jack on it.

    The US thus qualifies – and so Hawaii, just about perfectly placed on the other side of the Pacific and with the best state flag in America, would be my second choice.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Can’t you at least say that with a smile?

    I did, wanksta.

  • roger nowosielski

    You’re getting soft in your old age, STM. Should be giving them Yanks the hell they all deserve.

    Fuck ’em, bastards. I’d be an Aussie any time of the day, if they have me.

  • S.T.M

    Well, most powerful, yes, but maybe not the most envied, Joseph.

    I’d seriously save that one for Australia.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Joseph and Roger –

    Then as now there were many who despised immigrants, legal or otherwise…and strove to give their spite legal standing by passing laws that made life miserable for those who weren’t born here.

    “The New Colossus” has lost none of its meaning or importance. It’s still the quintessential paean to the American ideal…and it’s the ideal that is crucial. Not the nation itself, but the ideal upon which the nation was founded and prospered for so long. If that ideal is better served elsewhere, then so be it. Say what you will about America and I might agree with you – after all, look where my sons were schooled.

    But respect the ideal!

  • roger nowosielski

    They still are Joseph in many agrarian enterprises from fruit picking to tobacco processing, from California to Kentucky.

    In any case, does the ode to the Lady of Liberty suddenly lost its meaning?

  • roger,

    I thought that “sociopolitical” fit nicely. A difference in verbal opinion, I would presume. As for my stance on immigration, it is relevant to the time at hand. Back in the late 1800s, the country was largely agrarian in nature expanding so much that new immigrants were a definite plus. Today, this is not the case.

    Thanks for the compliment, by the way. I wish that I could have written more about your series on the modern state. Time can be a dastardly thief, unfortunately.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    And Jordan –

    Don’t fret too much – my Darling arrives next week, and when she does I’ll go back to a much lower frequency of digital wanking. I hope that makes you feel better.

  • PeeWee Contrarian

    Jordan –

    Can’t you at least say that with a smile?

  • Jordan Richardson

    Glenn, you’re better at masturbating in public than Jason Russell.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    Here’s a challenge for you – for every negative thing you say about a person, a culture, a nation, a political system, say something positive. Force yourself to see beyond just the negative, for you’re limiting yourself to seeing only the bad. To be sure, the bad may greatly outweigh the good (and vice versa) – but make the effort nonetheless.


    Because you can never truly claim to see a person or an issue clearly unless you force yourself to see the good as well as the bad in that person or issue.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    “Outgrown it”? “More American than ever were”?

    No, Roger, you didn’t outgrow being American. You gave up on it. You blame America (and anyone who doesn’t think like you) for all your personal shortcomings.

    If I am as uber-patriotic as you seem to think I am, would I be where I’m at right now? Would I be happy that my youngest son is graduating in a few days from high school here, that my oldest son finished college here? One of us isn’t afraid of walking away from the American culture to live as a citizen of the world. If I so choose, I can live anywhere in the free world and in much of the world that isn’t free…and I can do that because I’m not afraid of doing so. I can do that because I know the value of courtesy, sincerity, and humility.

    You’ve got the same opportunity, Roger. I’ve pointed it out to you several times. You’ve got the same opportunity because of your education and because of your citizenship. But you won’t. You’ve got nothing to hold you to living inside America, but you still won’t. Why? Because of your fear and insecurity.

    You say you’ve “outgrown America”, and you’ve got the opportunity to go elsewhere and live fairly well…so why don’t you do it?

    Fear and insecurity.

  • roger nowosielski

    Well, let me correct myself. Joseph did a decent job.

  • roger nowosielski

    G[enn, ole buddy. I wrote an ode to American Exceptionalism over three years ago, reverberating the same things that our Joseph here is trying to do, arts, literature, poetry. And it was far more eloquent, let me assure you, than his hint at the idea.

    Well, let me tell you. Things change and shit happens. So do take it under advisement.

    I don’t agree with Jordan all too often, but in this case he’s right on. It would help a great deal if you were to take the yank cap off if only once in a while. In many ways, I was more “American” twenty years ago than you ever were, in spite of your service in the Navy.

    Well, sorry to say but I no longer think like a Yank. I’ve outgrown it.

  • Jordan Richardson

    For America is not a nation, but an idea…

    *violins play over visuals of streams and mountains and rolling fields of whatever*

    Puhlease! Make it stop. This is what makes you guys so annoying to the rest of the world.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    “all signs to the contrary”?

    I suppose that all signs would be “to the contrary” in the eyes the person who refuses to see anything but those signs.

    You can keep your spite and your bitterness. You can keep your assumptions of greed and sloth and surety that everyone else in the world who doesn’t think like you is a fool or a tool. You can keep the self-pity that masquerades as your judgmental pride.

    Your life will turn around, Roger, when you learn to honestly laugh at yourself, to not take yourself so seriously. You fell far and you fell hard. You’re rightly trying to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back on your feet – but you haven’t yet learned real humility, the kind that allows you to see that every other person on the planet is just as important as you are, that while you’re smart, they all know things that you don’t know and should be respected for it.

    Do you know why I don’t give up on you, Roger? Do you really? How about I give you the respect of giving you the opportunity to answer that question first!

  • roger nowosielski

    You’re living in the nineteenth century, Glenn. Walt Whitman’s poetry no longer applies. The greatest novelists, since F. Scott Fitzgerald and onward have proclaimed the death of the American Dream. It’s only your liberalism that still makes you believe, all the signs to the contrary.

    It’s time to wake up and face the music. But of course you don’t have to, since you can pontificate from Philippines, sitting on your fat pension.

    Imagine, though, what you might think or do once it runs out.

    Which is why I say, Rick Santorum for president! Here’s your great experiment.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    A swan song?

    No. For America is not a nation, but an idea, and the ideal of individual rights and freedoms first enshrined in the Magna Carta and strengthened in the Constitution are more and more becoming expectations around the world. America the nation will like all other nations eventually fall…but America the idea simply won’t. The idea of personal rights and freedoms is slowly becoming so deeply ingrained in the human psyche across the planet that it will last as long as a human heart beats.

    Is that over-the-top? Probably. But it’s true.

  • roger nowosielski

    “Sociopolitical” is not the word you want to use, Joseph, in this context. Brings “social pathology” to mind. “Social” is the usual usage.

    In any case, you’re at least thirty years behind the curve. Yours is a swan song.

    Besides, it contradicts your stance on immigration, legal or illegal. The flood of the Irish into the US at the turn of the century, however bitterly fought by the “natives” (see, for example, The Gangs of New York). Yet, the Irish have been successfully absorbed by “the melting pot,” to become productive members of the society.
    But I suppose that Mexicans are made of another cloth, in your eyes.

    If I were you, I’d give serious thought to the many contradictions which tend to creep into your writings of late. Unresolved inner conflicts?