Marita Vargas
The making of an American
By Marita Vargas
August 30, 2009

Although it is possible to become a fan of classical music or Shakespearean drama by catching a few well-timed TV broadcasts, it isn't the best way to build a life-long love of the arts — but it is one American way. And just as I first heard and loved classical music on old cartoons and Shakespeare on Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcasts — I learned to love my country through a series of happy accidents. One part patriotic lore and glee club anthems; one part old Hollywood films and History lessons — my love of country accrued value like forgotten savings bonds left to me by a dotty uncle.

Any country that trusts the formation of its citizens to the random forces that Americans allow takes a terrible risk. And in another way, it demonstrates a terrible arrogance, the kind that makes the gods choose up sides. How is such hubris to be rewarded? With ruin or redemption?

Heaven help the U.S.S. Noble Experiment, our listing ship of state. But if enough of us scrape together the best that we know of this sweet land, we might yet make it to shore. We might make it to shore because millions of us still thrill at the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Because these words live so deeply within the American spirit and heart and spine it is possible to fall in love with America on the neighborhood playing fields, in the city streets, on the widely traversed roadways and throughout her vast terrain without realizing it. It is possible to take the whole wonderful experiment for granted.

But no longer. We are led by people who don't share the American vision, and don't believe in the American dream. They take their marching orders from another bugler whose discordant music promises darkness rather than light. We must drown out its strains with another song.

Most of us love this country the way that G.K. Chesterton suggested that natives who call Pimlico home should love Pimlico. They must spare no labor to make Pimlico more Pimlico-like than ever. They would shudder at the thought of making her over in the guise of some snobby London suburb or Sohoesque retreat.

Likewise with America. No labor is too difficult and no sacrifice too great to make America more free, her citizens more resourceful, her promise more inspiring, her arms more welcoming to all who would come and work and share in her bounty. No one who loves America would dream of making her over in the image of some progressive never-never land.

America is an idea before it is a country. It is the natural idea of the individual who must be allowed freedom of heart, mind, body and spirit. Such an individual can make his own vows, think his own thoughts, shape his exterior world, and furnish his soul. No government on Earth is granted the right to interfere with his sovereign person. But a country that is established to preserve and protect the rights of such a citizen is a great and rare thing. America is such a country. That is why we love America.

Her essence is captured more fully in the metaphor of "a city upon a hill," than in any mere ideology. Her fineness is embodied in the de Tocqueville phrase: "America is great because America is good." Who among us does not wince at the words: America is less great because America is less good; wince and vow to make her great and good again by starting on the project of living more honorably and more charitably ourselves.

The American project is bound, and always will be, to the idea of redemption. We are a people who will get to the Promised Land. We will get there together. We are not talking about an automatic or unthinking patriotism, and we are not talking about the kind of devotion that can be whipped into a frenzy by grand spectacle and stirring oration. We are not talking about anything that can be manipulated at all. We are talking about the kind of love and devotion that finds too many blessings to number and knows their true source.

Do I love my country because the romance of the immigrant lives in me, entwined with the melody of "God Bless America"? Do I love it because I learned all the old World War II songs, sung by a mother who had lived through the Pearl Harbor attack? Or was it the Preamble to the Constitution memorized in History class?

Was love of country born in the saucy phrase: "It's a free country," tossed out to anyone who was angling to rule the roost? Or perhaps it was the inspiring words of Nathan Hale. Was it the sense of the world remaking itself in the suburbs of California after a terrible war? Or was it the look of oleander against a string of palms against a hill of black oak that inspired such deep love? Yes, yes, and yes again.

It was a childhood spent in the shadow of incalculable loss — of John Kennedy and of Bobby and of Martin Luther King, Jr. In their names I assent to do my best to live up to American ideals. It was that Christmas Eve that the taciturn and aging uncle of my brother-in-law relayed to me the closely kept story of his last days at war before peace was declared in the Pacific. In his name I assent to do all that I can to keep the memory of his sacrifice alive.

It was the day of 9/12 — you know the year — when an email reached me because my name was included on a group list. The email told the story of ordinary Americans of the self-involved New Yorker variety, helping each other across a bridge just the day before, amid the debris of the collapsing World Trade Towers. The email came to me from a graduate student among the crowd, a young woman who had been shaped by social forces quite different from those that shaped me. I did not know her. I wish I had saved her message so that I might quote it fully. But it ended by saying that the writer was proud of the way ordinary Americans reacted on that day and was never more proud of her country.

If we can be that good again, that kind and generous and bound up in charity toward each other, we can recover. I know that we can. If the spontaneous reaction of the American spirit can give rise to heroism under severe testing, what can the concerted action of the American people give rise to as we seek to revive our traditions of freedom? Because it is not only the air we breathe and the blessings we know that make us Americans, but the will to rise to the task of keeping her free no matter what challenge comes our way. The days ahead will offer us challenges aplenty; they will be the making of us all.

© Marita Vargas


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Marita Vargas

Marita Vargas believes in freedom of speech and in civil discourse. Because for decades the American people have been silenced, intimidated, and poorly informed, they are in danger of losing their freedoms for the simple reason that they rarely discuss the underlying reasons for the current state of affairs. She can be reached at


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