Planes, trains (of thought) and automobiles

I missed my grandfather’s 102nd birthday celebration on Sunday because of mechanical problems on an airplane in Providence, R.I.

There was, in that, a fleeting shadow of the transcendental.

When my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as a commercial airplane flight. The Wright Brothers, in fact, were not only alive and kicking, but working for the U.S. military.

The first Wright Brothers’ airplanes did not need batteries once the ignition was triggered. Not so for the Embraer MD-88. The one scheduled to start my trip home had dead batteries at 6 a.m. And, apparently, it takes 5 hours for Delta to rectify such a situation.

In this case, we were informed, the delay came in needing to send to just outside Boston, near Concord, Mass., 60 miles away, for the replacement batteries. What they neglected to tell us was that word was sent to Boston via bicycle messenger, and the batteries transported to Providence by none other than Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a lilting walk.

Had Paul Revere taken so long, the British already would have come.

Unless they had booked on Delta.

* * *

In the air, these lines, from The New Yorker:

“The company (AOL) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don’t realize that they need not pay an additional twenty five dollars a month to get online and check their email.” (Annals of Communication, by Ken Auletta, Jan. 24, 2011, p. 32.)

So here we have a major American communications company afloat only through the ignorance or laziness of the public.

Sounds about right.  But eighty percent of its profits from people who don’t realize they don’t need the service?

Let us call to mind a former Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau, who said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford that he does not need.”

No, wait. That quotation has been doctored. But I can hardly be blamed. Via email just before Christmas, I received an urgent communication from the online store at Walden Pond that I could still order in time for holiday shipping.

I surveyed the merchandise and felt rich, indeed. I could afford to let it alone.

* * *

I should not be too hard on AOL. I work for a company whose flagship paper, USA Today, derived half its daily circulation as of April 2009 from major hotel chains. I don’t know which is more discomforting — depending for survival on the oblivious inertia of the American consumer, or on an item he steps over on his way to a continental breakfast.

* * *

A final stop, from wandering thoughts to cogent. Robert Lowell. Out of a group titled Mexico. Let’s let him tie things together:

4.

South of Boston, south of Washington,
south of any bearing . . . I walked the glazed moonlight:
dew on the grass and nobody about,
drawn on by my unlimited desire,
like a bull with a ring in his nose, a chain in the ring. . .  .
We moved far, bill and cow, could one imagine
cattle obliviously pairing six long days:
up road and down, then up again passing the same
brick garden wall, stiff spines of hay stuck in my hide;
and always in full sight of everyone,
from the full sun to silhouetting sunset,
pinned by undimming lights of hurried cars. . . .
You’re gone; I am learning to live in history.
What is history? What you cannot touch.

America and teams

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a day when most of the nation will gather in front of television sets and root for one of two teams.

Which actually makes today like any other day in America. The only thing that changes is the game.

It has been six months since deciding to use this blog to explore what the notion of being “American” means. Yet I still have not yet followed up on it. Yes, being the World’s Laziest Blogger is a part of that. But another part is that the more you try to come to the topic, the less prepared you feel. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

This entry is not a product of that reading.

Instead, it is the product of a professional life spent covering teams and fans. And of the growing realization that these phenomena are not relegated to sports alone.

I owe a debt to the great writer/minister Frederick Buechner, who points out that religious denominations are very much like teams. He writes:

“It is not so much differences . . . that keep the denominations apart as it is something more nearly approaching team spirit. Somebody from a long line of Congreagationalists would no more consider crossing over to the Methodists than a Red Sox fan would consider rooting for the Mets.”

Buechner, as always, is perceptive even beyond his immediate subject. He wrote those words in 1988, and life since then has become even more a spectator sport.

Listen to political pundits and notice the sports terminology of their debates. But more than that, note that increasingly people are less aligned with ideas or principles and more aligned with a side.

Our teams even have colors now. There are red states, and blue states.

And for a great many, allegiance is as arbitrary as it is in sports. After a recent column I wrote exploring how my two sons could be fans of differing rival teams, I was flooded with email from people who either had experienced the same, or had avoided the same through strict indoctrination. One man proudly sent me a YouTube link of his 2-year-old son spelling “C-A-R-D-S,” followed by the words, “I hate UK.” And it worked both ways, even among older fans. One Louisville professor chastised me that he would never let a son attend UK, for its academic inferiority is well-known. If he’d been writing from Yale, I’d have given him some leeway. But is there truly a dollar’s worth of difference between Kentucky’s two largest state universities?

Regardless, a great many have views that are shaped en masse, by team identification, by friends at church or school, favorite media personalities, or by long history — “my parents were (your political bent here), and so am I.”

And the media, far too often, have allowed themselves to be identified with teams. The team concept sells. It is good television. You know you’re appealing to at least half of the audience. It creates natural drama. But it also creates inconsistency. One outlet will criticize something that the right is doing, but not criticize the same thing when the left does it. And vice versa.

Teams. Media critic John Katz, in a C-SPAN interview, contrasted the ideals of Thomas Paine with ours today:

“Today you don’t have journalists arguing a point of view. You have journalists who are paid to argue the same point of view every week and pretend to be passionate about it. That’s the opposite of reason. It’s like the cockfight every week where people get together and debate each other and score points on each other. “

Here is what Paine, our first political pundit, said: “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”

I expect it of sports fans, to approve of actions by their own coaches and players that they would not tolerate from opponents.

But we should not be a nation of fans. Otherwise those who say they are for limited government can see their team preside over the greatest confiscation of personal liberties in a generation and approve of it. Or those who come to power protesting an unjust war can preside over the escalation of just as questionable a war somewhere else. (This on the heels of news that our nation is going to pay money we do not have to tribes we cannot control to prop up a government we do not trust in a nation we cannot subdue.)

As I have begun to organize thoughts over what “American” means, the starting point has always come back to freedom. Though it has not always been attainable for all people in this nation, it was the defining desire of its founding, and the motivating principle of its inhabitants.

That I can type these words and fear no knock at the door as the result of them is a thing not to be taken for granted.

Yet today, freedoms of Americans are assaulted from all sides, not just by government, but by corporations allowed to amass monolithic power and by the constant shout of what author George Saunders calls “the brain-dead megaphone” of media, which turns the attention of the public away from the essential issues of its day toward this back-and-forth battle of teams.

So, I suppose, this is the first task in getting to the root of what it means to be “American.” To get beyond the teams.

More Americans will watch the Super Bowl today than will watch any other event or program this year. They will fix their attention on two teams and await the outcome. It has become a mini-holiday for much of the nation, and American tradition.

But the team-spectator-fan mentality that attends it is not an American tradition, or at least, is not a tradition that supersedes the most important American traditions: Freedom and individual liberty.

In this, the cliche is presciently true: “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Dictionary gets the last word

They banned the dictionary for a few days last week in Riverside, Calif.

When a parent complained that the definition for “oral sex” was “sexually graphic” and not fit for young readers, the Menifee Union School District pulled its copies of Merriam-Webster’s 10th edition from school shelves.

The event got a smattering of notice around the country and in certain censorship circles. Though it should be said, some pundits were more shocked that kids still look up words in dictionaries than they were about the content of the oral sex definition: “n. oral stimulation of the genitals.”

In the media coverage, I keep waiting for the smartass man-on-the-street quote from some guy: “What is this oral sex thing of which you speak?” It never came. Guess we’ll have to wait for The Onion’s report.

Clearly the offended parent wants his or her child to learn about sex the old-fashioned way. On the school bus. If they think the dictionary definition is graphic, let them enter “oral sex” on a Google search and see what turns up.

I’m reminded of Frank McCourt’s recollection of the day he was thrown out of the library, for good, in Limerick, for looking up the word “turgid,” after seeing it in a sexually suggestive passage he’d happened upon in a book by Lin Yutang.

Merriam-Webster’s is the official dictionary of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, and of Scrabble. But it spent six days locked in the closets in this California school district until school officials relented. A review by school administrators and the board — amid mounting pressure from first-amendment groups — led officials to reinstate the dictionaries.

A compromise was reached. A less explicit dictionary will also be made available in the district’s fourth-and fifth-grade classrooms (the ones in question), and parents will have to sign a letter stating which they want their children to use.

So now you need a permission slip to look up something in the dictionary. But not to watch cable TV.

I was in high school when Huckleberry Finn was under attack in our school district. While literary types are still mourning the death of the great J.D. Salinger, it’s worth noting that his The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most banned books of the past 50 years in this country.

The hot title under attack now is a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who bond over the experience of caring for an egg together. Religious groups complain that the book promotes homosexuality by showing two males caring for an egg. It’s not natural, they say. Except in this case, it is. Male penguins do, in fact, exhibit such behavior, and the ones in this book are based on two actual penguins from the Central Park Zoo in New York.

Sometimes, I’m surprised that some religious types don’t ban their own Good Book. Certainly, there are a great many parts of that book that would earn their own R-rating, or worse. (Of course, it’s a book that has endured more than its share of banning, too, over the ages).

So the dictionary lives on in Riverside. And Anne Frank, too, will stay on the shelves in Culpepper, Va., schools, after The Diary of Anne Frank was removed last week because of a parent complaint.

The passage, in which Frank writes a brief paragraph mentioning her vagina, is included in an updated version of her diary, considered an unedited version.

School officials, after initially pulling the unedited version, say they’ll leave it on the shelves after all, and review after the school year.

The life of a Jewish teenage girl who was killed by the Nazis in early March of 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp reminds me of a final thought I’ll share, one of the more touching library stories I have heard.

Of all places to find a library, Block 31 of the “Family Camp” in Birkenau concentration camp might be the most unlikely you’ll hear of. The Nazis created this rather small camp to show to the Red Cross as “proof” that they were not killing their prisoners. In reality, they were keeping these families together for just six months, 5,000 or so Jews, before gassing them en masse.

But within this camp, as recounted by Alberto Manguel in his wonderful book, The Library at Night, was an underground library for the children, consisting of only eight books. Included in them were H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World, banned in Germany, a Russian school textbook, a geometry textbook.

“It is almost impossible to imagine,” Manguel writes, “that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life should still continue.”

In Bergen-Belsen, a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was passed among the prisoners. Manguel quotes a man: “The book was my best friend; it never betrayed me, it comforted me in my despair, it told me that I was not alone.”

Shame on us when we treat the gift of books and words too cavalierly. As even the holy books tell us, with their own scenes that are difficult to look upon, there is grace to be found in expression, and blessing in understanding.

Commemorating the Gettysburg Address

Today is the 146th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and in this, his bicentennial year, I gave myself a little assignment that I would encourage anyone else to take up, as well. In fact, I’d be happy to share them on here. The assignment? In 272 words*, the same economical number that Lincoln used in his address, try to encapsulate what it means to you, or what you think it means to the country. If I kept working till I got it just right, the anniversary would come and go. So here’s my stab at it . . .

One hundred forty-six years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln stood up at Gettysburg and forever recalibrated our national compass. He rode a chestnut horse to the new national cemetery. One witness remarked that his pants, hitched up, revealed “homemade gray socks” that hardly fit the occasion.

But the words he spoke were not homespun. They embraced echoes of Pericles and Psalms, drew from Daniel Webster and Lincoln’s own trembling experience.

When he walked across the platform that day, his footsteps audible to a silent crowd that had just heard a two-hour oration, he spoke so briefly that no camera caught the moment. But in it, he swung the lens of this country’s conscience back toward liberty and equality, toward the spirit that formed our Constitution, and away from its cold letter, which can divide us.

He did it in 272 words. Yet today, entire books struggle to explain the significance of what he said. The French constitution borrowed from it. Schoolchildren still memorize it.

The night before the address, a crowd gathered outside Lincoln’s window. He knew a word was expected of him, but said, “I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”

For Lincoln, who was poet and politician, words were precious and powerful.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln not only gave voice to the force of our founding Ideas, but endowed their expression with a new energy. He not only spoke of “a new birth of freedom,” but incarnated one through the power of his words.

May that power, like these words, not perish from the earth.

For further reading, a couple of recommendations.

The best short look at the day at Gettysburg I’ve read is from Doris Kears Goodwin’s well-known “Team of Rivals,” pages 583 to 587. From it came the details in my short piece about Lincolns spectacles, his socks and his footsteps on the platform.

The best longer treatment is, undoubtedly, Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.”

To read the address itself, click here.

*While there are 272 words in the most-cited version of the Gettysburg Address, we cannot be sure exactly how many words he uttered from the platform that day. The five copies we have of the address differ slightly from each other.

Respecting the U.S. Flag

The flap over Sarah Palin’s picture on the cover of Newsweek brought up an issue that has long been a sticking point for me — but it has nothing to do with running shorts or the tone of the picture. It has to do with the American Flag.

I don’t know how they picked Todd Puckett and me out of a crowd of junior high students way back when, but they did. We were sixth graders at Shelby County East Middle school when we were selected to put up the flag every morning. Maybe somebody told them we were dependable. Maybe it was that we didn’t miss much school.

Regardless, Todd and I would retrieve the flag from its place in the school office every morning, and run it up the flag pole. We were, almost instinctively, I think, very conscientious about this task. I can remember dashing out of class if I saw it start raining, so that the flag would not be displayed in the rain.

At the end of the day, we took down the flag, folded it properly, tucked in the last flap of fabric and returned it to the office.

Maybe all that flag-raising drilled something into me. I remember reading the U.S. Code Title 36 Chapter 10 for proper care and usage of the flag.

I suppose that’s why, over the years, I have had a few problems with the way the flag is treated. For years, U of L fans railed — and wrote to me — angry that the team did not display the American flag on their uniforms. I always wrote back the same thing.

The U.S. Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Paragraph J, says, No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.

The Code is silent on whether a pin should be worn, therefore would have had nothing to say about whether Barack Obama wore or did not wear one during his run for President.

The Code is clear, however, on another practice, one that I have opposed at two newspapers I have worked for. At least twice in my career, newspapers for which I have been employed have used full pages to print a replica of the flag to be displayed in widows or other places. (The display has usually been sponsored by an advertiser.) Again to the Flag Code, same chapter, Paragraph I:

The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.

Furthermore, the flag should not be used as a clothing design, or, as the code says, “should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.” Moreover, from the U.S. Code:

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.

Which brings us to Palin. This isn’t a political discussion, but I’m surprised her handlers would allow her to be photographed with the flag in such a position. (I also was surprised when they allowed her to wrap herself in a flag for a photo last year). Note: I’m assuming this Newsweek photo is an accurate representation and that the flag wasn’t Photoshopped in. I have seen no allegations that it was.

I was always impressed, in covering high school sports in Indiana, that if the colors were presented by a color guard before the game, crowds invariably (and properly) did not sit down until the colors had left the field of play, well after the National Anthem had ended.

At a recent University of Kentucky basketball game, an older man upbraided a college student for standing with his hands behind his back during the playing of the National Anthem. During the presidential campaign, Obama got caught on this one, standing for the anthem with his hands together in front of him. Many people do this, and I’ve never thought it disrespectful. But, to be accurate, the U.S. Code says:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there.

So that’s the nit-picking rules lecture for today. It should be noted that the President may modify portions of the flag code at any time. (I’m assuming Bush did for athletic uniforms after Sept. 11). Carry on.

Thoughts on town hall tumult

I’ve watched emotions run high throughout the current health care debate. I’ve seen the town hall histrionics, listened to the talk radio tantrums and read the message board manifestos.

And through it, I’ve heard concern from various quarters that we’re degenerating as a society, that we’ve lost the ability to have a civil discussion.

But in trying to see this through some kind of historical lens, it has come to me that we Americans have never been much for civil discussions.

What was the Boston Massacre but mob provocation followed by sensationalist spin by the media — in this case a pamphlet by Sam Adams and a perhaps less-than-faithful to reality etching by Paul Revere?

This nation was born of headstrong, rowdy partisans who were moved more by passion than persuasion.

It has always been so with the American populace. And the American media? It enjoyed, perhaps, an honorable age through much of the 1900s, but on the whole it has enjoyed stirring public sentiment as much as sifting it.

What I worry about now isn’t that people are shouting at town halls, or that our elected leaders are at each other’s throats. This is how things have always been.

And while I worry at the alarming lack of education that can prompt a woman to, with a straight face, call her Jewish congressman a supporter of “Nazi” policies or permit people to make claims for the Constitution that no reading of the document could support, these things, too, are not unheard of. We haven’t had chain emails void of any veracity throughout our history, but we have managed to weather waves of ignorance well enough.

We’ve also weathered hardball politics and legislators who feed us only the statistics and spin that supports their positions. This, I’m sure, has been the case since our founding.

But what worries me most now is that debates have become an all-or-nothing battle, with every proposal cast as a referendum on the party in power’s future.

This is a path to poor government.

Instead of a clash of ideals, we’re left simply with a clash.

The beauty of this nation’s founding was in its ability to create law and institutions out of disparate interests who then were able to walk away feeling they had won something. From its founding, this nation has been split along lines of individual freedom versus government influence.

But while our generation continues that fight, as all American generations have before, we are adding less and less to the argument.

Where are the thinkers who bring polished proposals to the public? Where are the leaders who stake themselves in front of these ideas and argue them forcefully, laying a foundation for what these debates mean to the nation? And, when the public speaks, where are leaders who are able to pivot and reconstruct proposals that satisfy the majority rather than displease the whole?

In fact, to take the current health care debate as an example, there is no face on the current proposed legislation. It is pinned to the president, and he is advocating it, but he did not craft it. It is a massive, complicated piece of legislation that even legislators can’t fully explain to a public that misunderstands its very nature in the first place.

And in opposition stands a party that acknowledges a serious problem, but offers no alternative, so that instead of a clash of ideas or values, we have half the nation waiting in ambush, ready to destroy the proposal with no ready remedy of its own, nor any foundation of ideas to offer the debate.

Joseph Ellis, Pultizer Prize-winning historian, described the political atmosphere in the early years of this nation as one of “urgency and innovation.” Today we seem to have all urgency, but little innovation. Granted, our current leaders must build on a groundwork, often flawed, that they inherited. That, however, speaks to a need for creativity all the more. But we are seeing it less.

So we’re left not just with a shouting match, but a match comprised more of empty insults and misinformed mayhem than any kind of exchange of ideas.

All of this is fine for town halls, which have always been a messy undertaking. But in the halls of Congress, it leads to bad legislation from which — in stark contrast to the founding principles of our nation — everyone walks away feeling that something has been lost, rather than won.

What does "American" mean?

“That’s not American.”

The words hit me a few days ago when someone said them to me in a discussion about government-based health care.

I don’t want to go into that argument.

I do want to back up and talk about the premise, and about the term, “American.” Because those words, “That’s not American,” have been bouncing around in my head enough that I’ve begun to think about what exactly is meant by the word “American.”

It’s tough to pin down. It’s a word that has been appropriated by everybody.  I grabbed the phone book off my desk and found 250 business listings that began with the word “American.”

American Air Filter, American Brake Center, American General Tarps, American Mobile Glass, American National Insurance, American Plastic Engravers, American Plumbers, American Founders Bank, American Martial Arts, American Pride Painting, American Realty, American Sleep Medicine, American Refrigeration, American Roofing & Metal.

Ask a foreigner to define “American” and you’re likely to get a description of current U.S. culture, attitudes and politics.

In this country, most people’s definition of “American” probably has one common trait — whatever that person believes, that’s “American” for him or her.

Maybe it’s an old history major’s habit, but lately when I run across issues in the news or political questions, I find myself looking back. It doesn’t always provide answers. But it does always provide insight.

So over the coming weeks, I’m going to explore myself what “American” actually means for me. It’s not a political discussion — though it’s hard to separate politics from the concept. I welcome anyone to post their own definition of “American” in the comments section here. Try to keep it in the neighborhood of 200 words, and let’s try to keep the discussion philosophical rather than political, at least to start.

What does “American” mean to you? This nation, it seems to me, has looked at itself differently at various stages in its history. From our founding stage, this nation became marked by westward expansion. Coming out of the Civil War, it wasn’t until after World War II that America began to be identified with its power. In 1932, the U.S. had but the 16th largest Army in the world. It had a single mechanized regiment, stationed at Fort Knox, led by cavalry horsemen. So here we have an example. At the founding of this nation, the idea of becoming involved in foreign wars would surely not have been considered “American.” Yet now, it is very much part of American makeup, even pride in some quarters.

These days, I hear a lot of talk about America being the “best” at this or that. But for much of our history, I don’t know that we have made those claims. I am investigating.

Looking at those phone book entries, I decided that just as useful as defining what “American” is, may be determining what it is not. Which brings us back to the original statement that sparked my question in the first place.

In the end, this is about investigating. For me, it means going back to the beginning, and for this blog, it means an occasional rumination on what I have found, or heard. Hopefully, it will culminate in something useful.

Does “American” have more to do with the spirit that formed the nation, the sentiments expressed in our Constitution and other founding documents, or does it evolve as the nation grows and times change? The value in this, I think, is to challenge our own beliefs, to not accept as “American” just that which bills itself as American, or that which is sold to us draped in the flag or packed into the grooves worn by party affiliation.

I suppose, if you’re looking for an example of a workable definition, this one from the esteemed historian Joseph Ellis is a fine one. He describes the American story as “the triumph of representative government bottomed on the principal of popular sovereignty, a market economy fueled by the energies of unfettered citizens, a secular state unaffiliated with any official religion, and the rule of law that presumed the equality of all citizens.”

James Madison did an important thing before the Constitutional Convention was convened in 1787. He made the decision that the Articles of Confederation, which bound the colonies together loosely, would need to be scrapped, and a new structure, a new constitution, be built from the ground up.

So as I go into this, I’m going to do my best to go the route of Madison, and build not on what I already have heard and believed, but build from the ground up.

More to come . . .

What does “American” mean?

“That’s not American.”

The words hit me a few days ago when someone said them to me in a discussion about government-based health care.

I don’t want to go into that argument.

I do want to back up and talk about the premise, and about the term, “American.” Because those words, “That’s not American,” have been bouncing around in my head enough that I’ve begun to think about what exactly is meant by the word “American.”

It’s tough to pin down. It’s a word that has been appropriated by everybody.  I grabbed the phone book off my desk and found 250 business listings that began with the word “American.”

American Air Filter, American Brake Center, American General Tarps, American Mobile Glass, American National Insurance, American Plastic Engravers, American Plumbers, American Founders Bank, American Martial Arts, American Pride Painting, American Realty, American Sleep Medicine, American Refrigeration, American Roofing & Metal.

Ask a foreigner to define “American” and you’re likely to get a description of current U.S. culture, attitudes and politics.

In this country, most people’s definition of “American” probably has one common trait — whatever that person believes, that’s “American” for him or her.

Maybe it’s an old history major’s habit, but lately when I run across issues in the news or political questions, I find myself looking back. It doesn’t always provide answers. But it does always provide insight.

So over the coming weeks, I’m going to explore myself what “American” actually means for me. It’s not a political discussion — though it’s hard to separate politics from the concept. I welcome anyone to post their own definition of “American” in the comments section here. Try to keep it in the neighborhood of 200 words, and let’s try to keep the discussion philosophical rather than political, at least to start.

What does “American” mean to you? This nation, it seems to me, has looked at itself differently at various stages in its history. From our founding stage, this nation became marked by westward expansion. Coming out of the Civil War, it wasn’t until after World War II that America began to be identified with its power. In 1932, the U.S. had but the 16th largest Army in the world. It had a single mechanized regiment, stationed at Fort Knox, led by cavalry horsemen. So here we have an example. At the founding of this nation, the idea of becoming involved in foreign wars would surely not have been considered “American.” Yet now, it is very much part of American makeup, even pride in some quarters.

These days, I hear a lot of talk about America being the “best” at this or that. But for much of our history, I don’t know that we have made those claims. I am investigating.

Looking at those phone book entries, I decided that just as useful as defining what “American” is, may be determining what it is not. Which brings us back to the original statement that sparked my question in the first place.

In the end, this is about investigating. For me, it means going back to the beginning, and for this blog, it means an occasional rumination on what I have found, or heard. Hopefully, it will culminate in something useful.

Does “American” have more to do with the spirit that formed the nation, the sentiments expressed in our Constitution and other founding documents, or does it evolve as the nation grows and times change? The value in this, I think, is to challenge our own beliefs, to not accept as “American” just that which bills itself as American, or that which is sold to us draped in the flag or packed into the grooves worn by party affiliation.

I suppose, if you’re looking for an example of a workable definition, this one from the esteemed historian Joseph Ellis is a fine one. He describes the American story as “the triumph of representative government bottomed on the principal of popular sovereignty, a market economy fueled by the energies of unfettered citizens, a secular state unaffiliated with any official religion, and the rule of law that presumed the equality of all citizens.”

James Madison did an important thing before the Constitutional Convention was convened in 1787. He made the decision that the Articles of Confederation, which bound the colonies together loosely, would need to be scrapped, and a new structure, a new constitution, be built from the ground up.

So as I go into this, I’m going to do my best to go the route of Madison, and build not on what I already have heard and believed, but build from the ground up.

More to come . . .

National Buy a Newspaper Day

Today was National Buy a Newspaper Day and, like most days, I bought several. I don’t expect much of a spike in readership, but it’s a nice idea.

Now, if somebody were to come up with National Buy a Newspaper Ad Day, we might be onto something.

Anyway, given that the day is what it is, I’d like to share a short glimpse of the part newspapers played in the formative years of this country. They weren’t like the papers of today. Most were  fiercely partisan. But they were also indispensable. Ralph Waldo Emerson testifies:

Look into the morning trains, which, from every suburb, carry the business men into the city to their shops, counting rooms, work-yards and warehouses. With them enters the car — the newsboy, that humble priest of politics, finance, philosphy and religion. He unfolds his magical sheets, — twopence a head, his magical bread of knowledge costs — and instantly the entire rectangular assembly, fresh from their breakfast, are bending as one man to their second breakfast. (Complete Works of Emerson, 1878, p. 218).

Reading this, I can’t help but think of the last morning ride I had on a subway, when I looked up the rows and saw every head bowed in just about the same way — over a Blackberry or iPhone.

A Letter to Lincoln

image_lincolnDear Mr. Lincoln,

Everybody here in Kentucky is gearing up for the bicentennial of your birth so I thought at least one of us ought to write to you.

I bet you’re getting a big kick out of all of these doings in Kentucky. The other day I saw a special license plate with “Kentucky: Birthplace of Lincoln,” on it, featuring our own logo for the bicentennial.

Even though we’re the state of your birth, most folks that live here now don’t remember that Kentucky wouldn’t claim you, at least politically, back when you were trying to scrounge up votes.

You didn’t do any campaigning in the presidential election of 1860, but did get an invitation to speak in Kentucky and joked back, “Would not the people lynch me?” A newspaper got hold of it and tried to paint you as a coward.

Yes, we’re celebrating all things Lincoln now, but you remember Mr. Lincoln, even if few here seem to, that you wound up getting less than one percent — ONE! — of the vote in Kentucky when you ran for president in 1860. Heck, a dead man can get less than one percent. No offense.

There is a speech you never gave, but it has been preserved. You wrote it in Springfield, Ill., before leaving for Washington to assume the presidency. You’d been thinking about dipping into Kentucky to speak to “the state of my nativity,” but the train route didn’t really allow it, passing through Indianapolis and Cincinnati. You had cut out three paragraphs from the typeset version your first inaugural address, intending to preview them for a Kentucky crowd. Around those lines, you had written a speech that I’m sure would have gone down in the history of this state, an appeal to the rule of law, and to the sensibilities of your fellow Kentuckians. You even included the words, “Gentlemen, I too am a Kentuckian.” You never got to give that speech. In Cincinnati you addressed Kentuckians directly, but in a different way. I sure wish you had gotten to give that original speech.

After four years in office, you managed to get only 30 percent of the vote in Kentucky in your reelection bid — against George McClellan, no less, a general you fired. The Civil War might still be going on if McClellan had been in charge.

Even after your assassination, when you passed into national legend overnight, few here in Kentucky thought much about preserving your history here. The cabin where you were born was torn down, the logs, maybe, used in the building of a nearby house. Maybe. Nobody is sure.

I guess there must have been some who sought out the farmland where you were born, but nobody here in Kentucky really considered the tourism potential until a Yankee named A.W. Dennett came down from New York nearly 30 years after you were gone, bought the farm and turned it into a tourist site. He used some logs from the farmhouse that supposedly contained some of the logs from the cabin where you were born and built a whole new cabin. But when it didn’t draw, that cabin was taken apart and sent on the road for exhibitions.

A Lincoln group bought some logs from that cabin and others and built yet another Lincoln’s birthplace. It’s the one that sits on the land now, where they have your National Historic Site. They built this neo-classical granite building around it. But the cabin was a little too big for people to get around inside, so they sawed the logs off the ends, and there you go.

I’m glad, at least, that Kentucky did make some contribution to your life, beyond giving you a place for your birth, and a mother you loved who encouraged your intellect. We gave you your best friend, Joshua Speed. Even he, though, didn’t vote for you. Still, I don’t know if you’d have grown to become the president you were without him. Nor do I know what would’ve become of you if you hadn’t gotten the chance to come to Louisville, to Speed’s family’s plantation, Farmington, to spend a month. You were in the dumps, your engagement broken off, political career flailing, Joshua having moved back to Kentucky. Spending that month here in the summer of 1841 might’ve put you on the road back.

Before that, it was a Kentuckian, John Todd Stuart from Fayette County, who encouraged you to become a lawyer in Illinois and run for the state legislature. He even lent you his law books. He, too, also wound up opposing you politically many times. He was your law partner for a time, and your second law partner, Stephen Logan, was born in Kentucky, as was your third and most important, William Herndon. Born in Green County, Ky., he was your longtime partner and the man probably most responsible for telling your life story to the nation after you died.

We also gave you your wife, Mary Todd. And your political hero, Henry Clay. And we gave you our continued presence in the union, though grudgingly.

But it was a very long time before Kentucky gave you its affection.

As you may know, we in Kentucky are slow to embrace things. The Thirteenth Amendment, officially outlawing slavery in the U.S., was a great legacy of yours, and passed the December after your death in 1865. But not by Kentucky. This state didn’t ratify it until 1976.

I suppose, though, the important thing is that your home state embraces you now.

You once told a group of ministers, “I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

It took a long time, but I’d say your home state finally got there.