America the Beautiful

Fri Jan 24 2003 03:40PM -0600

I suppose it will always sound ironic whenever I write anything remotely patriotic, but, remarkably, for the most part, I am sincere. The reason why I am so critical of this country is precisely because I do love it. Despite all the horrible things I've learned about this country, the boundless optimism of my immigrant parents is still the subconscious foundation of my beliefs. Yes, I do believe that America is a land of opportunity. Yes, I do believe that hard work is what gets you somewhere. (And yes, I know, this kind of talk borders on resembling the colonial mentality)

In any case, how did this start? It was a question as to why our school doesn't use honorifics for graduates at commencement exercises (i.e., why don't they address med school grads as "Dr.") It is a discussion unto itself which I don't want to get into now, but somehow the discussion spiralled out into a discussion of equality and the cultural values of this country.

I don't know much about other immigrant ethnic groups. Hell, I don't know much about my own immigrant ethnic group really. All I can speak for is my family. But I think one of the biggest appeals to moving to America was the fact that, while you might have been an impoverished nobody in the Philippines, and the elite always made a point of reminding you that you were, well, here in the good ol' U.S.A., in theory, everyone is equal. From the drunkest bum on the street to the President (hell, he gets called "Mr.," just like everybody else) to Bill Gates, in theory, no one is more important than anyone else. Sure, in practice, this is not true, but I think it's a lot more true than in countries where the elite are much more firmly entrenched.

I mean, yeah, we've got our own home-grown versions of royalty (the families that come off the top of my head are, for example, the Kennedies, and then again, the Bushes), but they are nothing like kings and queens and lords and ladies of Europe during, for example, the 18th century, nor are they even like the aristocrats of landed elites in developing countries (like the Philippines, or maybe even Cuba before Castro.) I mean, aristocrats (read preppies) in the U.S. may try to act like it, especially in New England, but, I dunno, I don't think it flies quite as well. (Skip down to the "kicking rich people's asses" comment.) Not to mention the fact that despite their combined wealth and power, even the most famous families still have to share the spotlight with fly-by-night celebrities like, oh, I dunno, Britney Spears, for example. (I don't feel like looking up better examples, sorry--I have a sinking feeling that this comment will eventually be completely wrong, and Britney will be the next Madonna, the next Cher, but hopefully you get the picture.)

What I'm trying to point out is that, in the past, and in countries still stuck in a semi-feudal state (e.g., the Philippines), the elite are naturally respected. Commoners do not purposefully cross them without realizing some consequences. There is a certain sense of reverence, even if it is begotten of fear. There is a definite separation between commoner and elite. But in the U.S., I don't think the average Joe gives a rat's ass about such distinctions. I mean, sure, you might have tyrants in some of your circumscribed circles: for example, at work. Maybe you do have to kiss your bosses ass, and live in fear of crossing him/her in case you're up for review or some such. But when you punch out of the office, you can ridicule him/her all you like. The tyranny does not really extend too much outside of the office. And even better, if your boss really pisses you off, nothing stops you from telling him/her to shove it up his ass and quit, and look for another job.

Or, to take another tack, sure, maybe people do look up to those who are ultra-wealthy. Take Bill Gates, for example. I mean, this guy is worth multiple billions of dollars. And yeah, maybe most rational people have a certain kind of respect for that. But, still, I can hear it now: "So, you're a billionaire, huh? Well, I bet I could still kick your ass." This wouldn't work in less egalatarian societies. ("So, you're the king, huh? So, you own half of Luzon, huh? So, you're part of the Mafia-like crime dynasty that really runs the country, huh?" I think such utterances might be detrimental to your health.) Here in the U.S., in the words of Chris Rock, "There ain't nobody above an ass-whippin'."

My point is this: sure, complete upward mobility in the U.S. is a myth, sure, there is a glass ceiling for many of us, but at least there is some mobility. Horatio Alger may be all capitalistic propaganda, but I suppose my immigrant roots make me yearn for a kernel of truth in that story. OK, let's see if I can actually get to the point: I really think that America was intentionally founded on this principle. This was the whole point of the American Revolution: to cast away the old traditions and old titles, to start from scratch. To perceive a person's accomplishments to be more important than what their bloodline is. This is the reason why George Washington refused to be king. And while the Founding Fathers were indeed cynical bastards of the intellectual class, I think the Constitution and Bill of Rights are written in this vein. Not to mention the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal...."

But, to tie it in with the discussion about honorifics (which I will probably never really get to): it comes down to this: essentially, respect should be earned, not granted. Not inherited.

OK, so maybe this isn't the most coherent thing I've ever written, but this is how I feel.

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