Christmas 2003

Scott Ott at ScrappleFace, has this wonderful Christmas message. It’s so good, and so worth reading, that I’ve decided to post it verbatim.


Dear Editor —
I am a 19-year-old year old college student. Some of my professors and fellow students say there is no “United” States of America, because our nation is so divided along ideological lines. As I read the paper, and watch the TV news, I almost believe it. My Dad says, “If you read it at, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a United States of America?

Virginia O’Hanlon VII

Yes, Virginia, there is a United States of America. It exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no United States! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.

But the United States of America isn’t about politics, or ideological debate, or the constant buzz of news — which is, afterall, simply entertaining drama. All drama demands conflict, protagonists, antagonists and change. That’s what the news is. People who look to it for a faithful reproduction of events, look amiss. Like a good play, you must allow the news to entertain and challenge you. You must suspend disbelief to be swept into a world where big pronoucements mask little minds, altruistic gestures disguise selfish motives, and one shocking event follows another in rapid succession, because that’s the way the producers want it. In the end, the characters in the news must be in conflict for the drama to occur. Therefore, peace and goodwill have little place on the pages of the paper or in the ceaseless drone of broadcast news. Cooperation, human kindness and small acts by ordinary people, which make up the vast majority of all activity in our land, may only appear in the news to provide an infrequent counterpoint or ironic commentary to the steady drumming of cynicism and conflict. The news is not reality. It is simply an effort by writers and actors to suffuse their own lives with meaning by creating compelling drama.

But that is not the real America, Virginia. If we were to accept the somber intonation ‘That’s the way it was’ we would be deceived, drained and defeated. If you trust the news, as your professors and fellow students apparently do, then there is no United States. We are deeply riven, savagely torn, irreconcilably different.

Don’t trust the news. The real America, while perpetually stained with the residue of human fallibility, is at the same time more mundane and more meaningful than the news. It is in our own homes and neighborhoods that we see valiant efforts to supress our natural urge to dominate one another.

In the United States, liberals and conservatives come together in halls of worship, in grocery stores, in factory lunchrooms, in scout meetings and at little league ball practices. We work side-by-side to pave roads, build houses, turn wrenches, tap keyboards, extinguish burning buildings, resuscitate heart attack victims and take up arms to protect the people who do all of that. And as we do these things, we don’t favor our political allies nor deny our best efforts to our political opponents. This is the real America.

Our soldier may be a Republican, Democrat or totally ambivalent about politics, but when he steps onto the field of battle he says to ideological partners and opponents alike, ‘I’ve got your back, Brother.’

Virginia, all of this is not to say that ideas don’t matter. They do. They shape our perception of reality, set the course for our journey and provide guideposts along the way. It also does not mean that all ideas are equally valid. They are not. There is truth. There is right. But no human striding this earth today owns either franchise exclusively nor eternally.

However, the ideas that make these states united, give us an opportunity unparalleled in human history and still unmatched within the borders of any other land.

All men are created equal.

They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

These are United States because a set of ideas, radical at the time they were codified, best fits our human nature. They offer us freedom with responsiblity, and help protect us from each other and from our own worst inclinations. Our founding documents are at the same time incredibly hopeful, eminently reasonable and seriously practical.

The high ideals our founders captured in ink on parchment lift our heads and fix our gaze on the horizon. Yet these documents also establish reasonable boundaries to help ensure that we don’t tread others under foot as we march toward that horizon. Most of all they protect us against the natural tendency of governors to exalt themselves above the governed, by allowing each of us an opportunity to lead and to decide who leads.

All of this is heady stuff for a college student whose thoughts rarely rise above daily concerns about homework, grades, money, food, romance, entertainment, fashion. In reality, most of your fellow students know more about popular music and sports personalities than they do about the ideas which unite us as Americans. And your professors, so erudite in the lecture hall, will go home tonight and apply their mighty intellects to cooking noodles, tinkering in the garage and perhaps taking out the garbage. They’re human like you. Their minds are products of the authors and teachers who have appealed to their own peculiar egos. In their best moments, they glimpse their own fallibility and contemplate the awesome and terrible impact they can have on young minds. In their worst moments, they are players who manipulate emotions from behind an academic mask.

But the failure of some of your professors to understand what makes America great, and what unites these states, does not make the United States of America any less real. The beauty and genius of America is that even those who oppose her ideals or her government, enjoy the freedom provided by those ideals and that government.

Yes, Virginia, there is a United States of America, and it lives as long as men and women like you remember the great ideas which gave her birth, while continuing to quietly serve others without regard to ideology.

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