Such a huge subject, and such a lovely question— when a dialogue on that expansive question was first proposed to me, my initial impulse was to make a list.
Let’s see…OK: I’ll start my what’s-so-great list with Chicago; yes, Chicago—because it’s my hometown and I know it well, and because it’s one small piece of America in all its outsized and crazy complexity, the city of the Big Shoulders, the essential American metropolis—Chicago is one of the things that’s so awesomely great about America.
The musical, sure, the song and the film, The Jungle and The Pit and The House on Mango Street, too, Augie March and Bigger Thomas, the Blues Brothers and V I Warshawski, Jimmy Corrigan, the smartest kid on earth, Studs Terkel’s Division Street and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Algren’s
Nelson Algren’s wonderful book length love poem to his hometown was called City on the Make, and Algren once described Chicago—rightly I think—as a beautiful woman with a broken nose—he’d have said the same about America.
So, so great, and there’s more of course: Lake Michigan, that vast inland sea now under siege from cataclysmic climate change, the massive, inviting prairie that fires our imaginations and beckons us toward the far horizons, and the Chicago Cubs who teach us humility and perseverance, Chris Ware and Aleksander Hemon, the film-making Wachowski siblings, Haki and Sefisha Madhubuti, Koko Taylor and Yoko Noge, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddly, and the Sun Ra Archestra. You know, of course, that I’m barely scratching the surface here—but enough.
Whenever I’ve travelled abroad, the city’s name tends to evoke a clichéd response: for years it was, “Ah, Al Capone…rat-a-tat-tat…” and then, refreshingly, “Michael Jordan! Michael Jordan!” In Baku someone asked me if I knew Oprah—“Of course,” I said. “Small town, Chicago.”
But today the universal reaction to hearing the name Chicago is a single word: “Obama!” Yes, Chicago is also home to Barack Obama, the president of the United States and first African-American US president in history.
During the heat of the primary battle in 2008, when asked which candidate he thought Martin Luther King Jr. would support, Senator Obama responded without hesitation: Reverend King would not likely endorse any of us, he said, because he’d be in the streets building a movement for justice. The fact that Obama had been a community organizer for many years on Chicago’s storied South Side, and that he had within his own experience and knowledge the realities of that particular life on the ground, undoubtedly fueled his response—he’d experienced power in the neighborhood, the community, the shop and the factory, the school and the street which is for ordinary people more real and more relevant than the power of the White House. That idea underlines the fact that in a democracy we don’t wait passively wondering what the king has in mind for us; we aren’t some sovereign’s subjects because we are the sovereign, the collective authority, and we have the opportunity and the responsibility to enact our sovereignty every day.
Chicago’s Jane Addams acted out her citizenship responsibilities every day, and she’s part of what’s so great about America too. Socialist, feminist, lesbian, pacifist—Addams established Hull House in America in 1889, and with an intrepid group of crusading women went on to create the first Juvenile Court in the world which freed children from adult prisons and poor houses, the first playground in a city park, the first public kindergartens in America, an end to child labor, and a thousand other projects and reforms. She argued that building communities of care and compassion required more than “doing good,” more than volunteerism, more than the beneficent but ultimately controlling stance of a Lady Bountiful. It required, rather, a radical oneness with others in distress, an identity of purpose with the wretched of the earth. When she opened her large settlement house with her sister activists, and lived there with poor immigrant families in crisis and need, she pushed herself to see the world through their eyes, and in fighting for their humanity, discovered her own as well.
J. Edgar Hoover, the G-man whose Wizard-of-Oz like PR skills and political opportunism outstripped any putative crime-fighting abilities, had called Jane Addams the most dangerous woman in America shortly before she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and fifty years later, still at the helm of his vast criminal enterprise known as the FBI, bestowed that same honor on my partner Bernardine Dohrn—the most dangerous woman in America indeed, possibly the only time Hoover and I agreed on anything.
There are today countless men and women sweating out Jane Addams’s hopes—and Bernardine Dohrn’s hopes as well—all over America, naming situations and circumstances as unacceptable, working to repair deficiencies and to right wrongs, fighting for more peace and more democracy, more joy and more justice. These men and women propel themselves to act in solidarity with—rather than in service to—the people with whom they work.
They’re what’s so great about America.
And what else?
My list contains multitudes.
First: the spirit of democracy—the precious but fragile ideal that every human being is of incalculable value, endowed with certain inalienable rights, the faith in that idea—using faith in the Biblical sense of “the evidence of things unseen”—a conviction that the people need no kings or queens, no rulers of any kind, and that we are quite capable of making the decisions that affect our lives, and indeed that the people with the problems are also the people with the solutions, and that the wisdom and energy of ordinary people is our most precious reality.
Next: the inspirations of liberty—the aspiration toward liberation, the belief that all human beings ought to be free to invent and reinvent ourselves, to shape our identities in every sphere of our existence without the oppressive and traditional constraints of king or court or church or howling mob, and whether we are concerned with our social character or our politics, our manners or our sexual practices, we can resist convention and strike out on a path of our own choosing or even of our own making.
Third: the pursuit of social justice in large and small matters—like any compelling and layered term, social justice isn’t easily or neatly defined because it’s not so much a point-of-arrival or a specific destination, as it is a longing, a journey, and a quest; it’s that ceaseless striving by human beings—in different times and places under vastly different circumstances, and pursuing a range of strategies and tactics and tools—for greater fairness, sustainability, equity, recognition, agency, peace, mobility….
Democracy and liberty and justice—like love—are generative: The more you have, the better off you become; the more you give away, the more you have.
And they are clearly dynamic and unfinished themes, pulsating with the uncertainties and chaos of life—none is static or fixed or simply instrumental—and yet each is made more vital and unrestrained and more vital when encouraged and assisted by the arts of liberty, and specifically by a small but mighty phrase easily embraced by the humanities: “I wonder.”
It’s not the known, after all, that propels us out of bed and out the door, it’s not the taken-for-granted that prods us up the next hill or onto the next challenge, and it’s not “received wisdom”—including all the deadly clichés of common sense—that pulls us forward and pushes us to create or to invent or to plant and build. No, the deep motivation at the core of our humanity, the powerful force driving toward enlightenment and liberation, is the vast and immense unknown.
That’s why that simple phrase—“I wonder”— is indispensible: it’s where inspiration comes from, courage and vision and progress, too, and revision and rethinking as well: “I really don’t know.”
As soon as you “know” something for sure it becomes either boring or self-righteous, and it turns tedious or dogmatic pretty quickly. If you think you know all there is to know, the fervor may be there, but not the curiosity, not the drive, and at that point the questions close down, the answers come too easily, and you become a threat, then, to yourself, and possibly to others as well.
There are zillions of Americans whose lives have soared on the wings of wonder: Einstein, Stravinsky, and Said, Twain, Dickinson, Robeson, Chaplin, Whitman, Hughes, Freidan, Kelly, Brecht, Baraka, Milk, the Marx brothers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Junot Diaz and Tommy Morello.
In a free and democratic society we learn to live with questions and in dialogue; we learn to speak with the possibility of being heard, and we learn simultaneously to listen with the possibility of being changed. We become skilled at asking the essential questions again and again, and then finding ways to live within and beyond the answers: What does it mean to be human? Who are we in the world? How did you and I get here? Where are we going? Who decides? Who’s left out? What are the alternatives? What do we have the right to imagine and expect? Why? In many ways, these kinds of questions are themselves the answers, for they lead us into a powerful sense that we can and will make a difference.
Remember the brief but famous dialogue—in the form of two simple questions—between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shouted over a prison wall not far from here: What are you doing in there? Emerson asks his incarcerated friend, locked up for refusing to pay taxes to a war-making slave state. And Thoreau responds: What are you doing out there?
Good question: What are you doing out there? What are you doing with your spirit of democracy, your rumors of freedom, and your various quests for justice?
There’s a rhythm—simple to state, but excruciatingly difficult to live out—to staying true to the spirit and the inspiration of liberty and democracy:
Open your eyes and pay attention…Be astonished at the beauty and ecstasy all around us as well as the unnecessary pain we visit upon one another…Tell about it…Doubt.
What’s so great about America?
There are the arts and the artists: Gwendolyn Brooks begins her poem on the dedication of the magnificent Picasso statue in downtown Chicago with a question: Does man love art? She asks. Man visits art, she says, but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.
America is a place of voyages, metaphorically as well as literally, and there’s always, even there, complexity and the contradiction at the very heart of the matter.
Centuries ago a Genoan adventurer and his band of fellow travelers plunged into the unknown, rode the waves until they stumbled upon the Bahamas and, as the authorized texts tell us, “discovered America.” We all know the story by heart, that foundational fable, and it’s worth noting here that, whatever else it represented, that exploit—part myth and part symbol—took a surplus of imagination and vision, resourcefulness and courage on the part of that wild and somewhat random crew.
But every story has a prologue; every opening a foreword; no story can ever quite begin at the beginning.
And so centuries before that, another group of voyagers summoned their imaginations and visions, their own resourcefulness and courage to travel thousands of miles on foot across the Bering Strait, down through forests and mountains into the Great Plains of North America, to settle there and bring forth generations. That’s another story we all know by now.
And there’s a third to go with those other two, also a central part of our shared American narrative and another piece of what’s so great about America: those Americans who rose up to oppose the Castillian invasion and to resist the Columbian genocide—Osceola and Crazy Horse and Cochise also summoned courage and resourcefulness as they mobilized their own visions and their own American hopes.
Clearly history is more than the facts of the matter; it is as well the narratives we construct to circulate those facts—it’s a continual creation at the dynamic intersection of what happened and that which is said to have happened. And each of us—from the start until the present, both then and now—is both an actor and a narrator in history; works-in-progress thrust into a world not of our choosing, and yet destined to choose who to be and what to become in the lively, unfolding drama that catches us and propels us forward.
Wherever you begin and however you look, deep within our human DNA, embedded in our collective American experience we find imagination and hope, vision and resourcefulness, initiative and courage, conflict and contradiction, the individual and the community.
America is an immense landscape, a crazy-quilt, and the people, yes, the people—the opening lines to Carl Sandburg’s classic love song to America—where we come from and where we will forever return.
Here’s a fun fact you may not know about Carl Sandburg—he moved to Chicago from Milwaukee where he had served as secretary to that city’s first socialist mayor. The city had the longest run of socialist mayors in American history, and one of them, Daniel Webster Hoan, had met Albert Parsons as a five-year old child in 1886. Parsons was later hanged for his role in the famous Haymarket demonstrations that had turned into a police riot and massacre, and when he was on the run from the Chicago police, he hid out for a time in Waukesha at the home of Daniel’s socialist parents who owned a factory there.
Albert Parsons was from Texas and had fought with the Confederacy during the Civil War, went through an essential American transformation when he renounced white supremacy—a dazzling life-altering choice available to all of us here—and became a leading voice for anarchism, socialism, workers rights and the eight-hour day, married Lucy Parsons, a former slave who outlived him by half a century and was herself called “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” in the 1920s by the Chicago police.
Albert Parsons was hanged in 1887 after a quick show trial; the three surviving Haymarket defendants were pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld who was, incidentally, my favorite Illinois governor until George Ryan, a corrupt right-wing Republican and self-described pharmacist from Kankakee, declared himself an abolitionist and cleared death row in 2003 of 163 men and 4 women just hours before he left office and two years before going to prison himself—fraud, corruption, quiet money—the most significant action challenging capital punishment since the Supreme Court struck down the old death penalty laws in 1972. So now George Ryan is my favorite Illinois governor.
Death penalty abolition: one of the great things about America; the death penalty itself—the shame of the nation.
In 1894, a year after the hanging, Eugene Debs was jailed for 6 months for violating an injunction against supporting the Pullman Strike, and 100,000 people gathered in the rain in Chicago when he was released. He linked the cause of labor to the aspirations of the revolutionaries of 1776, and famously said, “If I could lead you into the Promised Land, I would not do it, for someone else would come along and lead you out.”
And in that same year the philosopher John Dewey took a teaching position at the University of Chicago, and wrote to his wife that “Chicago is the place to make you appreciate at every turn the opportunity which chaos affords.”
Chaos and opportunity—there’s constant contradiction in Chicago, in America, always another incongruity or disparity or dispute or deviation to look into, always a challenge, an opposition or an absurdity, and until the end of time another pathway opening. Standing directly next to the world as such—the world we see and the places we take-for-granted—stands another world, a possible world, a world that could be or should be, but is not yet. And that’s surely a good thing because contradiction may save us. Nothing is settled, once and for all, everything is on the move and in the mix, and there’s much more to know, and to do. We’re in the middle of the muddle—right from the start.
There are the muckrakers and the whistle-blowers and the truth-tellers from Upton Sinclair and Ida B. Wells, to Daniel Ellsberg and Jeremy Hammond and Aaron Swartz, all three Chicagoans, to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
They’re what’s so great about America.
There are the citizen activists who brought us the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and are largely responsible for the fact that you live in a country where you can—unless you’re in West Virginia—confidently drink water right from the tap.
They’re what’s so great about America.
There are the Abolitionists—Frederick Douglass and his friend Captain John Brown, each buried not far from here, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, General Harriett Tubman with that necessary pistol in her pocket, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.
They’re what’s so great about America.
There’s Seneca Falls and the feminist fighters Sojourner Truth and the Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
They’re what’s so great about America.
Let me pause a moment here and ask you seriously—speaking of those two great movements—two quick questions: Are you opposed to slavery? Are you in favor of a woman’s right to vote?
Terrific, but had you been alive then, and had you taken the positions you’re taking now, you would have been against the law, the Constitution, the founders, the Bible, your preacher, your parents, your neighbors and many friends, but OK, you’re on the right side of history—now.
Is there anything you see around yourself today that fifty years from now your grandchildren might condemn as backward, archaic, misbegotten, ignorant, or immoral? The extraction of the last drops of fossil fuel? Mass incarceration? The corruption of money in politics?
Carrying the three themes that I began with—the spirit of democracy, the inspirations of freedom, and the quest for social justice—I urge you to get to the bottom of things, to go to the root, the Greek base and source for the word radical.
On the important issues of the last two centuries, America’s radicals from Jane Addams and Emma Goldman, John Brown and Harriet Tubman, to Eugene Debs and WEB Du Bois have gotten it right by going to the root of matters. The legacy continued with the work of Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Shulamith Firestone and Betty Freidan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X forty years ago, and on up to today and the efforts of James Thindwa and Karen Lewis, Grace Lee Boggs and Ai-jen Poo, Bill McKibben and Michelle Alexander, Kathy Kelly and Reyna Wences. Of course as Ella Baker said of Reverend King, “Martin didn’t make the Movement, the Movement made Martin,” and it’s true: for every remembered leader there were thousands, tens of thousands and millions putting their shoulders on history’s wheel.
The country is as it is—a mass of contradictions and tragedies; rich with beauty and human accomplishment, vicious with human denial; an organism that drains us and replenishes us at the same time, gives us life and kills us—and it’s asking you to dive in: study, imagine, ask queer questions, read, learn, organize, talk to strangers, mobilize, and display your ethical aspirations publicly.
You might take a page from Walt Whitman who wrote:
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number for men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, [walk with delinquents with passionate love] re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …
The tools are everywhere—humor and art, protest and spectacle, the quiet, patient intervention and the angry and urgent thrust—and the rhythm of and recipe for activism as I said before is always the same: we open our eyes and look unblinkingly at the immense world as we find it; we are astonished by the beauty and horrified at the suffering all around us; we dive into the wreckage and swim as hard as we can toward a distant and indistinct shore; we dry ourselves off, doubt that our efforts made any important difference whatsoever, and so we rethink, recalibrate, look again, and dive in once more.
Repeat for a lifetime, and you’ll find out for yourself what’s really great about America.