This isn't the standard-issue "puppies and Mom's apple pie" rah-rah civics class stuff, but everyday things like, say, peanut butter or rock & roll or college towns -- things Americans are so close to, we often can't see how great they are. Or undervalued people, like America's long list of quirky figures a la Walt Whitman or Hunter S. Thompson, people who may never be part of a Chamber of Commerce PR package, but who make this a really interesting country, to say the least.
Look at this as a little soul healing, if you will. It's also a way to reclaim the flag from jingoist screamers and mouth breathers -- and help us remember that it belongs to all of us. Most of all, it's a celebration of the underlying wild, democratic thrust in America, our exhilarating popular culture, our vulgar expansiveness, and all the naive, very American enthusiasms that led Chuck Berry to once holler, "I'm so glad I'm living in the USA" -- and led us to even think of an article like this to begin with.
1 The Bill of Rights. We still have it, even if the Attorney General seems utterly unaware of it.
2 Our hybrid nature. Our country and our culture are mutts -- and that's great. Everything we produce, including our music, art, cuisine -- and most of our population -- is a mix of something with something else, a combination of this and that. Some British here, some Polish influence there, mix it with some Irish or Haitian or American Indian or Italian and a dash of Vietnamese and Greek, and voila -- that's American.
3 Indigenous American music. All of it: jazz, country, rock & roll, R&B, hip hop, folk, pop, gospel, bluegrass, zydeco, and blues. Is this stuff in our bones, or what?
4 Indigenous American food: Pancakes, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, corn on the cob, Eastern North Carolina bar-b-que, Tabasco sauce, gumbo, peanut butter, grits, Wisconsin cheese curds and, yes, even things like scrapple and liver mush.
5 The richness of speech and the subtle variations of accents as you cross from state to state, region to region, sometimes from town to town.
6 The California coastline.
7 The border islands off the Atlantic coast.
8 Hollywood and American movies, which for decades have been a kind of surrogate imagination for the whole world.
9 The way the people of New York City shook themselves off and got to work following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
10 The idea of the road as a place to reinvent yourself, an impulse running from Robert Johnson through Kerouac to Thelma and Louise and beyond.
11 Popular design of the late-50s and early-60s -- cars and radios and refrigerators and even coffee tables that all looked like variations on rockets, full of energy and a tacky exuberance.
12 Glorious skyscrapers from the 1930s, particularly the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York.
13 Roe v. Wade.
14 New Orleans. Tacky, muggy and bug-ridden, but jam-packed with entrancing music, extraordinary food and writers. Our oldest living example of real cultural pluralism.
15 Baseball and the mysticism associated with it, practically approaching a religious doctrine. When the ballpark is empty, the sport's past hangs over it like a fog; when it's packed with fans, it charges the air with an electrifying current.
16 Our whole pantheon of rock & roll stars: from Little Richard to Jim Morrison to Lou Reed to Levi Stubbs to Chuck Berry to Marvin Gaye to Dave Matthews to Fats Domino to Prince to Springsteen to Madonna to Neil Young to Aretha Franklin, and on and on and on and on and on and on. . .
17 The social gospel: religion has never been the progressive social force in Europe that it often is here.
18 Colleges and universities; particularly, funky little liberal arts institutions who manage to hang on in the corporatized world of universities.
19 America's great college towns like Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, Boulder, Amherst, Madison, Ithaca, Berkeley, Lawrence, Lexington, Oxford and lots of others. Places where the sense of open-mindedness and possibility is palpable -- and usually trumps any sign of academic stuffiness.