Happy Almost Fourth of July! That means it's nearly time to celebrate with family and/or friends by cooking out, swimming, watching fireworks, enjoying music, or whatever else you want to do — hey, it's a free country, the NSA be damned. The Fourth can be a time, too, of considering patriotism itself — what it means, how it's manifested. For too long, the mainstream image of American patriotism has been confused with blind nationalism, chest thumping and military "adventures."
Here's another way to love the United States — by celebrating our heritage of independent thought; our underlying, wild, democratic instincts; our cultural richness and our national belief in progress. Those are qualities that make this country what it is. They're also the reason, despite all our government's mistakes, that many in the rest of the world have a thing for the U.S. In that vein, here's a list of great things about America, none of which have to do with going overseas to shoot foreigners. Think of it as a way to remember that the country belongs to all of us — and as a way to reclaim American patriotism from the knuckle draggers.
17. The broad variety of our gorgeous coastlines: Maine's rocky terrain, Cape Cod, the Outer Banks, the Southeast's sea islands, Florida's sugary Gulf Coast, Malibu, Washington's Olympia peninsula and the rugged beauty of Big Sur.
16. Popular design of the 1950s — cars, radios, lamps and even coffee tables that looked like variations on rockets, full of energy and tacky exuberance.
15. The richness of speech and the subtle variations in accents as you cross from state to state, region to region, sometimes from town to town.
14. New Orleans. This tacky, muggy, bug-ridden city is a national cultural treasure, jam-packed with entrancing music, extraordinary food, singular architecture and great writers. Our oldest living example of real cultural pluralism.
13. Hollywood and American movies, which for a century have been a kind of surrogate imagination for the whole world.
12. America's great college towns like Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, Madison, Amherst, Athens, Ithaca, Austin, Lexington, Bellingham, Northampton, Berkeley, Oxford and lots of others — places where the sense of open-mindedness and possibility is almost tangible.
11. Chicago — too often overlooked in the national mind by its coastal rivals New York and L.A., but evincing its own power, creativity and beauty.
10. Rock 'n' roll's early pioneers, who were braver than they're given credit for, in the vanguard of both rhythm and race relations: Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers and all the rest.
9. American cranks and original thinkers with transformative visions: Henry Thoreau, Margaret Sanger, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.J. Cash, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Phillips, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Martin Luther King, Thomas Edison, Andy Warhol, Dorothy Day, Harriet Tubman, John Cage, Thomas Dorsey, Dorothy Parker, Hunter S. Thompson, Josephine Baker, George Carlin.
8. The Vietnam War Memorial, for its egalitarianism, the ambience of loss, and the way it ennobles war deaths without glorifying the politicians who caused them.
7. Independent bookstores. God love 'em and keep 'em safe.
6. All-American athletic heroes: Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Babe Didrikson Zacharias, Jackie Robinson, Joe Namath, Mia Hamm, Bill Russell, Reggie Jackson, Satchel Paige, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Jack Dempsey, Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King, Mickey Mantle, Wilma Rudolph, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Derek Jeter, etc., etc.
5. The courageous women who defied deep taboos and fought ferociously for the right to vote. In the 1970s, their descendants would launch the wrenching, liberating dialogues of women's groups that revitalized feminism and changed the country for the better.
4. American food: Fried chicken, cheeseburgers, jambalaya, corn on the cob, North Carolina barbecue, New York pizza, Philly cheesesteaks, Chicago hot dogs, Tabasco, gumbo, peanut butter, grits, Wisconsin cheese curds, candied yams and sugary, fizzy sodas.
3. Indigenous American music. All of it: jazz, country, Rock 'n' Roll, R&B, hip-hop, folk, pop, gospel, bluegrass, zydeco and the blues. This stuff is in our bones.
2. Our hybrid nature. Our country, our culture, and most of our people are mutts — mixtures of various national influences, beliefs and traditions — and that's a wonderful thing.
1. The Bill of Rights. The legal basis of our freedoms, and our main protection from misguided authority.
That's just my list. What's yours?