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Wild, brave and free

20 great things about America

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It's almost the Fourth of July, and I'm here to say I love this country and despise George W. Bush, and both those feelings are as American as it gets. The Fourth is all about freedom -- about loving the country enough to care how it's being run and trying to change it when the rulers are screwing up; to delve into its history; to appreciate the deeper, often contradictory currents that run through and under our national identity.

There's a long-overdue debate coursing through the country about the meaning of patriotism. For way too long, the concept of American patriotism has often been confused with blind nationalism, chest thumping, and militarism. I suggest another way to love the United States. Let's celebrate our heritage of independent thought, our underlying, wild, democratic thrust, and our national belief in progress. Let's honor our exhilarating popular culture and our role as a haven for other countries' outcasts; our brassy expansiveness, and our astonishing cultural variety. 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 reclaim the flag from warmongers -- and to help us remember that the country belongs to all of us.

20. America's great college towns like Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, Madison, Amherst, Lexington, Bellingham, Ithaca, Northampton, Berkeley, Oxford and lots of others. Places where the sense of open-mindedness and possibility is palpable.

19. 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.

18. American cranks and quirky thinkers with transformative visions: Henry Thoreau, Margaret Sanger, Martin Luther King Jr., Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Staton, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Phillips, Jack Kerouac, Gertrude Stein, Thomas Edison, Dorothy Day, Harriet Tubman, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Thomas Dorsey, Dorothy Parker, Hunter S. Thompson, Josephine Baker, Lenny Bruce, and, yes, George Carlin.

17. Apple computers.

16. The beauty of Western landscapes, particularly the sweeping desert vistas of the Southwest, and the sight of the Rockies rising up out of the plains as you head west.

15. 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, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and all the rest.

14. The brave women who defied some of our deepest 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.

13. Chicago, often overlooked in the national mind by its coastal rivals New York and L.A., but evincing its own power, creativity, and beauty.

12. Independent bookstores.

11. All-American Athlete Heroes: Babe Ruth, Shaq, Muhammad Ali, Babe Didrikson Zacharias, Joe Namath, Tiger Woods, Reggie Jackson, Mia Hamm, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Jack Nicklaus, Jack Dempsey, Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King, Mickey Mantle, Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Derek Jeter, Wilt Chamberlain, etc.

10. Glorious skyscrapers from the 1930s, particularly the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in New York.

9. Popular design of the late-1950s and early-1960s -- cars, radios, refrigerators, lamps, and even coffee tables that looked like variations on rockets, full of energy and tacky exuberance.

8. The richness of speech and subtle variations in accents as you cross from state to state, region to region, sometimes from town to town.

7. New Orleans. Beyond the post-Katrina politics, this tacky, muggy and bug-ridden city is a national treasure, jam-packed with entrancing music, extraordinary food, oddly singular architecture, and great writers. Our oldest living example of real cultural pluralism.

6. Hollywood, and American movies, which for a century have been a kind of surrogate imagination for the whole world.

5. The wide variety of our gorgeous coastlines: Maine's rocky terrain, the Outer Banks, southern sea islands, Florida's sugary Gulf Coast, Malibu, and the rugged beauty of Big Sur.

4. American food: Fried chicken, cheeseburgers, corn on the cob, North Carolina barbecue, Philly cheesesteaks, Chicago hotdogs, New York pizza, Tabasco sauce, gumbo, peanut butter, grits, Wisconsin cheese curds, candied yams, and, yes, sugary, fizzy colas.

3. Indigenous American music. All of it: jazz, country, rock 'n' roll, R&B, hip-hop, folk, pop, gospel, bluegrass, zydeco, and blues. Is this stuff in our bones, or what?

2. Our hybrid nature. Our country, our culture, and most of our people are mutts, and that's a wonderful thing. Nearly everything we produce, including our music, art, and cuisine, is a mix of something with something else -- some British here, some Polish there, mix it with some Irish, Italian, Haitian, French, Latino, Chinese, or American Indian, add a dash of Vietnamese and Greek, and voila -- that's all-American.

1. The Bill of Rights. The legal basis of our freedoms, and our main protection from authoritarian dimwits like Bush and Cheney.

Another version of this column was published in 2006.


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