Wednesday, March 7, 2012

We've All Gone to Look For America

These words, penned in 1968 by Paul Simon, encapsulate such deep meaning and cultural angst, even thirty years later.

I posted this simple line to Facebook this weekend:

"We've all gone to look for America."

Without connotation and without direction of what I thought the words meant, it was a concise observation, pregnant with contemplation. Several people reacted politically, a few commented appreciatively, and others simply "liked" it. So what does it mean?

The definition of "America" is as varied as the citizenry, both legal and illegal, who inhabit the geographic region known as "America". For each one of us, "America" means something different. For many, it is a nostalgic sentiment - a lost work-ethic, a style, a spirit of adventure. For others, "America" is a morality, a religion, a political rhetoric. "America" is opportunity. "America" is Freedom. "America" is a collection of political platitudes on which potential presidents preach ad nauseum, then disregard when the pressures of the true "America" press in upon them. "America" is all-to-often defined by what it is not rather than what it is. "America" is.

We've all gone to look for America.

At various points in our lives, we've all gone to look for "America". Dispossessed with the status quo of our lives, stagnation of our relationships, the quagmire that is our job, or ineffectiveness of our elected officials, we set off to look for the "America" we all thought we knew when we were young and full of big ideas. "America" is escapism. "America" is the seven-year itch. "America" is the ever elusive mirage of self-satisfaction. "America" is the insatiable desire for contentment - you can grasp it only long enough to let it slip through your fingers, then it flutters away, and you begin the chase again.

We've all gone to look for America.

I imagine the phrase, crudely drawn on a piece of cardboard, hanging from the glass door of the hardware store that once stood in downtown Donnellson, Iowa where I grew up. A friendly note to reassure that the clerk will be back in five minutes. "Sorry for the inconvenience, we've all gone to look for America."

We thought we had "America", a decade ago. "America" was security. "America" was children playing in the streets. Then someone stole "America" from us, replacing it with fear and distrust. The chase began anew. Still today we look for "America" in sandy soil and dark caverns. To this day, we seek to regain "America" from the shadows of conspiracy and missions that we accomplish. We send drones to find "America". We send friends away from America in order to find "America" through force and through bureaucratic negotiation.

We thought we had "America", before this "Great Recession". We had "prosperous America". We had "lucrative America". We had "world-dominating economic super-power America". Then "America" imploded, collapsing in on itself and taking its cars and its houses, disappearing like smoke in the night air. "America" took us from our secure infrastructure and left us naked and vulnerable.

We've all gone to look for America.

This is not a new phenomenon. Generations before us have looked for "America", just as we do today. We looked for "America" in the reflections of Communist Russia. We looked for "America" during the farm crisis of the 1980's, in Vietnam, Cuba, Panama, and in the wake of Pearl Harbor. We seek to define "America" through imperialism, capitalism, and reactionary barbarism. We define America through our fights for civil rights, women's suffrage, and prohibition. We look for "America" as we fervently and violently explore the role of the immigrant in our current society. We look for "America" as we impress upon others our own finite views of an infinitely complex "America".

Understanding "America" is not an event - it is a process that is ever changing. We continually find "America" through strife and our own stubborn determination, then lose it again in the subliminal depths of our own first-world complacency. It is when we feel the most at ease that we are at the highest risk of losing what we think we know "America" to be.

We've all gone to look for "America". What we fail to realize is that "America" is not the destination. "America" is the journey.



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