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Spectators with flags along the route of the Gay Pride Parade in New York City, June 30, 2002. Diane Bondareff

Being American

by Kelly Cogswell

JULY 11, 2002. It's a strange thing being an American, a tiny part of the giant nation which takes with one hand and gives with the other. Here you'll find the biggest polluters and the bravest environmentalists; pioneers and defenders of women's rights, and the defunders of international women's health programs; freedom for and from religion, and the tyranny of those two words: Under God. We claim the Ku Klux Klan and Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen and Stonewall revolutionary who lobbied for transgender rights on her deathbed.

The American left, perhaps because it is more conscious than the right of U.S. failures of foreign policy, excesses of globalization, and domestic ills like racism, has largely developed a knee-jerk reaction of distancing itself from the messy parts, blaming everything on the monstrous "they" and "them," and excusing themselves for their own part in it by blindly and pitilessly siding with any David against the U.S. Goliath.

We forget that, to a certain extent, racism, xenophobia, imperialism and greed exist in every culture from Brazil to China. In every segment of every society, humans are tempted by power and wealth, corrupted by violence, terrified of difference, and redeemed by simple things like courtesy. Geography, race, or any other factor doesn't absolve or condemn us. America's most damning national difference, aside from its peculiar insularity, is scale: everything we do, for better and worse, is always supersized. Even our good intentions are as dangerous as china shop bulls.

This is not a popular view — admitting we Americans are neither as bad or as good as we imagine, just individually equal, human, like everyone else with difficult histories, futures uncertain or bright — but it is essential to reclaiming America from both the jingoistic, authoritarian patriotism of the right, and the equally deadly America-phobic ideological enforcers of the left. And I do claim this country, whether it wants me or not.

Liberation is my goal, to step outside all the boxes, even none of the above. Somewhere between the rainbow flags of Gay Pride and the red, white, and blue Fourth of July, I vowed to accept my checkered past, sneer at patriotic arrogance and abject contrition alike, though still act for change, stepping forward into mediocre equality, a Bad American, but an American nonetheless.

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