What makes America great (to me)

Today I rode my bicycle to our public library (an American innovation), and walked around the corner to an Indian restaurant that is owned and operated by people of Latin American heritage. While I enjoyed a quiet lunch, diners of all ages and multiple backgrounds did the same. There was a head-scarf-wearing mother who works at the restaurant attending to her infant, a separate group of head-scarf-wearing people, people in wheelchairs, people with long hair and short, dark skin and light. This panorama of humanity found common purpose in our peaceful enjoyment of food from one of the world’s great civilizations. And we like to joke that State College is “centrally isolated.”

What makes America great (to me) is exactly, precisely this diversity. What makes America great is that from our very founding, we have attempted to forge a one from the many. Did you know that E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one”, was considered our de facto motto until the 1950’s when “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official one? I didn’t. And I think that was a mistake, just as I think adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance was a mistake. Atheists and animists comprise the pluribus, too. And somehow I suspect a supreme entity, should one exist, is diminished in no way by a national motto or pledge that fully reflects the diversity of the creation, encompassing believer and unbeliever alike.

And so what makes America great (to me) is this very struggle. Are we one Nation of many, including diverse and discrepant views on religious questions, racial and ethnic backgrounds, languages and cultures, or are we something else, something, well, smaller? I know that loud voices in our land today and among our leaders want to expel the different and shun the diverse, to make us smaller, more homogeneous. And what makes America great (to me) is that these too often hateful and fearful voices also have their place among the threads of the national tapestry.

But love it or not, a patchwork, quilt-like tapestry it is, we are, first, foremost, and finally. And that, my friends, is a flag that genuine patriots are most happy to wrap themselves in. Like a burrito.

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Rick O. Gilmore
Professor of Psychology
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