It is difficult to spend much time abroad and not be changed by the experience. I still marvel at the signs at crosswalks in Germany. They read, “Children are watching,” and they work. Stand at a German crosswalk when the little man is red for stop, and a line forms on the corner, whether or not a car is coming.
Is this lunacy or civility? Standing on that German street, you may think, “Why in the name of Franz Beckenbauer am I still standing here?” or, “Why am I in such a rush? Is 15 seconds saved really going to make my day?”
So now, even in Boston, I wait for the “walk” sign – a piece of German culture smuggled onto America’s streets.
Why do I mention this? Because, for me, this is what the Fourth of July is really about.
Let me explain. In this week’s cover story, staff writer Patrik Jonsson sums up that most American of foods – barbecue – this way: “though Southern slaves were the first legendary pitmasters, there would be no American cuisine without the Spanish, who brought the pigs; the Germans, who brought the mustard; and the French, who supplied the vinegar.”
In other words, barbecue is quintessentially American. But it’s also a little bit of everything else.
That’s America, too.
In traveling and living abroad for the Monitor, I have found it impossible not to conclude that humans can do remarkable things. In India, the citizens’ forbearance despite being the repeated target of terrorism is deeply admirable. Afghans’ hospitality to visitors who come in peace is humbling. And then there’s those Germans on the sidewalk.
What if you could collect all the best of every country, shake it up, and see what comes out? That, essentially, is the idea of America.
It is too easy to forget what an astonishing experiment America is. Certainly, it was an experiment when the Founders decided to take an unprecedented step on July 4, 1776, toward truly giving all citizens the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But it’s still an experiment now.
There is no country on earth that is simultaneously as big, as free, as diverse, as developed. The state historian of California once told me that lawmakers there are dealing with third-world problems and first-world expectations.
Through every generation, the United States has gotten successively bigger, more free, more diverse, more developed. It is a unique, real-time test of how much liberty, equality, and self-government the human race can manage. And how America has managed that test has mattered for the human race. The US president isn’t hailed as the “leader of the free world” just because of the nuclear briefcase.
America’s gift to the world is its glimpse of the best of the world. The barbecue sauce of American freedom came from a pinch of French enlightenment, a dash of German religious reformation, and a spoonful of British common law.
But this Fourth of July, America is again asking: Can it grow yet bigger, even more free, diverse, and prosperous? That history is ours to write.