To be an American citizen is to participate in an ongoing process of creation. Generation by generation, our country is created and re-created by succeeding waves of immigrants and by those whose families have been here for decades and even millennia.
Yet today, our role as creators of America is getting lost. Our political leaders challenge us not to create a more perfect union but to go shopping. Instead of thinking of ourselves as active players in this great drama of America, we are more like cheerleaders who root for “good” and against “evil.”
This is a dangerous time for Americans to be passive. Since September 11, we have seen a massive erosion of civil liberties, shameless public giveaways to corporations, and a mind-boggling military build-up. Journalists are fired for writing columns critical of US actions. Professors who question US war policies are skewered by, among others, an association linked with both Lynne Cheney (wife of the vice president) and Joe Lieberman (our would-be vice president). Dissenting voices are excluded, ridiculed, and threatened. And all of these agendas—from endless war, to the use of secret military tribunals, to the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—are sold to the American people as national security measures, playing on our grief and fear following 9-11.
But there is something else at work, something that is missed by the mainstream media. The great losses and the displays of heroism on September 11 opened Americans to a level of reflection we haven't seen in decades. There is an outpouring of interest in Islam. People are joining conversation cafes and discussion groups. Our winter 2002 issue, Can Love Save the World , is in such high demand that we've done a second printing.
This is a moment when many are considering what it means to be an American. How might we leave our children a world plagued neither by Anthrax scares nor breast cancer epidemics? Might it be possible to break our addiction to petroleum and to a disproportionate share of the world's raw materials, and might we then be more likely to have peace and a healthy environment? How might we right past wrongs and assure that we are not contributing to future wrongs? What is it that makes America great?
This issue of YES! explores sources of strength, insight, and vision that can help us as we participate in this next phase of building America, not on a foundation of fear and military retaliation, but based on a greatness that transcends both. That greatness is rooted in our founders' insistence on the rights of each individual and the sanctity of democracy, even when they had opportunities to take more power for themselves (see Jacob Needleman's essay, page 12 ).
It's rooted in traditions European-Americans learned from native peoples, like the Iroquois, whose powerful and mostly peaceful democracy inspired both the framers of the Constitution (page 14) and the early suffragists (page 18).
It grows out of the courage of men and women who formed the Underground Railroad and took a stand for freedom during the civil rights movement, despite being at best unpopular and at worst subject to imprisonment or assassination (see my interview with Harry Belafonte, page 26 ).
And this greatness continues to be created today. The youth of Selma, Alabama, overcame centuries of fear and violence to elect the city's first black mayor. A congregation in Hawai'i acknowledged its part in overthrowing Hawai'i's queen 100 years earlier, offered an apology and made restitution (see page 33 ).
Some Americans are meeting the people of Iraq and Guatemala who are suffering as a result of US policies and finding ways to alleviate their suffering (see pages 22 and 40).
Homeless people in Portland, Oregon, are creating a village where residents find dignity and the chance for a new start (see page 43 ). Homeowners, who are turned off by oversized suburban “McMansions,” are creating a new kind of American dreamhouse—one of beauty, environmental harmony, and simplicity (see page 46). Thousands of people are working to achieve the kind of real security that Amory and Hunter Lovins propose—security built on diverse, decentralized, renewable energy resources (see page 50 ).
These are the stories of people who are creating America, not only to fulfill their own American dream but to fulfill the common dream of all peoples for a world in which each child can grow up in peace and dignity. It's a process that will take generations, but a process that promises joy (and hardship) for those involved and hope for our children's children.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder