America is not a nation founded on an idea. America is a nation founded on the idea that America is a nation founded on an idea.
A simpler way to say this: America is a nation founded on a prank.
A prank that went way, way too far.
More than two hundred years ago, a group of some of the richest, most powerful people gathered in Philadelphia to address a little spat over taxes that they were having with another, similar group of people with almost identical privileges. And in the course of these very human events, as this thoroughly unlikeable group was compiling a list of grievances, they happened to make some ridiculous claims: About how all men are created equal, and that they have rights - inalienable rights, mind you. And that states derive their power from citizens and not the other way around.
They didn't mean it. Not really. How could they - the kind of people they were - how could they have meant any of that?
Of course it was a joke. You can almost hear them snickering malevolently as they wrote those words. Would the Crown, would the English, would anyone at all actually be stupid enough to take them seriously?
The rest of American history is a story of that prank unfolding like an elaborate Andy Kaufman bit. No one in the audience believes what's happening, but the performers refuse to break character. And the only way to keep it going is to follow these stupid, ridiculous statements to their logical conclusion. All men are created equal? Yes. Even if they're our enemies? Our slaves? Our outsiders? What if they're women? What if they're the kind of people who've been denied respect by us? Denied rights for so long it seems like just to acknowledge the injustice would be cultural suicide?
Yes and yes. The humor comes from the performers stumbling around, trying to do the impossible and failing miserably, trying to hide their failings and failing at that, but never stopping until they've torn down everything on the stage. Everything they counted on. The basis for all their power and influence and comfort. The humor comes from the fact that anyone can use this formula to attack us... to demand their rights, to demand justice. The only proper response is to let them.
Here's Malcolm X in a 1964 speech, trying to get Americans to break character:
“Liberty or death” was what brought about the freedom of whites in this country from the English. They didn’t care about the odds... [T]hese 13 little, scrawny states, tired of taxation without representation, tired of being exploited and oppressed and degraded, told that big British Empire “Liberty or death.”
And here you have 22 million Afro-American black people today catching more hell than Patrick Henry ever saw. And I’m here to tell you, in case you don’t know it, that you got a new generation of black people in this country who don’t care anything whatsoever about odds.
See? The prank concocted by those slave-owners is so dangerous it could destroy everything they've built and put something in its place no one can predict. And many of us are determined to let it do just that as long as there are doubters in the audience.
Today, we don't celebrate our country. We celebrate the joke at the heart of it, which has always subverted everything people have tried to make of that country. And that prank, by its logic, comes to include people all over the world. People who like us, people who hate us, and everyone in between.
Someday, I think everyone will be in on the joke. And then it will come true.