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Our American Pasts

I’m spending my summer in Austin, Texas, doing an internship. For the most part it has been a restful and rewarding experience, but like any other experience, it’s been lonely and frustrating at times. I’ve had The Menzingers’ world-weary but determined On the Impossible Past on repeat because I can relate with the Pennsylvania punk band’s seething frustration when appropriate. Their frustrations originally differed from mine: they’re banging their heads against regrets, the past, and what it means to be American. But as I listened to the album over and over, I found myself right there in the boat with them: How do we get over our pasts? And why are our feelings about America such a part of that process?

To the Menzingers, being American is a conflicted thing. Opener “Good Things” states their difficulties right up front:

“I’ve been closing my eyes to find
Why all good things should fall apart
Like when we would take rides in your American muscle car
I felt American for once in my life
I never felt it again”

Being American is tied up in the past, the present, and the future. The car, the experience of unbounded freedom, the slow fade-in of priorities and responsibilities; these are part of growing up, and they’re part of growing up American. Teenagerdom is awesome, and not every country’s 17-year-olds get to have it. They don’t get to ride around in cars and have petty emotional troubles and make crazy memories. When I was 17, I didn’t think about that; mine was the only reality I knew. America was the only reality I even knew of. I knew that other places were exactly like mine, because mine was the only thing I could conceive.

And that changes, the older you get. “I’ve cursed my lonely memory/with picture-perfect imagery/Maybe I’m not dying/I’m just living in decaying cities,” one of the Menzingers’ two vocalists sings in “The Obituaries.” The realization that things outside of me mattered was one of a few stark realizations I’ve had that changed everything. Looking back at the blissfully ignorant past can be a cause for shame, or wishing you knew then what you know now. And at its extremes, it can cause people to renounce “all that.” As the band proclaims in “Mexican Guitars,”

“I did what I did to get away from this
Cause everything that’s happened has left me a total wreck
And everything that I do now is meaningless
So I’m off to wander around the world for a little bit”

Since Americanism is inextricably tied up in the past, it’s inseparable from regrets. In trying to forget the regrets, it’s easy to want to renounce the youthful complicit Americanism. Maybe we could move on to a more enlightened, post-Americanized self to match a post-regrets self? (The fact that neither thing exists does not mean they are not desirable ideas.) “Gates” ties the thoughts together tighter, vocally pointing out a-MER-i-can and linking the experience of an American summer to a relationship gone wrong. Here’s the chorus: “I’m going up to your gates today/to throw my lonely soul away/I don’t need it/You can take it back.”

But as of this writing, the Menzingers are preparing for an American tour. They’re still from Scranton, PA, which now has an iconic American-ness as the location of The Office. If they go to another country, they will be noted as Americans. And no matter how conflicted our opinions are on our unasked-for economic privilege and (occasionally) undesirable cultural forebears, the tag will stick with all of us who were born or nationalized in America. We have to decide what to do with it.

Claiming American-ness, as Brett McCracken notes, “can seem gauche and vulgar” because of the rah-rah jingoism that has long been a part of American-ness. But it’s not all there is about being American. Apple pie and baseball are loved by coarse boors, the the high cultured and everyone in between. No, there is a place for us to come to terms with all that American-ness has tied up in it.

There is a meaning of America that sits outside of our political confines. It is a meaning that has an analogue in any and every country’s citizens, regardless of politics: “being American” forces us to deal with what it means to be a part of things. We are, simply, a part of things that we didn’t ask to be a part of. Do we reject the mantle? Do we change the narrative? Do we accept the idea wholesale, as it was given to us? All these things should matter to people of every country. They should matter to Americans. They matter to me. And July 4 is an appropriate time for Americans to think about these things.

In the novel Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson and and Robert Jordan, the character Perrin is faced with a similar problem. He has been thrust into leadership, and he’s spent the better part of six books rejecting that he is a leader or waffling. But a point comes where he must make a decision. His thought process at the critical junction ends up being simple: “He hadn’t asked to become a leader, but did that absolve him of the responsibility? People needed him.” And that’s it. After all the run-up, all the wondering and wandering, the choice is there for him: Am I absolved? He decides no, and goes on to lead. (And do awesome things.)

We did not ask for our American-ness, but we are stuck with its burden until we claim it or reject it. If we claim it, it can be a source of joy and pride as well as challenge–America is not without problems, and claiming American-ness doesn’t absolve you from those. (Rather, it gives you the responsibility to deal with them, in whatever station you interact with them.) Rejecting the past just means we force it away when it appears, and it will appear; rejection of the past is not an erasure of the past. The Menzingers’ title track is a slowed-down, mournful, 93-second continuation of “Good Things,” where they drunkenly crash the car into a ditch on a wintry night. “We always dreamt of having nice things,” the vocalist says to close the song, pained. Until the mind-wiping process from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds becomes real, we have to figure out our pasts and all the Americanness that goes with it at some point.

And that’s how I found myself in league with The Menzingers and the thoughts espoused on their incredible album; as I am not making too many new memories in this temporary city, I have thought a great deal about old memories and future plans. I remember times where I didn’t want to be American–but what I really meant was that I didn’t want to be dominated by materialism, which I saw as an evil and inextricable from American-ness. I see a future where I might not live in America, due to the whims of the job market. These are parts of my personality that can’t have their relationship with American-ness extracted. The Menzingers and I can’t pull apart our pasts, presents and futures from America, because this is the culture that made us. We didn’t ask to be born here, but we were; we wouldn’t have the pasts we have if we were born elsewhere.

So, on July 4, what is my stance toward America? I love it. I love it because I am who I am for growing up here. I love the life I have, and that’s due to the un-asked for opportunities I have. Do I see a bigger world now than I did when I was 17? Yes, and it’s important. I don’t see just America, and I don’t see just its good parts. I don’t take my opportunities for granted, and I want to help others have the opportunities I have. There is no need to reject the American-ness that I didn’t ask for, when it can be used for good.

I was an American, and am an American, and will be an American, because its cultural pull shaped my past and will shape my future. I embrace that. Happy Independence Day.