What it Means to Be an American

What it Means to Be an American
Rick Olson
November 11, 2019

The United States of America is an exceptional country with ample opportunities for success. We are a nation of immigrants where people of different nations and faiths forged a common identity and made this country great. Ronald Reagan spoke of America as the city on a hill, a city “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace”.

My wife, Linda, and I toured New York City the Labor Day weekend before 9/11. We went to Ellis Island a small island in New York Harbor, through which over twelve million immigrants entered the United States from 1892 to 1954. We listened to tapes of narrators reading diaries of some of the immigrants, and what came through was that America was the land of hope.

All four of my grandparents immigrated from Finland to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from 1890 to 1910. They came with the hope that their children and grandchildren would have a better life here than where they came from. They were dirt poor but raised their children a bit better off than they were.

My dad died when I was two months old, leaving my mom to raise six kids on welfare. Her mantra was to “work hard and get an education”. All six of us received a college degree and lived mom’s dream. We have all done well. My wife grew up on a very small farm. We married 49 years ago, and despite ups and downs, we too have lived the American Dream – that you can start with nothing and become very financially secure – and to pass on that financial security to our children and grandchildren.

The United States is exceptional. Most countries are “nations” because of some common language, ethnicity, religion, etc. The United States spans all of those, but not because of those, but rather began as an idea - the idea that we could be a self-governing people, with checks and balances in our U.S. Constitution to prevent the concentration of power of kings. The Founding Fathers were very aware of the dangers of concentrations of power in either one individual or in the masses, understanding that a pure democracy can be as much a tyrant over minorities as a monarch. They founded a republic, a limited government with numerous checks and balances, further bolstered by the Bill of Rights, which guarantee both economic and individual liberty.

America is exceptional in creating the opportunity for people to live the American Dream. Free market economics created a robust economy that creates lots of jobs, taking advantage of our abundant resources. Our U.S. Constitution guarantees our individual liberties, including the right to own property and to benefit from the sweat of our brow.

Between 1880 and 1914, over 20 million immigrants came to the United States, mostly from Europe, at a time when the United States had 75 million residents. Most had a great desire to assimilate – to become truly American. My parents’ generation would be punished if they spoke Finnish in school.
They came for the individual liberties, equal opportunity, and the ability to create their own future, for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. Those millions have lived their American Dream. Of course, some have done better than others, but that is to be expected when one gets rewarded in direct proportion to the amount of service you provide to others.

Now, the United States is not perfect. When our nation was founded, slavery existed. Racism continues to some extent to this day. Dissidents even today decry “white privilege”, that whites have an easier time to succeed than others. This is to some extent surely true, but is no excuse for some to consider themselves “victims” and to wallow in their victimhood.

It wasn’t easy for me growing up poor and fatherless, but through lots of education and hard work, we made it. According to the Brookings Institute, only about 2 percent of adults are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class if they followed these three simple rules: at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children. That’s not a very high bar to get over.

“Today, more than 40 percent of American children, including more than 70 percent of black children and 50 percent of Hispanic children, are born outside marriage. This unprecedented rate of nonmarital births, combined with the nation’s high divorce rate, means that around half of children will spend part of their childhood—and for a considerable number of these all of their childhood — in a single-parent family.”

Graduating from high school, marriage, children and divorce are factors within one’s ability to control. We need people to be more accountable for their own results. Whether or not you achieve your American Dream is largely up to you.

Now, I will admit, that I have been lucky.
·         I have been lucky in having a mom who believed in hard work and education.
·         I have been lucky in having a brother 10 years older than me who taught me a good work ethic.
·         I have been lucky to grow up at a time when college education was much more affordable than it is today.
·         I have been lucky to have been relatively healthy.
·         And I have been lucky to have married an intelligent woman who herself has gotten lots of education and worked hard and has put up with me for 49 years.

But it has not been all luck. I have had ample opportunity to walk my talk, that “a measure of a man is what he does when things go wrong” as a study of my resume would show. My brother-in-law say my resume looks like I can’t hold a job.

I have had the opportunity to travel a lot. My brother-in-law also says, “If you just paid your bills, you wouldn’t have to move so often’” I have been to all 50 states and to 40 countries, including 14 just this year. Every time I return home I think, “Boy, am I lucky to live here – in the United States and now in Minnesota.” When I have seen how people in other countries live, we are so fortunate.

In the past few years, our country’s reputation around the world has become a bit tarnished as we have become excessively polarized. But, I have faith in this country to pull itself together to address the serious issues of our times: the national debt, social security, rising health care costs, changing climate, immigration policy, trade policy, and national defense and privacy threatened by hacking and big data, just to name a few.

The United States is not perfect, and while loving our country and reveling in its greatness, we must also seek to keep improving it. We can be patriotic while pointing out our flaws, seeking solutions to our problems, and bringing us closer together as a country, rather than tearing us apart into warring tribes. We shouldn’t need another 9/11 or natural disasters to bring out the good in us as neighbors. We shouldn’t need a war to bring us together, as World War II did for many immigrants and children of immigrants.

Our country has thrived through the years after 1776, despite many trials and tribulations. We have not always done the right thing, but people around the world still think of the United States as “the shining city on the hill”.

To attempt to make and keep this country great is not easy. It requires a love of country. More than anything, it requires a degree of optimism in the face of ceaseless change. It takes courage.

Once upon a time in a far-off land, there lived a Wise Old Man.  People would gather around him in the town square to ask him questions, to learn from his wisdom.

The Prince of the land grew jealous of the Wise Old Man's popularity.  One day he told his aide that he had come up with a plan to discredit the Wise Old Man. The Prince would go down to the town square holding a bird in his enclosed hand.  He would ask the Wise Old Man whether what he held in his hand was alive or dead.  If the Wise Old Man said it was alive, the Prince would crush it and let it fall to the ground.  If the Wise Old Man said that it was dead, the Prince would release it into the air to fly away.  Either way, the Wise Old Man would be discredited.

The next day, the Prince went to the town square and amidst the crowd asked the Wise Old Man, "That which I hold in my hand, is it alive or is it dead?"  After pondering the question a moment, the Wise Old Man replied, "What you hold in your hand is what you make it."

What we in the United States hold in our hands is our future.  It will be what we make it.  I am optimistic we will succeed.

Paid for by (even if free) Rick Olson for Congress Committee, P.O. Box 1079, Prior Lake, MN 55372


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