The Birthing Day
I remember being born, Adam said to me at age 4.

So do I, I replied.

Sometimes I wonder if we as a young nation remember our birthing. There was Alexander Hamilton, who thought that the rich made better decisions and better leaders. One great error is that we suppose mankind more honest than they are, he said. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, thought that the best leaders came from those who would most be affected by the policies of government. I have such reliance on the good sense of the body of the people and the honesty of their leaders that I am not afraid of their letting things go wrong to any length in any cause, he retorted. Jefferson commented on their relationship: Hamilton and I were daily two fighting cocks.

They may have fought, but they found common ground in the radical idea that governments and those governed operate under natural laws which even kings and royalty must obey. That our definition of freedom is based on the Rule of Law, and that as a nation we are bound together by respect for each other.

Roughly 200 years later, on December 22, 2001, a young British citizen flying on American Airlines from Paris to Miami was subdued by flight attendants and passengers after they saw a wire protruding from his shoe. The wire turned out to be an explosive device which he was trying to ignite. Judge William Young sentenced Reid to life imprisonment. Following are a few of Judge Young's comments. His words are worth remembering:

It seems to me you hate the one thing that is most precious. You hate our freedom. Our individual freedom. Our individual freedom to live as we choose, to come and go as we choose, to believe or not believe as we individually choose.

Here, in this society, the very winds carry freedom. They carry it everywhere from sea to shining sea. It is because we prize individual freedom so much that you are here in this beautiful courtroom. So that everyone can see, truly see, that justice is administered fairly, individually, and discretely.

It is for freedom's sake that your lawyers are striving so vigorously on your behalf and have filed appeals, will go on in their representation of you before other judges. We care about it. Because we all know that the way we treat you, Mr. Reid, is the measure of our own liberties. Make no mistake though. It is yet true that we will bear any burden, pay any price, to preserve our freedoms.

We are not always as noble as Judge Reid implies. We are more like the fighting cocks of Jefferson's words. We stumble, we fail. We too often cheat and more often bully. Sometimes we seem to have lost our national narrative and replaced it with hatreds and bigotries, with self-interests and contempt for law. Sometimes our institutions seem to have lost any sobriety, our corporations too much like toxic entities that smother individual responsibility. As the advertisement for the 1969 movie "Easy Rider" stated, A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere. If he finds it in Silicon Valley today, it may be run by a rambunctious juvenile who apparently used to show up for work after noon in his pajamas and managed to insult nearly every business leader he came in contact with. That juvenile now runs one of the largest Internet companies in the world, threatening the dominance of even Google, and has billions he can tuck into his pajamas every night.

David Brooks speaks of the ability to blend distinct entities, like the little four-year-old boy who asserted that he was a tiger and had been born on the sun, rather than a little boy born in an obstetrics facility. Brooks compares the little boy's ability to combine the two existences into one "in the same sort of way that Picasso, at the height of his creative powers, could combine the concept 'Western portraiture' with the concept 'African masks'", (or the way in which African tribal dancers could move their shoulders to one rhythm, their hips to another, and their feet to yet another. Try it some time.)

Brooks goes on to quote the words of a neuroscientist he had recently listened to. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river.

Somehow, from that vast river, we know what being an American means. We are the daughters and sons of liberty, and we are proud of it. At some level we care, we reach out to one another, we respect our common understandings. This in spite of Frank Rich's disillusioned comment about the world portrayed in the current movie "Social Network": In "Social Network" the landscape is Cambridge, Mass., but we might as well be in the pre-civilized Wild West. Instead of thieves bearing guns, we have thieves bearing depositions. Instead of actual assassinations, we have character assassinations by blog post. In place of an honorable social code, we have a social network presided over by a post-adolescent billionaire whose business card reads "I'm CEO...Bitch!"

And yet, for a moment or two, maybe we can tone down the vitriol, soften the differences, and remember the birth of a nation that has added so much to the human story. Adam remembers being born. Maybe America can also.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2011

Viewers may want to read "Social Animal" by David Brooks in the January 17 issue of the New Yorker magazine. The "Easy Rider" quote was revived in Frank Rich's recent New York Times column, "The One-Eyed Man is King".