My Search for America
Last week, I set out on a road trip across the country. There are two reasons—or classes of reasons—why I’m going.
The first one is practical. The pandemic of the last two years, while not completely over, is subsiding. I’m single, vaccinated and boosted, able to work remotely, and I can afford the trip. I don’t expect all of these things to be true forever—this is a unique moment in my life—so now is the time to go, if ever.
The second reason I’m going is more philosophical. Basically, before I delve into the details, what I want to say is this: I’m American; I feel American in a certain patriotic kind of way, but I don’t feel that I know my country well enough. America is now in a certain crisis, which I'll elaborate below, and I don’t know enough about why. I want to understand what my country is, why this crisis is happening, and if anything can be done about it.
The sources of this patriotism that I feel come, in part, from my family history, where both the early settler story and the recent immigrant story are represented. I usually find it insufferable when people talk about their ancestors or their family histories because I don’t think that such things have any bearing on one’s moral worth or value as a person. Yet such stories do inform one’s sense of self. And, in my case, they are one of the sources of the patriotism that I feel that is partially motivating me to go on this trip, which is why I bring them up.
On my father’s side of the family, my ancestor Alexander Richey, after whom I’m named, immigrated from Ireland in 1727, landing in Delaware. Both he and his son fought in the Revolutionary War and played a part, albeit small, in the story of the country’s founding. On my mother’s side, my grandfather immigrated from the former Czechoslovakia in the 1940s as a political refugee. His activities as a student had made him a wanted man as the Iron Curtain was coming down over eastern Europe and so he fled for his life and was smuggled out while being pursued by police from his home of Bratislava. As a boy, he told his story to me and the rest of my family at dinner one night and I remember how he wept at the table when he talked about seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time and what it meant to him. My grandfather was an immigrant; he spoke with a thick accent; and he was as patriotic as anyone I’ve met.
In addition to these family stories, there are intellectual reasons why I feel a certain patriotic attachment. Essentially, I believe in the American project. I believe in the ideal of a country to which anyone can come and build a life for herself, regardless of where she is from or whom her parents are or were. I believe in the ideal that the historian Jill Lepore puts this way in her short book This America:
A nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and offering asylum to anyone suffering from persecution is a beacon to the world. This is America at its best: a nation that welcomes dissent, protects free speech, nurtures invention, and makes possible almost unbelievable growth and prosperity.1
It hardly needs pointing out that an honest recounting of America’s past shows that it has not achieved these ideals. Moreover, in this historical moment, there is nothing even close to agreement on the question of whether this is a good country or a bad one—or even whether these American ideals are worthwhile or not. Yet I come down in favor of these ideals—and I hope to have time, at some point, to explain why more fully. I remain committed to them and to the mission of doing my part, however small, to reach them.
This patriotism that I’ve described gives me a reason to want to understand my country better. My experience of America has been located primarily in New York and Seattle and, while my experience in and around these cities is uniquely American, it is ignorant of the heartland. The author John Steinbeck describes a similar feeling precipitating his own road trip of 1960 in his book Travels with Charley in Search of America.
I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country.2
So, like Steinbeck, I’m setting out on my own little search for America, with the hope of coming to know it a bit better.
The current crisis of America, which adds a touch of urgency to my trip, is large and amorphous. It’s hard to pin down. But almost everyone I’ve talked to, of all variety of identity and political persuasion, seems to have an intuitive grasp of it. Everyone seems to agree that something is deeply wrong with America in this historical moment. Facts and figures can be used to show certain aspects of the crisis; many of them are by now familiar—the mortality rate, even before the pandemic started, had begun trending upward3; wealth and income inequality is approaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age4; there are repeated murders of unarmed Black men by police5; increasing numbers of mass shootings6; increasing homelessness7, loneliness and isolation8—the list goes on and on. What underlies all of these things can, I think, be thought of as a kind of spiritual crisis unfolding here in America, a worldweariness, a crisis of meaning, of morality, of identity, and of leadership.
I’m just a guy on a road trip. I’m not going to pretend to have the answers. But I hope, over the next two months, to get a better handle on what’s going on in America and, eventually, to share what I find, if I’m lucky enough to find anything worth sharing.
I should also add that there is a third reason I’m going, one less lofty than the philosophical reason I’ve been discussing. It’s that it’s just going to be fun. I’m going to see old friends, make new friends, eat good food, drink lots of American booze and beer, see some of the best national parks, and see many towns and cities too—it’s going to be awesome and I am excited for the adventure.
- Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 45.
- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2017), 1.
- Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
- Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge Massachusetts, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017).
- “Fatal Force: Police Shootings Database,” The Washington Post (WP Company, January 22, 2020), Link.
- “Mass Shootings in America,” Everytown Research & Policy, March 4, 2022, Link.
- “State of Homelessness: 2021 Edition,” National Alliance to End Homelessness, August 16, 2021, Link.
- John Leland, “How Loneliness Is Damaging Our Health,” The New York Times (The New York Times, April 20, 2022), Link.