"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?" Jack Kerouac asked in On the Road That was the Fifties. That shiny car is pretty beat up these days. It's supposed to get 100 miles to the gallon, so long as the temperature never drops below 75 and the gasoline has additives like the joy of children and the smiles of unicorns. And you can't buy the car because you can't get approved for that loan. Instead you ride a bicycle, pedaling furiously, dodging trucks delivering goods from factories in Shanghai, on your way to a job that may not last.
"Whither goest thou, America," the pollsters and pundits asked the country four years ago. And the answer was a superwide highway lined with shovel-ready jobs and a new era in history. We drove on that highway and went as fast as we could, and still we could not escape the blight in every direction. The faster we drove, the worse it got. The gasoline cost a fortune and there were no jobs to be found to pay for it.
As night gave way not to morning but a sullen overclouded dusk, we realized that we had taken the wrong road. We were no longer in America anymore. Maybe we were in Mexico or Pakistan. It was hard to say where exactly the dark highway had taken us, but the place we were at now was not the place we wanted to be.
Down the road was a strange place rife with political corruption, everyone had a hand out for a bribe and there was no longer a highway, just a million dirt roads segregated by race and gender, by class and creed, where all the drivers are angry all the time and the traffic cops are there to spread the misery in equal proportion. It might be Russia or Ecuador, it might be anywhere, but it's not America.
Here we are now in our car in the night. Outside the vista is strange. There are shootings and mosques, and everyone around us is talking about racism or abortion, about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, about carbon credits and iftar dinners, about a great struggle between "us" and "them" and we realize that we are the "them". On this dark road, we are the enemy of a country that no longer looks like America anymore. And the ones talking, they're the only ones who have jobs, and their job is denouncing us.
What most people, regardless of political affiliation, really want to do is go home to a country that works. No matter what we are told, most of us still have a faint memory of a home lost in time. A place where there were jobs and shiny cars and affordable meals. A place where there didn't have to be a cop on every block or a bureaucrat behind every desk. A place where everyone didn't spend all their time accusing everyone else of taking more than their fair share. We used to call that place, America.
It's dark out, and finding the way back to America isn't easy. Somewhere along the way we forgot how to read maps or we were taught to read them the wrong way. When we look at a map, we no longer see directions, we see whom to blame because the directions aren't clearer. We don't know what a mile is, but we know that our ancestors probably stole it from somebody or manufactured it using pollutants and racism. We don't even know what America is anymore, so how can we get there?
Somewhere along the road, we are coming to realize that America is not just a place, it's also an identity. To get there, we cannot simply drive until we reach the border, because borders are fluid things. What was once Mexico became Texas. What is now Texas is becoming Mexico. The borders of nations are legal entities but they are only roads. It is where we go along those roads that matters.
This dark road we are on now is what happens when the people who have been trying to run our lives for the last hundred years finally got their way. That darkness is there because they tore up the flag, burned the Constitution and put themselves in charge of everything. This is what they have been trying to do for over a hundred years. Now they have finally done it. They have put out the lights and left us in darkness and now they stride out grinning on an empty stage, beckoning us further and deeper into the darkness until there is no way out.
The place they want to take us has no shiny cars, it has no cars at all unless they are being driven by government types. It has no hope or change, no freedom, no dreams and no fathers. In that darkness it takes a village to badly raise a broken child and five hours of standing on line to get Permit A to get Permit B to do Item C and then spend tomorrow waiting on line for Permit D.
The men and women waiting in that darkness have blank faces and big rule books. They have a law for everything, and you already broke a dozen of them just by being born. They tell you that you can park your car here by the side of the collapsed building. "There's no more road here," they say, "and no gas to put in it. This is the dead end, where all roads end."
They talk about the end of days when melting icebergs will flood the earth. They mutter about the darkness in every heart that only government supervision can restrain. They put the chains on your hands and tell you that it's for your own good. Only when everything is completely under their control, when nothing unpredictable can happen and their change has changed everything so thoroughly that no other change is possible, will they take them off. And by then you won't want them to. By then you wouldn't know what to do without chains and a shiny car that has nowhere to go because there are no more roads. Because there is nothing at all.
Sometimes you get the strong feeling that there's still a big bright road waiting for you. Down that road, the shiny cars flash by and there are diners where the burgers are good and cheap and the music never stops playing. Sometimes you can hear that music coming through the darkness, piercing the dissonant jangle of torment, the hysterical voices shrieking and mocking over the radio, distorted and digitzed into inhuman noises. Sometimes you can smell the burgers, the meat and ketchup, cutting through the soy and kelp. And you want to go there because it feels like America... but you don't know the way anymore.
There is a secret to finding the way. The place you are going is the place you want to be. Your journey is your identity. Your destination is who you are. To understand a president you do not need to know his biography or study his personality. All you have to do is look out the window and you will know who he is and you will know his supporters are. And then you have to ask yourself if you want to go where he is going. And you have to ask yourself where you want to go and, to do that, you have to ask yourself who you are.
America isn't a place, it's people. To find a place, we have to become it. Going there is becoming. Finding it is finding ourselves. We are the road and the car. America is us. It isn't a piece of paper, it's not a birthplace on a birth certificate, it's a birthright. It isn't about where you live, but about how you think. It is something that you either are or aren't. When you let people who aren't American run America, if you let them decide its future, then America ceases to be America. And all that remains is a dark road and a shiny car that has been declared illegal, because in the new America there are no longer cars or roads, just light rail and feet.
America is a place where a great many people got together and decided that it was time to run a country differently. Every other country had kings, it had elected officials. Every other country ran your life for you, here you would run your own life. And before you knew it the country had so many shiny cars that it was the envy of the world. And there were places to drive those shiny cars to because it was a big country full of great people who needed great big cars to traverse it all.
They are afraid, and you can see the fear in their eyes. You can see the panic as they sow fear and doubt, as they strive to divide us and lie to us, as they do their best to keep us from remembering that we have a choice-- and we did not choose this.
The question to ask is not, where are we going, but who we are. It is not a question of mere policy, but of identity. We are America. The road is our road and our children and grandchildren will travel on it. It is up to us to open the way for them. It is up to us to drive toward our future.