Come on board the American time machine!

On Independence Day 2012, many Americans are without power–electrical power, that is. A heavy storm a few days earlier knocked down electricity lines all along the East coast and left millions of households without air conditioning in the sweltering heat. It is like a journey in a time machine back to the days of George Washington. Only that the founding father’s household was better prepared: Ice blocks from the Potomac were hauled up to his estate in Mount Vernon in the winter and stored underground so they could be used to make ice-cream in the summer.

Those were the days – and at the 4th of July celebration at Mount Vernon there are quite a few who seem as tough they were yearning to get into a time machine. Maybe they would not travel all the way back to Washington’s days without AC, but to a golden age when America had more power – the power to shape the entire world with its ideas. At a naturalization ceremony for 100 new American citizens, the speaker chokes up when she calls upon her audience to “honor the father of our country for all that he did to establish the U.S. as the most admired and successful country in the world”. As the crowd erupts in applause, she adds with a wistful sob: “If you can’t celebrate today, when can you?”

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This is a fair question. The 100 new Americans from 45 countries swear by oath that they will “abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and hear very mixed messages on their celebratory day. Lined up in rows of chairs on the Bowling Green in front of George Washington’s mansion, they use the programs to shield their heads from a relentless noon sun as they listen to the next speaker, the White House’s Director for Domestic Policy, Cecilia Muñoz, express doubts that have become so typical in this nation that mixes overflowing national pride with insecurity about the road ahead.

“You could not have become citizens at a more pivotal moment in our history,” says the representative of the Obama administration. “Today our economy is recovering but not yet recovered. Gridlock in Washington is holding us back from many common sense solutions to our nation’s great challenges. And America’s basic promise, the promise that made all our stories possible, is at stake.”

Good luck to you, new Americans! According to Gallup polls, almost three quarters of your fellow countrymen and women believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. In this tough environment it will be your job, according to Ms. Muñoz, “to ensure that this is not the end of our story, but the beginning of a new chapter”.

At least the last speaker lets the ceremony end on a note of optimism. General George Washington has risen from the dead in the body of the actor Dean Melissa and reminds his audience of the days when American was truly unique in the world. “When we declared our American independence and when we ratified our constitution, we were the only nation on the planet, the only country on earth not under the control of men and women of absolute power,” he solemnly declares. “We alone for the first time in history raised up a nation based on ideas, a nation of laws.”

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This is all true and reason to be proud. But if you yearn for a day when America had no competition on all these fields, you have to travel back in a time machine – to a time when Americans were charged by powerful ideas, but no electrical power.

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