THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

1. It’s really early on Thursday, July 7, 2016.

2. I can’t guarantee I’m awake. But this is going out at a time when my Twitter feed is quiet. I’ll talk about this time of day sometime soon.

3. There was a small surprise this Fourth of July holiday. It came from a guy named John Cena, who – and I had to look this up because I’d heard the name but had no idea what he did – is a pro wrestler.

Here’s how Cena surprised me, and lots of other folks: Over the holiday, he appeared in a 3-plus minute public service video. (You can watch it here) In it, he ruminates on the nature of patriotism. 

Instead of extolling the virtues of our military might, he discussed the virtues of our people. That, in fact, the reason to love America, his definition of patriotism, is the diversity of the nation.

Cena asks viewers to close their eyes and imagine a “typical American.” And then he debunks the stereotypical image with facts – a shocking thing to do in 2016.  

The fact that 51% of the nation is female. That there are 9 million LGBT Americans, more than the whole population of Virginia. That there are 3 million Muslims, three times the number of people who serve in the military.

He dishes out statistics like bodyslams, and with equal effectiveness. By the time the spot is over, he is showing you “typical Americans,” and they are all different from one another.

Patriotism isn’t pride in the country, it’s loving the country, he says. And loving the country means loving the people who live here – the implication being that if you don’t, you’re not really a patriot.

It is a powerful three minutes and 35 seconds.

My first reaction was to be skeptical. We’ve been conditioned that way in 2016. What is the point of this?

My second reaction was to think that this public service ad, almost by definition apolitical, is a profound political statement.

It’s basically telling the country to stop the bashing. That “real” Americans aren’t just white, male and Christian. It celebrates who we are, and what we’re supposed to stand for.

And don’t. Or at least not in Trump’s dystopia.

John Cena has delivered one of the few feelgood moments of 2016 so far. It’s as nice as it is unexpected.

4. It’s also not unique.

I was reminded of “The House I Live In,” a short film that came out just after World War II. (You can watch this here)

In it, a group of boys corners another kid in an alley outside a recording studio, taunting him. Frank Sinatra, who has just finished laying down a track for an LP, has just stepped outside for a smoke (this is 1945, and that was considered cool). He sees the kids and intervenes.

Turns out the guys are taunting the boy because he’s Jewish and he doesn’t “belong” in the neighborhood.

Sinatra calls the kids Nazis, because their actions are similar. The kids protest, because their fathers had just fought a war against the Nazis.

He points out how Jewish Americans helped win the war and donated blood that might have saved one of the kid’s dads.

Sinatra then sings a song called, of course, “The House I Live In,” that includes a line that indicates he loves other Americans regardless of race or creed.

This was powerful stuff for 1945. It won a special Academy Award the next year, and my mother says the film was required viewing when she was in junior high and high school.

Sinatra, who was still a rising star when the film was made, had a reputation of being for what we used to call “brotherhood.” He was a hero to African-American and Jewish groups for taking a stand against bigotry.

5. John Cena and Frank Sinatra are right, of course.

My grandparents came to this country from Italy. For a long time, they were treated with contempt as ignorant, dirty and criminal. There’s still a residue of the criminal stereotype whenever people talk about “mafias.”

My wife and her family emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s. She’s in the process of writing a book about her dad’s struggles in China during World War II and the revolution, and upon coming to America to support a large family.

I’m writing this in a park with people speaking in Spanish about 50 yards away. A little beyond them is a young man in a yarmulke. And not far away, there are women in hijabs who look to be spreading out an Eid al-Fitr picnic.

The diversity of this country is gorgeous. It makes it special. It makes this day in the park that much better.

It also seems to scare the hell out of people.

Mostly white people. I won’t say that it only scares people in the middle of the country, because there are too many TRUMP signs in yards around here.

They’re afraid that the country they’ve known is going away.

Because it is.

It’s expected that, by the middle of this century, unadulterated Caucasians will be a minority of Americans. Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans will form a minority majority.

It seems to scare people when they hear different languages, or see strange foods. Or when their neighbors don’t look like them.

That’s the power of the phrase “Make America Great Again.” It implies that Trump has the ability to bring back the 1950s before all those people got here. It’s reflected in the dopey things he says like how he’s going to force people to say “Merry Christmas” because wishing people a “Happy Holiday” means acknowledging the chances in our society.

But America isn’t great without its diversity. Collectively, we make this the United States. Out of many, one. E pluribus unum.

At least that’s what John Cena says. And I think, in this case, he’s even smarter than he is strong.

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