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A nation of, by, and for builders
...if we can keep it
As I reflect on what Independence Day means to me, an emotionally fraught ticker tape of memories and associations passes through my mind.
Particularly this year, which marks the 30th anniversary of my life in the USA, I think back to my first days as an American: to my first sighting of Lady Liberty at age 7, as we flew into JFK from Odessa, Ukraine (by way of Moscow) and I proudly waved “hello” to her, proclaiming the one phrase I knew how to say in English at that time (“My name is Gena!”); to the swirly, rainbow-colored Mickey Mouse lollipop—the largest, fanciest piece of candy I’d ever seen up to that moment—which I prevailed upon my parents to buy for me at the airport, and which became the first in a seemingly endless torrent of unimaginable luxuries of the free world, even as my dad (an engineer by background) went to work as a pizza delivery guy so we could afford garage sale clothes. Everything seemed somehow brighter in the USA, both literally (perhaps because electricity was not so scarce a commodity here as it had been in Ukraine) and figuratively.
And I think back to the smiling teachers and ESL guides who somehow conveyed, by their smiling encouragement, that they thought I could learn anything and be anything I damn well pleased; this in contrast to my former-USSR elementary teacher’s incessant message that I was too lazy and scatterbrained to amount to much of anything.
Then again, I think back to the years of bullying I endured from entitled native-born kids who took every opportunity to mock my frizzy hair, my mismatched clothes, and my bookish eccentricity.
And I think back to 9/11, and the bumbling response by public figures who couldn’t even begin to name or defend the essence of what had been attacked on 9/11—or why it was 2 of New York City’s tallest skyscrapers that the terrorists had chosen to destroy. The brightness seemed to dim a little after that day.
On the other hand, I think back to the unmitigated outpourings of love for figures like Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan, and for the distinctly American legacies of excellence and enterprise they had built. And I remember my first experience of seeing Hamilton on Broadway, and the hot tears that streamed down my face as my immigrant soul bathed in lines like “I am just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry…,” “History is happening in Manhattan… the greatest city in the world…,” “I’m looking for a mind at work…”
And I think back to one of the best days of my life, built around everyone and everything I love:
Then again, I think back to the rise of Trump and his “post-truth” legacy, to COVID, to George Floyd, to the tribal bickering to which the country’s political scene has precipitously descended.
On the other hand, I think of all the scrappy, hungry, enterprising founders—an outsize number of whom are immigrants—and the many others who remain focused on doing what the nation’s Founders fought to give them the freedom to focus on: building. I think of Marc Andreesen’s viral essay “It’s time to build,” which inspired the name of this Substack, in which he writes:
“Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.”
The basic premise of my Substack is that builders themselves need to be built, or more precisely, they need to build themselves; and to do that, they need to understand and internalize the mindset of a builder. That mindset, I submit, was what distinguished the nation’s most influential founders, like Ben Franklin and George Washington, though they never fully articulated or defended it themselves. And it urgently needs articulating and defending if we’re to rekindle what was best in their legacy, rather than watch its last embers burn out.
That’s what this holiday is fundamentally about for me: it’s a reminder that the nation I fell in love with was once—and could yet become again—a nation of builders, and that that’s an ever-present part of what I’m fighting for.
Happy Independence Day, dear builders. Let’s not let it go.
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