Andrew Sullivan. Photo by Trey Ratcliff (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The land of the free, I began to understand, was also the world leader in imprisonment, just as the first country to embed inalienable human freedom in its Constitution was also founded on the brutal enslavement of an entire race.

America was, I realized, an idea, but it was also, in many ways, a contradiction that was somehow compelled to try to resolve itself again and again. This was a country of profound newness, and yet it has repeatedly failed to replace the dollar bill with a coin. It was a place of staggering wealth, yet it contained scenes of public destitution and poverty and decrepitude I’d never seen in Europe. It pioneered space travel, but its trains seemed relics of the early-20th century. It was a country made possible by the automobile, yet it could barely tax gas. In the cradle of modernity, it was still common to hear the phrases “Yes, sir!” or “Yes, ma’am!” — which sound, to a modern Brit, like something from the 19th century. It had a Congress, but no one seemed actually to debate there. It had a capital city, but its inhabitants had no voting power in Congress. Its founding, murderous racism — encoded in its very DNA — still segregated and marginalized so many, but it had also paradoxically created some of the most sublime moral movements in human history.

Conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan recently became a United States citizen. In New York magazine, Sullivan reflects on how he learned to embrace the U.S.’s flaws and virtues as he watched the country go through social and political shifts over the last three decades.

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