In 1976, only one-third of us approved of interracial marriages, for Christ’s sake, and just 43 percent believed that gay and lesbian sex should be legal. Transgender was mostly the stuff of sitcoms.

Not anymore. The world is in many ways a shambles. The new century was ushered in with a slaughter of innocents that have mostly escaped art’s ability to deal with them and legitimated new horrors, including some committed by the U.S. itself. The economy, we hear, is on a perpetual skid, with robots replacing even Mexicans when it comes to jobs in the good old U.S. of A. China’s economy is bigger than America’s and Putin can knock over Obama with his breath. The middle class is shrinking faster than privacy, and on and on. But in such a mess there remain these bizarre and wonderful loopholes where anything can happen, where people can become exactly what they want to be.

“What is an American?” asked Jean Crevecouer in 1782, near the very start of the United States experiment in self-governance. The French immigrant noted that his adoptive country was a mixing chamber of all classes and nationalities, a place where old world prejudices came to die and be reborn as endless possibilities. “The American is a new man,” he concluded, getting it only partly right–and setting the bar far too low for what we might become.