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NEW YORK - The newly redesigned American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a welcome respite from national politics. In these galleries, a visitor won't find political forces trying to divide us by race, religion, geography or education.

What a visitor will find is a celebration of what it means to be Americans. Together, these iconic works of art emerge as a panorama of history and geography, of ambition and social change.

Begin with the familiar portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and by Charles Willson Peale. They were early entries into the iconography of America. We have known these images all of our lives.

Move on to Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's epic 1851 re-creation of Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776. The painting is huge, covering the entire wall of one gallery.

In these galleries, there are formal portraits and mythic landscapes, scenes from family and community life, works about exploration and changing manners, works about war and social conflict. And so much more.

Before these famous and not-so-famous art works, schoolchildren of various sizes and colors gathered to hear teachers explain each work's place in the sweep of American history.

And I thought about how much Americans have to celebrate. For all our imperfections, we live in a country constructed from optimism and courage, sustained by perseverance and united (we trust) by a shared vision of the future.

Yet we are burdened by national politicians eager to divide us — eager to gain advantage by inciting people in one part of the country to dislike and distrust people who live in another part of the country.

The new HBO movie "Game Change" reminds us that it was the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin who identified "the real Americans . . . the people who live in the pro-America areas of this great country."

If you live in Mississippi or Alabama, Oklahoma or North Dakota, you're a real American in Palin's world.

But if you live in California or Illinois, New York or Massachusetts, well, we know your kind. You're some sort of pointy-headed, latt?sipping elitist. You don't go to church, serve in the military, coach Little League, volunteer at the neighborhood school, salute the flag or do any of the things that real Americans do.

Of course, you do all these things, but some want to gain advantage by pretending that you don't.

We are left to ask: Who deputized Sarah Palin (or Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich) to decide who is a real American and who isn't? And how do they propose to govern all 50 states after telling people in certain states that they're just not as American as some of the others?

Looking to mine this same vein of prejudice, Santorum recently said President Barack Obama was a "snob" for encouraging kids to go to college. All of a sudden, it's elitist to get an education.

How weird is that? Not everyone should go to college, but it is not arguable that most will find greater success with a college degree. The country will be more successful, too. Right now, too few of our young people are going to college and getting the educations they need to prosper in a changing world.

Here in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is room for all of us — east, west, north and south.

Winslow Homer's paintings provide scenes from the Civil War. Albert Bierstadt's majestic paintings of the Rockies and of Yosemite Valley advance what became the great westward movement. Paintings by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell and sculptures by Remington and James Earle Fraser capture what life was like for the first western settlers.

Contemplating the American story and then thinking about contemporary politics becomes a way to travel from the sublime to the cynical in record time.

I wondered if certain politicians would come and explain to these New York schoolkids why they aren't real Americans. Or if those same politicians would travel a few dozen blocks to the south and tell the folks visiting the 9/11 Memorial that they don't measure up. Thousands of people quietly line up every day to read the names inscribed in bronze around the two pools that form this stunning memorial.

Divisions in American politics are nothing new. But this kind of politics seems especially unhelpful — a polite word — right now. Our country faces many problems, including a Congress that struggles to place country before partisanship.

A visit to the American Wing provides an opportunity to re-connect to a shared legacy. If we mean to nurture that legacy, we have work to do — which means we don't have time for all this other stuff.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.