Sunday, July 4, 2004

Love it or leave it? I say fix it.

A shorter version was published in the Alton Telegraph--July 4, 2004

In a popular song, Lee Greenwood proclaims, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Surely if anyone disagrees, he is a misfit or a lunatic or worse, unpatriotic. But on this day of national self-congratulation, I’ll risk such labels by contemplating what once was an easy question for me.

Am I proud to be an American?

I am not asking whether I love America. That, indeed, is easy to answer. To love something means wanting it to prosper and grow, caring about it, and being concerned when it is not doing well. Love is unconditional. Pride, in contrast, is something we only have toward things of merit. Unlike love, which cannot be earned, pride must be. Love is about what you desire something to be, whereas pride is about what it already is. I still love my dog when he chews up my books, but I am not proud of him. In fact, we often love things and people in spite of being ashamed of them. I ask the pride question precisely because I care deeply about my country and want it to be great, an inspiration to its citizens and aliens alike.

I’m proud of my wife. I’m proud of my son. I’m proud of my church. I’m proud of the impact my teaching has on people’s lives. I’m even fairly proud of my cooking, most days. But am I proud of America? Interesting question. What are my alternatives?

Perhaps I could be embarrassed by America, like a 14 year-old boy whose mother kisses him as she drops him off for football practice. The other boys laugh, but secretly they all wished their mothers loved them so obscenely.

Perhaps I could be indifferent toward America, the way a cashier feels at McDonalds. He’s grateful to have a job and all, and the benefits there aren’t so bad, but maybe one day he’ll find something better.

Perhaps I could be ashamed of America, the way the employees at Enron felt about Ken Lay. Even though they didn’t do the crimes, they surely felt a certain collective guilt about the whole ugly fiasco.

So which one is it? For perspective, imagine a slightly different case. If I told you that my uncle is a priest, my sister is a 2nd grade teacher, and my cousin is a doctor who runs a clinic for poor people, you would probably say I should be proud of my family. But if I then told you that my other uncle is a convicted rapist, my aunt embezzled from her company, and my brother is a part-time pimp while he works on his career as a crack dealer, would you still say so? It seems odd to be proud of any group that includes a rapist, but isn’t it equally odd to eschew pride about a group that includes my cousin the doctor? If your son gets A’s in math and history, but fails science and English, are you proud of his grades?

Unfortunately, America is just like my hypothetical family, only multiplied a thousandfold. I love bragging about some parts of our nation, while others make me violently ill. What sort of person could possibly be proud of it all?

Consider gay marriage. Conservatives can’t be proud that it exists, and liberals can’t be happy that it’s so hated by the majority of people.

Then there’s Iraq. I’m proud we liberated millions of Iraqis, but a bit ashamed that it was self-interest and not humanitarianism which made us do so.

I’m proud of the America which says it believes in marriage, but ashamed of the fifty percent who then get divorces.

I’m glad women can vote and work if they want to, but I’m saddened that we objectify them in movies, magazines, and strip clubs.

I guess I’m proud that every American can go to high school, I just sort of wish this education produced people who didn’t have alcohol and methamphetamines at their social gatherings.

I’m proud of a country which allows so much leisure time, but I don’t think I’m proud that practicing carjacking and murder in a video game is considered a good use of that leisure.

I’m certainly not proud of America when Janet Jackson gets symbolically raped at halftime of the Superbowl, spiking TiVo usage like nothing since Britney Spears. But I am proud when thousands of people write complaint letters to the FCC, and media outlets all over the country tone it down at least until sweeps week.

As my list grows, I start fearing there are more negatives than positives. Our schools promote intolerance of the Bible. We play God by contracepting and then cement the role by aborting 1,400,000 babies a year. We watch “Who wants to be a gay temptation island bachelor?” And mockery seems to be the national language, as spoken by the gurus of modern communication: Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman.

But, just when I’ve embraced despair, I remember that people still try to cross the ocean from other countries on cardboard boxes just to come here and enjoy the freedom I was born with. I am allowed to write a critical column like this. My pantry is regularly full of food Rwandans would literally kill to have once a year. And I never have to wait in line twelve hours to buy a pair of socks.

Which America do I think about when I ask myself whether I am proud of it: the country which fights terrorism and hunts Osama bin Laden or the country which trained him in the first place? The country with more prosperity than anywhere else or the country which is so selfish that we have to resort to using the force of law to help the poor, treat the elderly, and educate children?

We give more than any other nation, and yet the average person gives less than five percent of his gross income. The Constitution is wonderful, I just wish the Supreme Court followed it. It’s great to be a Christian nation, but it’s unfortunate that less than ten percent of all Americans have even read the Bible. We all proclaim the Ten Commandments, but wouldn’t it be nice if people actually knew what they said.

We are despised by Muslims around the world because the American flag stands for pornography and blasphemy, and I must side with them on this one. But we are also hated by them because we treat women as equals, encourage intellectual diversity, and proclaim religious tolerance. On that score I’m with us.

Some will say this is the nature of a democracy. Nobody raves about the results, but no one is so dissatisfied that he starts cleaning his rifle either. They’ll say that democracy is like Goldilocks’s porridge, it’s neither too hot nor too cold. My problem is that, unfortunately, it’s also not “just right.” I’m worried that America is a country of which no one can be proud anymore except those who refuse to think about the rampant and endemic contradictions in “our” way of life.

So in the end, I suppose I stand firmly on the fence. Part of me is as ashamed of my country as I believe most Germans were ashamed of their own in 1940, but another part of me is proud that, for all its flaws, America remains the best country in the world.

Like Reagan, I still believe in that shining city on a hill, it’s just sometimes hard to see that light from the city we inhabit right now. So, I guess I’ll say what everyone else says, plus a bit that’s different.

God bless America. Please, Lord, help us make it better.