Putting America Right
Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be
kept right, when wrong, to be put right.
— Carl Schurz (1829-1906), abolitionist, Civil War
If Carl Schurz were here today, I believe he’d say we
have lots of putting right to do.
I am an old-fashioned patriot. At baseball games, I
stand for “The Star Spangled Banner” and sing it, too. I also like “This
Land is Your Land,” “God Bless America,” and “America the Beautiful.”
Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of my favorite flicks. I think this is the
best country there is and that democracy is so good that Florida elections
officials should try it. I believe in the uniqueness of America. I’ve been
all around the world and liked most places I saw, but I believe our
society is better than the others — not because of our ethnic background;
after all we’re all different ethnicities. I believe our country’s better
because of democracy and the never-ceasing efforts to broaden it
throughout our society. I believe the First Amendment is one of the finest
sentences in any language. I believe that same amendment gives the right
to desecrate the flag, but I also believe anyone who does is an idiot — at
best. And it’s a beautiful flag. I think our land is the most beautiful
and I believe that beauty is still expressed in our culture.
But I also believe that patriotism is wanting to
improve our selves. That’s more important to me than singing the National
Anthem at ballgames or flying the flag on the 4th. In life
things get better or they get worse. Rarely do things remain static and
never for long. And I fear that our society is falling.
This war in Iraq is showing us our best and our
worst. We should leave and we should never have gone there in the first
place. But since we are there, I am glad — and yes, proud — that American
troops overthrew that mass-murdering dictator and pulled him out of his
hole. Many Americans secretly fear that the only way enough of us will
wise up to Bush’s hoax will come at the cost of more of our sons and
daughters. Yet when reading an article about just one American who
has been killed or maimed over there, we are subtly reminded that war
doesn’t just kill more of us. War kills the best of us. And how can we
stand to lose one more of our best?
We know some of the war’s obvious examples of being
at our worst: the deeds of our guards at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah and
elsewhere, the still undeclared motives of the administration that got us
in this mess in the first place. But those are examples of what we’re
doing wrong in this unnecessary war.
What really is our worst is not what is happening in
the war by American soldiers who are stuck in a bad situation. What is our
worst is revealed by looking at the reasons why we are in Iraq. Not the
reasons why Bush & Co. are in Iraq. The reasons we — America — are in Iraq
will tell us what we — not Bush — are doing wrong and what we can do about
Reverend Billy Talen says we must forgive each other
and ourselves. A worthy belief.
But in order to forgive, a person must know what is
being forgiven. Could we even pretend that we would be abusing prisoners
and bombing civilians for the sake of lies and short-term politics if we
weren’t consuming 35% of the earth’s resources? Our obesity is what is
driving us and driving is making us obese. Obesity is the national
disease, in which being physically overweight is but one symptom. Other
symptoms abound: working two or three jobs to maintain this all-time
record of consumption; using Afghans to fight first the Soviets and then
Al Qaeda, and then forgetting them till next time; doping our children and
ourselves with Ritalin and Prozac while studies state that we’re unhappier
than we were in the Great Depression; meekly surrendering more and more
sovereignty to corporations while arming ourselves to the teeth against a
few hundred men with boxcutters; living increasingly urbanized, sedentary,
and techno-mediated lives; buying more gasoline and doing less recycling.
The list goes on.
But I did say that this war is bringing out our best
side, too. And after we do recognize and forgive our “worsts,” we still
have to use our “bests” to get us out of this mess.
Right now we’re seeing our best in the resistance to
this self-proclaimed wannabe dictator. Michael Moore has produced and
distributed against great odds from corporate powers Fahrenheit 9/11,
the most popular documentary of all time. As important as Moore’s
contribution is, it is being expanded by the legions of Americans who are
seeing this movie and questioning the corporate media that now frantically
tries to justify its pathetic failure to expose the Bush-Saudi Axis of
Banality. And it is being expanded by those who honestly question Moore’s
film. Those critics are not running from the questions that Fahrenheit
9/11 has raised, and in sincerely questioning the film they will keep
the issues in our scope. Moore’s flick and the responses it inspires are
the simple give-and-take communications of a free society that grows
strong by facing itself and its own weaknesses.
Moore’s film is just one example of our “bests.” That
list goes on as well. It includes our natural heritage. It includes our
culture. It includes our Revolution, which wasn’t just the acts of a few
wealthy “Great White Men.” In fact, those same GWM recognized the
contributions of those who weren’t wealthy or white or men. Franklin and
Jefferson both credited the Iroquois federation for its
checks-and-balances form of government, which found its way into the
Constitution. The contributions of black people to the Revolution helped
spur the first major wave of abolition in North America. By 1787 slavery
had been abolished in New England, Pennsylvania, and the vast “Old
We need to recognize our worsts. We need to forgive
our worsts. We need to use our bests.
We need to remember that, for all our faults, people
all over the world want to live here and many die trying to do just that.
We need to remember that for all the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow,
African Americans express a remarkable faith in America. The
African-American novelist Ralph Ellison stated that to be American is to
be black, no matter what your color. We need to remember that for all the
lies and genocide, Native Americans also express a remarkable faith in
America. The writer James A. Thom tells the story of a Shawnee military
veteran and a well-meaning white man who asks how he could fight “for a
country that’s treated your people the way it has.” The Shawnee smiles and
says, “You palefaces still can’t understand that this is our country.”
We need to remember that it may be their government,
but it’s our country.
This article first appeared in Crazy 8s, a monthly
publication edited by Howard Williams and available at fine bookstores
throughout San Francisco.