Monday, July 3, 2017

A Meditation on America

A fair amount of space on the bookcases in my library are filled with books of history. Most of them deal with the history of my country, America. I suppose this is natural and proper, that a man would be most intrigued with the story of his native country. I have been so for the majority of my life. I love America. I feel a great devotion to her and I'm grateful for the great accident of birth that granted me all of the benefits that she conferred upon me when I was luckily not born in Afghanistan, Bangladesh or North Korea.

But my love for country has evolved along the way, been made more mature by the great tumults that have roiled this nation since the year of my birth, 1958. On many occasions my devotion has been tested. Often I have found myself disappointed by events, even embarrassed by what we have done, or failed to do as a country. But if the history of a country is like a balance sheet, I have confidence that we are still running a positive balance. It's easy to to lose sight of the grand sweep of the greatness of a country if you succumb to recency bias. What we may look like today is but a dot on a ponderous timeline that stretches 241 years.

As we celebrate America's birthday, these are the formative events of my lifetime which have formed my thoughts and feelings about what it means to be an American citizen. For you, these may not resonate at all. Other things may have impacted you more profoundly. Or, you may have lived through these chapters of American life and come to different conclusions. That's ok. I can only tell my story.

The first memory I have as a child that had anything to do with history, politics or government was the cold November afternoon when my older brother and sister got off of the bus early and scrambled past me into the house. I followed them and heard someone say that the President had been shot. I
was five years old. All I really remember about it was how quiet everyone was. Something bad had happened, and my Mom and Dad were very upset.

My next big memory was of John Glenn, the hero. I read about him in the Weekly Reader. I wanted to be an astronaut for a couple of years after that. So did everyone else.

I remember hearing about my Uncle John and my Uncle Harry, my Mom's brothers who were both heros in WWII. Uncle John drove a tank for George Patton. Whenever I visited him when I was a child, I remember him being so gentle, nothing at all like the fierce combat veteran of my imaginations. He also always had a certain sadness in his eyes. My Mom told me that he was a different person when he got home from the war, nothing like the brother who left.

In 1968, I was ten years old and paying closer attention. In June of that year, I found myself in my Grandma Dunnevant's trailer, watching Robert Kennedy get shot on a black and white television no bigger than a bread box. I saw Rosey Greer on the screen and I knew him as a football player for the Rams and was momentarily confused. All of the grown ups in the trailer were upset, some cried. Martin Luther King and now this...someone said. Something was wrong with my country. Young people were marching in the streets. I didn't understand it all, but I could figure out that people like my Dad were the enemy of the people marching in the streets. He was older, and couldn't be trusted, they said.

Then, less than a year later, we put a man on the moon. Another crowded room. Another black and white television, this one an RCA Victor with aluminum foil around the rabbit ears. That's one small step for>#%\ giant leap for mankind. I was thrilled and proud to be an American. But alongside the thrill came questions...what the heck was going on? These people in the streets, burning down Watts and Newark didn't seem very thrilled to be Americans. They were burning the
flag. Thus began my lifelong quest to understand, to square the circle that was my big, brawling country. I began reading...a lot.

Our amateur boys beat the Professional Soviet hockey team at the height of the Cold War. A big night.

I cast my first ever vote in 1976 for Jimmy Carter. He was a Democrat, and he wasn't Gerald Ford.

College introduced me to a group of professors who loathed America. Well, they loved the perks of tenure and the abundance in the stores, but in their telling, America was the worst actor on the world stage, and we were  responsible for most of the world's problems. I listened, and read. Some of it made sense, most of it didn't.

Ronald Reagan came along. Owing to my youthful fondness for liberalism, I voted against him the first time, but he soon won me over. Adulthood brought me down on the side of freedom and individual liberty and the power of free enterprise as the best  system ever conceived to produce wealth and to bring goods and services to market. But, even then I sensed that capitalism wasn't enough. There was more to life than economics. For, despite the incredible accomplishments of my
young and confusing country, there were glaring weaknesses...mostly having to do with race

I watched Bill Clinton, with his southern charm and roguish manner stumble through his Presidency
and was horrified that he would be so foolish as to carry on with an the Oval freaking Office!! 

I watched George W. Bush grab that megaphone on that smoking pile of twisted metal after 9/11. I was with him that day, and so were most people. Then I washed him throw away all of that unity, all of that good will by settling scores in Iraq.

I marveled at the sight of Barack Obama taking the oath of office. Even though I never voted for him, something in me was stirred seeing such a dignified man become President in the shadow of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the freer of slaves.

While all of this politics was going on, out there in the rest of the country, Americans were changing the world, rewriting its history. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did what my countrymen have done for 240
years...innovate, create and change the world. While Washington dithers, Americans produce and pursue their dreams with unrivaled success, assuring us a dominant place at the world's table.

Now, we have elected an entertainer, a successful business tycoon with the temperament of a carnival barker. It has been a wild six months. Some are ecstatic to have a street fighter in charge. Many love his counter punching, his coarseness, his bluster. Others are horrified.

But, I'm still an American. Politicians don't define me. The ugliness in Washington, now increasingly amplified by a thousand  electronic voices doesn't wipe away the triumphs of this great land. There is
much left to do to make us a kinder people. We have work to do to become more fair, more equitable. But the heart of America is decency. Sometimes we are too slow, sometimes some catastrophe has to shake us to it, but we eventually return to decency. We eventually overcome our self centeredness and exchange it for caring for one another. Every raging tornado in the Great Plains gives us a glimpse. Every hurricane that lashes the coasts brings out the spirit of loving kindness. We all know that we have it in us, the capacity for charity, the gene of courage which was bequeathed to us by our ancestors.

We are a mightily blessed people, blessed and cursed. It's my hope that the better angels of our character will eventually win the day.