What's Still Great

Painting A Picture

Why America is still worth celebrating.

By 7.11.11

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Like other tabloids of its kind, the Independent Weekly out of Raleigh, NC mixes concert reviews, movie listings, and "escort service" ads with self-consciously progressive opinion columns. Its editorial position on most issues can be summarized as Sticking it to the Man, unless doing so would imperil the political future of a professional Democrat.

In the last week of June, a striking photo of a green-eyed woman who appeared to be wearing an American flag like a head scarf introduced an essay by a staff writer who spent nearly 1,500 words thumb wrestling with the question, "Whose America?" More specifically, wrote Bob Geary, "The treatment of Muslims, gays and immigrants is something to consider as the Fourth of July approaches and we prepare to celebrate America's -- America's what? Our existence? Is that all we've got?" You can guess the answer from the way the question was framed, and the fact that the writer conflated religion, sexual orientation, and legal status into one super-sized victim group. Perplexed by the popularity of conservative politicians, and (like other progressives, including E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post) unwilling to credit fellow Americans with a proper understanding of our country's Founding Fathers or their genius documents, Geary suggested that our existence might be the only thing worth celebrating on the 235th birthday of these United States.

This land is your land; this land is my land -- but, Geary wrote, the "steady progress of rights" through U.S. history has "always been resisted by extreme right-wingers" who disingenuously claim to be preserving the American way of life.

Get a load of the bogeyman in that accusation: You have to be a special breed of partisan to forget that enthusiasm for progressive solutions  to social problems places obstacles of its own before the attainment of a more perfect union.

Geary would have us believe that conservatives in the limelight make it hard for normal people to find the good in this country. In other words, freedom of religion sounded great until it gave "gay bashing" Christians like Rep. Michele Bachmann a following. Similarly, self-government apparently lost some of its cachet when candidates like Herman Cain became its most eloquent defenders. 

Writers for "Indy Week" are not alone in thinking like that, or trembling on the knife edge of despair because attractive and accomplished people refuse to toe the party line. No wonder a recent Harvard University study found that July 4th parades energize only Republicans. Hey, kids! People who question the patriotism of their left-leaning neighbors might have a point! If word of that gets out together with stories about how it cost $7 million per household in federal stimulus funds to extend broadband wireless access to parts of Montana, then by golly, it's "Katie bar the door" to Democrat strategy meetings next year.

It’s best to take people who say they are at a loss for reasons to celebrate America’s Independence Day at their word. "Give me liberty or give me death!" probably sounds primitive to them, especially when the dominant calendar has Patrick Henry’s eighteenth-century version of "We’ll put a boot in your ass; it’s the America way" dancing cheek-to-cheek with the more cosmopolitan Bastille Day slogan of "liberty; equality; fraternity!" Nevertheless, appearances deceive: it wasn’t Virginia’s Tidewater rebels or the Massachusetts Minutemen of colonial times who introduced their countrymen to a reign of terror.

In spite of her faults (and let’s be serious: Roe v. Wade made America harder on fetuses than on gay people), there are many reasons to celebrate the United States. What our progressive friends need is a list as keen-eyed as the red-tailed hawks that roost near North Carolina’s capitol building, and as sweet as the way Winston-Salem chanteuse Martha Bassett sings.

Let’s start with music. We’ve given the world everybody from Rory Block, Maybelle Carter, and Sam Cooke to Muddy Waters and Townes van Zandt.  Even lesser-known artists mine musical traditions as rich as any other on the planet. That ought to count for something.

If you’re going to catalog American offenses against "social justice," then simple fairness suggests that you ought also to remember Nobel Prize counts and Americans like Norman Borlaug, whose contributions to food production continue to save millions of lives worldwide.

Happily, our national ethos of helpfulness does not confine itself to particular skill sets. Cartoonist Charles Schulz understood that, which is why Snoopy was the best player on Charlie Brown’s baseball team, but all the kids got to play. Similarly, on July 5, USA Today ran a story noting that "Young Americans take center stage in Japan tsunami cleanup." There’s more where that came from: Last year’s rescue of trapped Chilean miners owed much to American help.

Although American technology is often more impressive than American values, many progressives make the dignity-denying mistake of judging their fellow citizens only by the worst of the things that we have done or are doing. The problem with that approach is that valid measurement of any human endeavor should also reflect the better angels of our nature, or what C.S. Lewis used to call “the weight of glory.” In other words, only a top-drawer party-pooper would hesitate to applaud a nation responsible for the Fender Stratocaster, the Jarvik artificial heart, the screen door, the T130 tophead drill, the chocolate chip cookie, and the Post-It note.

Progressives typically dismiss talk of American exceptionalism as mindless, but it’s hard to get around the fact that ours remains the only country in the world founded on an idea, as opposed to an ethnicity, a culture, or a territory.

The Today show recently aired a story about a refugee from Sudan who learned English watching Seinfeld reruns and just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in biomechanical engineering. His story is inspiring but not unique. That self-government does not always yield the results that progressives appreciate is no reason to be peevish about American accomplishments.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.