HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 21, 2008
From Liberty Street

Characterizing America

John Turner


Is America the greatest country on earth? Is it a bulwark of freedom and democracy? Does it offer people more opportunity than anywhere else? Is it the greatest force for virtue and godliness? Is it the headquarters of greedy, heartless capitalism? Is it the champion of neo-imperialism? Is it essentially a militaristic power? Is it the principal degrader of the human environment?

Why should we care? It is what it is and it does what it does.

Each one of us can observe some aspects of America. Unless we are extremely peculiar people we see things we like and things we don't like. If we're literate we can read accounts that tell us about features of America we don't have a chance to observe personally. Again, in reading, we discover things we like and things we don't like.

We all have the ability-- in some way or other -- to work for the things we like and to work against the things we don't like. Shouldn't that be enough? Why do we seek to attach a definitive label to anything as diverse, as complex, as confusing as a nation of more than three hundred million people? Isn't it obvious that things go on here that scarcely anyone could countenance? And isn't it just as obvious that America is the setting of much that's heartening?

In just the past five minutes looking out my window here on Liberty Street, I saw a young mother walking with her toddler while he delighted in exploring the front yards he passed. Nobody assaulted them. Nobody wearing a uniform came up to her and questioned her about her political or religious beliefs. Nobody checked to see if she was wearing a flag pin. She was free to take joy in watching her little boy.  Just after she passed, a huge red pickup truck came tearing down the street going at least twenty miles an hour over the speed limit. It was guzzling gas at a rate that is rapidly leading to the economic collapse of the nation, driven by a kid wearing a baseball cap turned backward, who was unlikely to have had an inkling of the danger he was posing by either his speed or his thoughtless consumption. Both are America. So what do the two together make us? Is there any reason to try to assign a single name to them collectively?

Some people are of a temperament that likes continual celebration. Others are more given to criticism. Is the one set necessarily better citizens than the other? Does the guy who glories in seeing jet fighters roar over a football stadium while the flag in being raised love his country more than a woman who is determined to plant a garden in her backyard so she will reduce her carbon footprint?

Who is it that has the right to measure this love of country, or say what it is, or to demand it of anyone? Is it, in a particular form, required by either God or the Constitution of the United States?

During a majority of my lifetime, the biggest political question going was who was more anti-communist than whom? Did the continuous asking of that question, and flinging around the charges that went with it, ever do a single human being any good? How many of those who pushed the question in other people's faces and insinuated that insufficient declarations of hostility constituted anti-Americanism had a coherent definition of communism in their own minds?

In the organizations of which I've been a part, the people who were most eager to proclaim the collective virtue didn't stand out as being unusually willing to make contributions to organizational health. I can't say for sure that they were dramatically less willing but I do have a general sense that they were.

My point is that standing up for America means nothing unless a clear definition of America goes along with it. And it is the nature of an entity like a huge nation not to have a clear definition. It is one thing one day and one thing another. It is one thing from a certain perspective and very nearly its opposite from another. America, over the long run, will be defined by what each of its citizens supports and by what each of its citizens opposes. And what it all, together, adds up to will be best seen by specific actions and not by abstract pronouncements of what America is.

That being the case, we would do well to give up general nationalistic characterizations. As they're being made around the world, they're not particularly flattering to us anyway.


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