Truth, Justice and the American Way

I remember being stationed at Fort Dix during the Viet Nam war. (I’ll bet those of you who know me personally are doing the math, scratching your heads…). Yes, I was only five years old at the time.

My dad was an army dentist, and we lived on the base in a nice ranch home, in a row of identical ranch homes, that was part of the cleanest, safest neighborhood I’ve ever seen. While the soldiers were in Viet Nam killing and being killed, I lived in what was essentially a gated community. But what I remember most about it (and in fact this is one of my earliest memories) was that the war was on TV – I suppose that counts as the first reality show. There I was at five years old wondering why the guy with the camera wasn’t picking up a gun and helping out the guys who were getting shot at.

And while we’re at it, where was Superman when we really needed him? The intro to his TV show told me that he fought for “truth, justice and the American way,” so that means he should be fighting against the communist threat, right? As a kid, I had no idea there was anyone protesting the war. I didn’t find that out until later when I started listening to the music from that time, and realized there was such a thing as a protest song. Now, just the other day, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I’m already against the next war.” Clever.

I know that most U.S. soldiers (whatever war we’re talking about) firmly believe they are fighting for freedom, for democracy, and in short, fighting for something worth dying for. So I have nothing but respect for our troops and veterans. On the other hand, neither the soldiers nor the general population will ever know the whole story behind any war – a story that no doubt includes both corruption and ulterior motives as well as real and serious threats that cannot be brought to light without making it worse. In fact, I’m sure that if we knew the whole global story, most of us would not be able to get our heads around it. I’m convinced that when any president wins an election, the first thing that happens after being sworn in is that they take the new president aside and tell him, “Now here are all the secret reasons why you can’t keep those campaign promises.”

Every year around the fourth of July, there are people saying we should not celebrate independence day, some of them using some pretty strong language. (For an example of one of the more reasonable ones, you can read Kurt Willems’ blog, “Why I Don’t Celebrate the Independence Day.” The author makes a good point when he highlights the hypocrisy of a bunch of slave owners crying for freedom.) I respect this point of view, but when it came time to go over to our friends’ annual party to celebrate “America” with Italian beef, Italian sausage, and Italian wine, you know that I was there. Is it possible that the refusal to celebrate a holiday (even that Italian-American standard, Columbus Day) is throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Do I really have to make a statement by sitting home watching the House Hunters International marathon while my friends are all having a good time?

The bottom line here is that, as a card-carrying Goldiloxian, I’m tired of all the rhetoric that goes to one extreme or the other, as though the answers are simple, or simply a matter of common sense. And I’m particularly offended when people who are citizens of the United States act as though the only country one can legitimately disrespect is the United States. (I’m equally offended when people who call themselves Christians imply that the only religion one can bash and still be politically correct is Christianity.)

So to my friends on the left, I want to say: Not all patriotism is jingoism. It is possible to love your country without being a xenophobic nationalist. And to my friends on the right, I want to say: It is not the case that everything “American” is automatically good (or Christian). In fact, I’m uncomfortable with the use of the term “American” to describe the United States, since Canada and the countries of Central and South American are all also part of “America.”

As usual, I’m advocating a middle way here. More important, I’m calling for an end to the extremist rhetoric on both sides, and for an attitude of mutual respect for different points of view. It is possible to be patriotic without ignoring the embarrassing parts of our country’s history. On the other hand, it is also possible to teach the truth about history without becoming cynical about our country. It is possible to support the troops, and be opposed to war. Don’t idealize (or idolize) this country, but don’t bash it, either.

Not unrelated… It is possible to have a separation of church and state that protects religious freedom without sterilizing the government of all evidence of faith in a higher power. We need the words, “In God we trust” on our money to remind us that we can’t trust money. We need the words, “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, if only to remind us that we (or our government leaders) are not over God.

We recently had another interesting reality TV show called the trial of Casey Anthony. A woman was accused of killing her young daughter, and the death penalty was on the table. Tuesday the jury came back with a verdict of “not guilty” on all felony charges, and many people are in an uproar, calling it another O.J.-style travesty of justice. I’m going to refrain from giving my opinions about the case and the verdict, I only want to point out what stuck in my ear in the aftermath. A few people on both sides (whether feeling vindicated or surprised by the verdict) were heard saying that no matter what you think of the outcome of this trial, ours is the best justice system in the world.

Is it really? I don’t know. I don’t know enough about the other justice systems of the world to know if that’s true. I think it’s true, but it’s all I know (and don’t get me started on how the IRS still gets away with assuming you’re guilty until proven innocent). This is similar to what you often hear when people start debating politics – the United States is the best country in the world.

Is this really the best country in the world? I think so. But if I say this is the best country in the world, does that imply I’ve done the research and figured that out for myself? Of course not. From my limited exposure to other countries, I think this is the best country, but I realize that this is what I’ve been taught to think. On the other hand, if you think this is not the best country in the world, you should really figure out which one is the best, and move there.

So why do we say this is the best country in the world? It’s certainly not because it has the most admirable history, so it has to be something about life in this country now (as opposed to, say, when there was slavery). Is it because of the freedom? I assume that’s what most people mean when they say this is the best country, but I also suspect that there are groups of U.S. citizens (and citizens-to-be) who do not feel all that free. And the reality is that ensuring some freedoms always means limiting others. You can’t have unlimited freedom. For example, the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must limit the freedom of speech to exclude hate speech.

Is this the best country because of the opportunities? The fact of immigration seems to imply that this has something to do with it. In spite of the hypocrisies and the difficult questions about our country’s founders and their faith and morals, when they wrote the constitution, they got something right. I think it’s ok to admit that this is the best country in the world while working to make it better. For those who feel called to point out where there is room for improvement, it won’t hurt your case to also admit that there is so much that’s right about our country. For those who feel compelled to express gratitude for all of our freedoms and opportunities, you won’t seem ungrateful if you also admit that there are problems that need to be fixed, and that there are many people who are still not adequately free or who do not have the same opportunities.

My point today is that I hope you will join me in my resolve to reject extremist rhetoric and respect the convictions of those with whom we disagree. I think that’s the best way to both appreciate what we have here, and also protect it by working to improve it, and by not allowing it to become an idol. But if we really want peace, we have to start speaking to each other peacefully.

Jim Papandrea

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About Jim Papandrea

Jim Papandrea is an author, educator, and singer/songwriter. Visit his website at:
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