July 4th Is a Time to Sing Our Complicated Country’s Praises

From a Washington Post column by Richard Danzig headlined “July Fourth is a time to sing our complicated country’s praises”:

The United States’ faults are so numerous, and the intensity and antagonism with which we fight over those faults so great, that we often forget the virtues of this country — and how our antagonisms reflect both our virtues and our faults.

Racism, sexism, inequality, hateful speech, climate change, battles over abortion, immigration and many other issues demand our attention. Amid this maelstrom, many Americans pine for the shared purpose of our Revolution, World War II and its aftermath.

But stand back and adopt a larger perspective. Imagine showing our country to a Greek or Roman, to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to the Framers of our Constitution, or to the leaders of any country or city-state over the three millennia in which our species has celebrated what it calls “civilization.” What might they see?

First and foremost, they would see a country in which a majority of citizens devote considerable energy to moral discourse: debating the proper balance of embryonic and maternal life, focusing on injustices and inequalities, quarreling in courts and legislatures about how to govern, including when and whether to admit immigrants (now entering this nation at a rate of 1 million per year) as potential citizens. No one before World War II ever experienced a democracy of citizens this numerous, this diverse and this engaged.

Why should we be surprised that, having achieved this, the results are untidy, rowdy, even tumultuous? Americans take it as their birthright to develop and express their political views — and, for that matter, their views about vaccines, international trade, the right to execute convicted criminals, the nature of changes in Earth’s atmosphere, and so on and so forth. By and large, Americans do this within the bounds of the law; and commonly, though not universally, they do so within the bounds of civility. Do you want it otherwise?

Of course there is nostalgia for the unity of the mid-20th century, when, as is often recalled, a few trusted broadcasters delivered the news, many young men had the bonding experience of compulsory military service, and workers were economically closer to chief executives — and to each other. Arguably, this was a time of less deceit and deadlock and more plain old politeness.

But the unity and placidity of that society were built upon a foundation permeated by weaknesses and injustices that contemporaries ignored. This was a country that, like most countries, energetically and unapologetically suppressed sexual and political deviance (recall McCarthyism). It routinely penalized differences in skin color, religion and culture (recall segregation and antisemitism). This was a society that imposed economic and social limits on women, waged war in Vietnam, polluted the environment and ignored police brutality.

What achievements resulted from the messy, frequently infuriating, sometimes destructive energy of modern America? There was reason to call the heroes of World War II “the Greatest Generation,” but I will lay claim for the generations after them. Over the last two-thirds of a century, we Americans achieved a society that uprooted entrenched, widely prevalent ways of looking at race, gender and sexuality. We remade our ways of living. Alongside this, modern Americans awoke and forced some reckoning with the fact that our species, “the toolmaker,” is also the devastator of our planet and the wanton destroyer of other species.

As happens with most everyone most of the time, we Americans preached better than we practiced, but what we preached and what we practiced have greatly improved. And our country did this while developing extraordinary technologies and extraordinary wealth, which brought many benefits — though, admittedly, also brought much dislocation and, for some, deprivation.

Would you think that such gains could be achieved without debate, disruption and division? Do you want the America of old — which in fact had much conflict and dissension (even more, as in the 1960s)? Yes, on this July Fourth there is a lot to regret in our country. I wish we fought less and more productively. But our struggles reflect American virtues. I will take this America with its enmities, conflicts and divisions. Indeed, while regretting our country’s faults, I sing its praises.

Richard Danzig is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and was secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration.

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