Quote of the Week: Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, “the greatest”, but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. –Sydney J. Harris
Donald Trump shocks Americans by telling them that he wants to make our nation “great again,” implying obviously that the United States had some greatness that is now lacking. It is easy to associate this clearly unpatriotic lack of faith in America with racism and xenophobia (implying, for example, that the US was great, until it went ahead and elected one of “those people” as its president for eight years). It is easy to do this because of Trump’s heartless criticism of Mexicans and Muslims (and of the latter’s faith, Islam). It is easy to do this because of the numerous Nazis, Klansmen, and fascists of all colors (so to speak) who have come out in open support for Trump. It is easy to do this because, notwithstanding the candidate’s willingness to tweet and speak about all sorts of people on the cuff and without any “due diligence,” it took him something like 48 hours to disavow one of America’s leading white supremacists. Attacking ethnic groups, dissidents, and women is not something the candidate needs to take any time to consider properly; but disavowing the country’s leading white supremacist was something that needed closer study, not being any kind of “no brainer” for our little Orangearschenfürher. All of this shows what most Americans need to know about what “greatness” is missing and how to restore it.
But for those of us not raised from birth to hate “those people” or to misogynize at our morning Tea Party, it is clear that what we need is not for our nation to be “great again,” but for our country to be good again, like Sydney J. Harris suggests. We need to remember John Winthrop’s exhortations to us to build the City on a Hill by embracing the liberal imperative to care for the poor, to house the homeless, to feed the hungry, and moreover to use the wealth of those at the top for that explicit purpose. We need to remember that politics should be about caring for those needing medical care, not about politicizing issues. When we attack Planned Parenthood for performing a legal operation (and doing so using only private funds, and not anyone’s taxes), and use the government to punish the organization – and the many women and men it cares for in other ways, using both public and private funds for the purpose – for offending a minority of Americans, we are not “good,” and we are not the nation that Winthrop called upon us to be. When we attack people for not speaking English “properly” (ignoring the multitude of uneducated bigots who themselves have a limited grasp of our grammar and syntax, though it be their only language), we are not “good,” and we are not the nation that was built on the labor and the blood, sweat, and tears of immigrants, indentured servants, slaves, and refugees.
Our parents, grandparents, or other ancestors (those that came here willingly, anyway) came to this nation not because of its military strength, and not because we pick on the weak and leave the dying to meet their end. They came here because we are a nation that has always promised to be better than that. They came here because we offered them something better than the empires of the past, great only for their ability to kill and to disenfranchise others. Coming to our shores for our “goodness,” rather than for our “greatness,” they built this nation – together with those who simply had no choice in the matter – into a nation that was able to grow past its dark side, and embrace the better angels of our nature. We became a nation born of slavery that (later than most) discarded slavery; a nation dominated by men who (later than some) embraced suffrage; and a nation dominated by white Christians who (through a mountainous struggle) embraced the “Others” and welcomed them into our community as builders and partners.
To be “good” again, we need to put Trump, and his supporters, back into whatever corner of our national psyche we dragged them out of. We need to put them back into the box in which we keep our pictures of “Whites Only” and “No Jews” signs, pictures of slaves’ backs striped with whip scars, pictures of the Trail of Tears, and of schools forcing Indian children to adopt white, Christian ways. We need to mark that box “Ugly Things From the Past We Promise Not to Do Again.” And we need to put that box into high-school history books with long lessons about how and why we got over those evil tendencies, how we are a better nation because we moved past the need to do these horrific things, and how we embraced our promise to be a nation of many peoples, many faiths, many languages and cultures, and many ideals. We need not to worry about our “greatness”; but only about our “goodness.”
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