America is a great idea, but it’s hard to love these days.
At some point tonight millions and millions of us will find ourselves sitting in a stadium or a park or maybe on a city rooftop or a grassy hill in the country, staring at the sky, celebrating our country’s anniversary by watching the annual fireworks show. I won’t lie – I love fireworks. They’re spectacular to watch, but beyond that I’m fascinated by how they work. How do you get one to look like a flower? How do you get multiple colors in one burst? I assume I could learn these things if I spent the time, but regardless, it’s a pretty cool exercise in artistry.
But I don’t love everything about fireworks shows. If you’re at an official civic event you’ll certainly get to hear Lee Greenwood belting out his famous “God Bless the USA.” This is a massively famous and popular song, having reached #7 on the Billboard Country charts. It’s sold over a million copies and there’s no telling how much it has earned Greenwood in royalties.
It’s also perhaps the greatest lie ever set to music. Bear with me.
America is a wonderful idea. Like every system, it works beautifully on paper. Freedom. The freedom to pursue your dreams. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, prosperity, spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, family, independence … noble ideals all human beings around the world should be free to pursue with every ounce of passion in their bodies.
I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…
But … are you? Does America work as well in reality as it does on paper? Seriously, set aside the rhetoric, the partisan bile, set aside how you feel about the folks on the other side. Let’s talk about how free you actually are. You.
Are you free to elect a government that represents your best interests? I mean, we know how lobbying works. We know how campaign finance works. We know how the media is responsive to the money instead of the people, and this past election we saw that voters on both sides of the divide are getting fed up with political elites who don’t serve the people who voted for them. Thanks to a process that lets corrupt politicians rig district boundaries we now have Congressional majorities that didn’t come close to earning a majority of the vote. What does it mean to your freedom when 47% is the majority? Is that what you’re thinking about as you’re singing along with Lee Greenwood?
If you don’t like all this corruption, are you free to run for office and fix it? Well, maybe. How much does it cost to run the campaign? Do you have that much? If you do, are you willing to spend it? If not, can you get it? If so, what will you have to do for the money? Maybe a wealthy donor or a big company is willing to back you. Of course, they’ll need certain assurances about how you’ll vote on issues they care about. Are you more or less free now than when you declared?
Are you free to protest government corruption? The Constitution says yes. But right now there are legislators working around the clock to pass laws making protest a crime.
Are you free to set up a blog to voice your opinions? Absolutely – if you have a computer and Internet connection places like WordPress are free and easy to set up and maintain. Of course, we also have a president now who’s openly hostile to anyone who criticizes him, to the point where he has advocated physical violence against the press and has reportedly wondered if there’s something he can do to shut the critics down. If you’re free to speak your mind, about this president or your senator or the mayor, but doing so puts you at risk of physical harm, do you consider yourself truly free?
Okay, say you like this president and agree with him, and you’re okay with these policies. Will you feel more or less free if his opponent in the last election runs against him in 2020 and wins, and then uses the same approach against those who disagree with her?
Are you free to worship God as you see fit? What if the next president worships a different god and all of a sudden you and your family are in physical danger for wearing a cross?
Are you free to read the Constitution? Have you?
Are you free to eat? Hopefully you’re healthy and well-fed, and hunger isn’t and never has been something you have to worry about. But if you lost your job and couldn’t get another one… If you lose your home and your means of providing for your family, as so many others have, and you can’t afford to buy food… How free are you?
Are you free to make as much money at your job as someone else who’s doing the exact same work?
Are you free to love whomever you want? Are you free to marry that person? Or does that freedom depend on the approval of those who know nothing about you?
Are you free to educate yourself to the fullest? A lot of us went to schools that weren’t that great – honestly, if I have succeeded at anything in life it has been despite my school system growing up, not because of it. I got lucky and landed a scholarship that got me through a fantastic university, and then I worked my ass off with side jobs and took loans getting through an MA and PhD program. So I managed it, even though I had no money. And I still don’t, in part due to student loan debt, which is a weight around my neck I’ll be carrying probably the rest of my life. What about these days, though? You – or more likely your child – is free to get a great education. And at graduation, to begin paying off a bill as high as $100k or more. Sure, the kid is free to get an education at a cheaper school, but community colleges don’t open the same doors that our best universities do. So are you, or your child, free to provide yourself with the preparation you need to realize your dreams?
If your child gets sick and needs expensive treatment in order to survive, are you free to pay the tab?
Are you free to breathe clean air and drink clean water, to eat food confident that it is safe?
Are your children and grandchildren free to live on a planet where the temperatures aren’t setting new record highs each year?
I know some of these sound like odd questions, but freedom comes in two varieties. There’s what’s called “negative liberty,” which basically means the government can’t stop you from doing something. This is what the US is built on. They can’t tell you not to speak (so far, anyway), they can’t stop you from going to church, they can’t stop you from getting together with those who share your beliefs to organize and plan action, and so on. There’s also “positive liberty,” which argues that you’re not really free to do something if the structure of the society makes it impossible. Yes, you’re free to run for president, but if you can’t afford to mount a viable campaign because of the expense, then, let’s be honest, you’re not really free to be president. You may have noticed that poor people don’t make it to the White House very often. Are you free to live in a house in the best part of town? To my point in the previous paragraph, are you free to send your kid to Harvard?
Are you as free as those who were born wealthy? By the standards of “negative liberty,” of course you are. There are no laws preventing you from buying a yacht. But look around your America. Look hard. Freedom has a lot to do with opportunity, doesn’t it? No way around it. And if some people are more free because they have more opportunity, then that tells us something important about the real nature of freedom.
How about this one. You may have some qualms about immigration. You may have issues with how you believe minorities in the country behave and you may believe they get unfair benefits. That they haven’t earned their keep. That they’re being subsidized for being unproductive. Okay. Something else we know for a fact. Many Americans, and millions upon millions who think this way, are of Irish descent. Like me. And once upon a time our ancestors were on the other end of this equation. Ever seen this before?
These are my ancestors. These may well be your ancestors. And it’s a bit offensive to see that caricature in the middle, with my Irish ancestor being depicted as … apish, isn’t it?
Not Irish? How about German?
Basically, anything else?
In other words, if your blood isn’t 100% English, then your ancestors faced what today’s immigrants do. Or worse.
What price did your ancestors pay so you could be more free than they were?
America doesn’t need to be made “great again.” It is greater now, in the ways it was always great, than ever. We have the greatest education in the world. We have the greatest healthcare technology. We have the greatest markets. We’re innovative in the extreme, we’re brilliantly creative, we produce the greatest athletes…
The only problem is that many Americans don’t have access to this greatness, and too many others reject it. And America was never great to start with in many of the ways we imagine. Our Constitution was designed to preserve the rights of people to own other people, for instance. The ’50s ideal of the nuclear family was never – never – the majority household structure. The Golden Days of the postwar era denied equal opportunity to everyone who wasn’t a white male – which, by the way, is how the aforementioned Constitution explicit intended it to be.
I dearly love the ideal most Americans have attached to our country. Peace, prosperity, equal opportunity for all, and most importantly, freedom. But that’s just the floorshow. We don’t believe in peace – our economy is based on eternal war. We believe in prosperity for the few, built on the backs of the many. Equal opportunity? As a famous writer once noted, some are more equal than others.
And freedom? Maybe you’re one of the fortunate ones. Maybe you’re genuinely free in both the positive and negative senses of the word. But … how free can you be when a vast majority of those around you aren’t? Solomon Burke wrote that none of us are free if one of us is in chains. If you buy the sentiment behind Lee Greenwood’s famous song, then you pretty much have to believe in freedom for all, don’t you? I mean, the lyrics don’t say at least I know I’m free, but fuck the rest of you, right?
American the idea may be wonderful, but America the reality needs work.
So tonight, as I watch the fireworks, I’m going to celebrate what my country can be, if we have the will. I will celebrate what we ought to be. And I will be unhappy with how far we have to go.
I leave you with a challenge, because you’re an American and you never met a challenge you’ll back down from. Spend the day thinking hard about what freedom means to you, what it really means, and reflecting on whether you think any of us are as free as Lee Greenwood thinks we are. Or was that just a song that made Lee and his record label a lot of money?