The Human Condition:

My Country, Right and Wrong – January 23, 2022

Freedom among the clouds

There is a lot of talk these days about this country’s past sins: slavery and pervasive racism, genocide of native populations, neo-colonialism in Asia and South America, and on and on. It would seem that a lot of people on the left side of the aisle dislike, even hate, this country and would like to see it “fundamentally transformed” into some kinder, gentler, meeker, more self-abasing place. Perhaps like Lichtenstein, but without Lichtenstein’s proud traditions and tax-haven status.

I come from the center of the aisle, with one foot on the right side of the carpet. I can acknowledge that this country has made some brutal, egregious decisions in the past and is not perfect today. But we still have done some good things. We rolled up our sleeves and fought in two world wars against expanding spheres of fascist influence in Europe and Asia that never would have impinged on us directly. We became a haven and refuge for immigrants from even before the founding of the nation as a whole, and we still welcome asylum seekers and those who want to make a better life. We are one of the few countries in this world that offer a complete life to those who will obey our laws but don’t want to assimilate to the American culture and give up their ethnic heritage—we celebrate their holidays as happily as our own. And after the last world war, as the sole remaining superpower, we tried to police the world’s little warlords and rebuild our allies and enemies, instead of occupying their territory and carting off their national and cultural wealth.

We are, as I’ve written before, a nation of immigrants and stronger for that. Even the prehistoric people who walked here across the Bering land bridge and past the glaciers, even those who were brought here against their will and in chains—and were strong enough to survive and hope—have found a way to build a better life for themselves here than in the places they came from. And those who sailed either of two great oceans and landed here of their own free will represent the bravest, smartest, strongest, and most determined of their native lands’ populations. They are the self-selected individuals who did not want to put up with one more war, one more tax, one more pogrom, one more landed aristocrat or insulated bureaucrat carelessly making decisions about other people’s lives. In every case, we got—and still get—the strong ones.

Our national character—the core of our aspiration, not the fringe pattern of our separate ethnic embellishments—reflects this. Americans one and all are optimists. We are determined. Yes, we are sometimes careless ourselves. And sometimes we are bumptious and gauche in the eyes of European and Asian sophisticates who live in older, more settled cultures. But we are busy inventing and building a new world that sometimes only we can see.1

Yes, we made mistakes, and we’ll make plenty more in the future. To quote a line from my corporate days, “If you want to increase your success rate, increase your failure rate.” That is, if you’re not making some mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough to achieve your potential.

Am I bothered by the negative comments about my country? Oh, some. If people hate America enough to scrap everything and start over, then I am saddened—especially if they pick the dormant economies and collectivist cultures of Europe or Asia as their role models. Marx was a fool, and utopian socialism doesn’t paint an exciting future even as a selfish child’s dream.2

But the ability to acknowledge past wrongs and work to make them better is a strength. In the past sixty years, the majority of my working life, we have initiated a sea change in this country to adjust attitudes towards and provide opportunities for neglected Native Americans, African Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities. This is a sign of strength. It reflects the generous spirit that infuses the American conscience. While we’re busy building that new world, we extend a hand to those we think might not have caught up with where we’re going. And that is all good.

So, not perfect. This country is not all wrong, not all right, but somewhere in between. Although I am leery of comparisons between individual and national characters, I think this one fits. We are, as a people, on the whole, a fairly good country. We’ve made mistakes, and we’re aware of them. We’re trying to do better. And we’re looking to the future with hope.3

That’s healthy in both a person and a country. Or so I believe.

1. You want examples? We give more in charitable giving than other countries. There, people might take care of their families, but they expect the government to take care of the others. Here, people support domestic charities like Habitat for Humanity and foreign organizations like Doctors Without Borders, as well as local groups like the neighborhood YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. We give money to strangers, as attested by the people who sit at the bottom of freeway offramps with signs saying “Help—Hungry” and find it pays well enough to keep coming back.
    We volunteer more than other countries, too. From the traditional barn-raising to the people who volunteer each September to clean up rivers and beaches in Coastal Cleanup, we pitch in. My late wife used to volunteer at Marin County’s Marine Mammal Center as part of their Monday Day Crew, shoveling seal dung out of the pens, mixing fish mash, and intubating sick and dying animals. This was hard, dirty—but rewarding—work. A Dutch veterinarian who came there to study the seals and sea lions commented to my wife that you didn’t see such volunteers in Europe: some women might come in to pet the animals, she said, but not to clean up after them.

2. Marx’s vision of the future was a tribal barter economy—or the feudal castle without the feudal lord—writ large. It is totally inadequate in a nation-state of hundreds of millions of people spanning an entire continent, as the Russians found, and the Chinese are discovering. My old quip is that “Marx is to economics as phlogiston is to chemistry.” That is, pre-intellectual nonsense.

3. One final personal reference. I was talking with a man who was raised in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia, where in his youth everyone looked east to the Soviet Union. He said that no one feared the United States, not because we are weak but because we didn’t want to take over anyone. But everyone feared the Russians.