“A liberal,” Robert Frost said, “is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” I’ve debated many liberals who clearly took sides…in favor of any antagonist the US might oppose. Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, described this as the worldview of the “blame America first” crowd. The reflex is often acquired young.
I encountered it vividly some years back helping judge a school civics competition as a Colorado lawmaker. For part of their project, students from an affluent Denver suburb shared an “updated” Pledge of Allegiance:
"I pledge allegiance to the flag—because the Supreme Court doesn’t enforce the First Amendment—of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands—an imperial power that swept the native inhabitants off their land—one nation under God—because the Supreme Court still doesn’t enforce the First Amendment, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all white, male, heterosexual, upper middleclass property owners.”
The reader finished. The students and I eyed each other, as my mind raced for a way to dissent without being a stiff, Republican scold.
“I can feel your aspirations and good will. You see injustices and challenges in your world, and you want to fix them. You see wrongs and you want to right them. I hope you’ll be able to do that. But before you decide your society deserves your condemnation, would you consider a couple things?
“Consider that the United States, with its free enterprise, for-profit system, produces more food, more clothing, more shelter, and a higher standard of living for more people than any other system, anywhere on earth, anytime on earth. Consider that in our country, poor people suffer the problems of obesity far more than of hunger. Cell phones, air conditioning, and cable TV are ubiquitous.
[Ugh! Shawn! Do they know “ubiquitous?!”]
“Maybe material stuff and prosperity isn’t your thing. Maybe you’re more concerned about social justice. Yes, America has slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination in its history. But consider that America and England led the global fight against slavery. Consider that this nation fought a Civil War, adopted three Constitutional Amendments, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to attain equality, and established Equal Opportunity Offices in state and federal governments across the land, all to spot and prosecute unlawful discrimination.
“Consider that as a woman, a minority, or a dissenter from the dominant culture, here in the United States, more than anywhere else on earth, you have more chance to pick the life you want, to start a business, or find your crowd…to do what the Indian immigrant Dinesh D’Souza calls “writing the script of your own life.
“I hope you’ll do what you want. Solve those problems; right those wrongs. But please consider that maybe your nation, the society your parents, grandparents, and great great grandparents gave you, deserves not your condemnation but your gratitude. Maybe you can try to make things better while appreciating what you’ve been given.”
As I’ve shared that experience with different groups since then, we’ve wondered together: Why did those kids think their land was a nasty and oppressive place, like an Olbermannian “Worst Nation in the World!”? Frequent answers include school, where students seem to absorb the lesson that American culture hates women, minorities, poor people, and rain forests; and the media, including news, but especially TV or movies, where cheats and murderers often are businessmen trying to snuff competitors and increase profits, rather than the motley and wretched cases that overwhelmingly fill real crime reports.
Digression: I can’t wait for the blockbuster investigative book to reveal how many Apple executives were killed in Microsoft’s quest to remain dominant. Or how many Yahoo engineers have been kidnapped and tortured for info to preserve Google’s edge. Or maybe the magazine piece exploring why Hollywood pretends that’s how things are.
It’s been nearly a decade since that civics fair. But a different lightning bolt struck me recently, another possible Reason-in-Chief for kids’ attitudes. What do they absorb from the president and First Lady of the United States—what views on social justice, business and opportunity, the squinting eye at American life and its bitter clingers? Some people think America offers a lot to be proud of, with, of course, things to improve. Others see the need for fundamental transformation. They’re hard at work making it happen.
Could the stakes be any higher in November?