Excerpted from Rev. Jim Foti’s talk “Mixed Feelings,” on the eve of Memorial Day 2016.
Conversations about America’s greatness can deteriorate very quickly. One problem is when we take the step of labeling ourselves as “the greatest nation on earth.” It’s not a good sign when any country feels a need to assert its superiority or its supremacy.
…Another danger is that the military-industrial complex relies on the idea of the greatest. Greatness becomes a justification for so many things, such as invasion, conquest, imperialism. We’re here to take over, because it’s our job as the greatest to try to fix things. As the greatest, we must know best, and everything we do is unquestionably great.
…To the vast majority of Americans who are not directly involved in the military, seeing our country as the greatest can provide a different form of comfort. If we’re the greatest, there’s nothing to fix. There’s no reason to get out in the streets, to work for change, to ask hard questions, or even vote. If our country is the greatest, it must be all those struggling individuals who have flaws. Many among us can be complacent consumers and compliant citizens, content to know that we’re already part of the best, viewing our own comfortable lives as proof.
But the biggest question that the “Make America Great Again” hat raises is “great again for whom?” “There’s never been equality for me,” Langston Hughes wrote in 1935, and he could say it still today. “America was never great,” says Krystal Lake’s hat. For large segments of society, the “again” is what seems off.
But I have an idea of whom the original hat is addressing, of what the hat is referring to; I have an idea about what “greatness” used to look like and why a person might dream of its return. I see this and understand this whenever I go to my mom’s hometown, when I drive past the site of the motel we used to stay at when I was a teenager, the motel that has since been chopped up and carted away. I see it when I drive past the bars that used to be open, the gas stations now abandoned, the industrial sites now closed. Even the newer motel, the one I stayed in just last year for my uncle’s funeral, has gone out of business.
Working-class people never got rich in my mom’s hometown, but they have seen better times – earlier, more prosperous decades when America, to them, seemed greater than it does now. This underscores the fact that feelings about one’s country are rarely separate from what one has seen with one’s own eyes.
If you’ve witnessed a great economic decline in your hometown, the idea of making America great again is an acknowledgement of the reality you’ve lived through, and you may have been very hungry to have that acknowledged. If you’ve been in the military and traveled overseas and witnessed the difficult daily lives of the citizens of Afghanistan or Iraq, the relative peace of daily life back in America can seem miraculous, though you might at the same time question the greatness of the country that keeps redeploying you, and refusing to fund services for veterans.
And while white working-class Americans are in increasingly bad shape, blacks in America can see how much more prosperity and freedom the average white person still has. It can be hard to think of America as ever having been great, given that true justice has yet to be achieved. No full freedom in this “homeland of the free.”
My ambivalence about the United States of America, my inability to see it as uniformly great or as the greatest, has less to do with my direct experience than with my empathy. If I paid attention to only my own life story, to my own personal trajectory, I really should think America is the greatest. I grew up safe in the middle of the middle class, I went to good public schools and a good public university, I’ve never been downsized. My many privileges – being a nondisabled, cisgender male from a European-American family – have contributed to this narrative of my life. Being gay did reduce some options for me, particularly in terms where I felt I could live openly. But my privileges helped me find safe places to be.
… I had the ability to learn about and feel what other people were going through. That’s what leads to ambiguous feelings – to grown-up, complicated feelings – about one’s country.
Ambivalence comes from understanding the problems, the misery and deprivation and death caused by American policies and actions, both within our borders and well beyond them. Understanding all that and how it co-exists with all the goodness that Americans have done and can do can make ambiguity the only choice. Even if one’s individual life is fine, America has not fully realized the dream the dreamers dreamed.
… One thing we can do, and one thing this congregation has always done, is continue to be keepers of the truth. This flame we light every week is a symbol of truth, something reason-based humanists hold dear. And truth is in grave danger right now. We have reached a point at which facts and fact-checking do not change Americans’ minds about public figures or major issues.
Earlier this month, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, implored Americans to ask ourselves: “How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?” It’s a fair, and scary, question.
We may not be able to get everyone to accept facts. But we can start by making sure we’re being truthful with ourselves. Michael Moore says this in his film: “The first step to recovery, the first step to being a better person, or a better country, is to be able to just stand up and honestly say who and what you are. I am an American. I live in a great country that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” Acknowledging such truths can inform our decisions as citizens and demonstrate how to live with ambiguity and integrity.
The second thing we can do is to remember that positive change is possible. As Moore points out in his movie, the Berlin Wall came down quite quickly. I’ve already mentioned the sweeping legal changes for GLBT people. We are on the cusp of seeing our first female major-party presidential nominee. Such stories of human progress are good to keep in mind in times like these.
And a final thing is to remember that all the struggles are interconnected. Economic inequality makes it easier to recruit lower-income Americans into the military. Public military spending boosts private corporate profits. Corporate profits fund the political campaigns of public officials who see nothing wrong with inequality. Around and around it goes, these systemic cycles of greed and exploitation. It usually takes some concerned citizens or a civic-minded public official to throw a wrench into the works, in the form of a lawsuit, or legislation, or protest.
The gears may not grind to a halt immediately – in fact, it can take generations — but the work of change is worth doing. There’s no one but us to do it, but we are enough.