*Edit* Last Wednesday I sat down to write this and am just now finishing it, Sunday afternoon.
I just got home from class, The Humanities in Western Culture. Today is the second class I have attended and MAN was it packed with amazing dialogue. Last week we were assigned to read Oedipus Rex and two chapters in our textbook, which encompassed ancient Greek culture. Time period around 500 B.C. I read about the Persian Wars, the battle that the movie 300 is based on, the golden age of Athens culture, and the way that theater, philosophy, mathematics, and science were pursued in that time period. Fascinating stuff.
Our class is mostly seminar, which means we have about an hour of lecture and spend the other two hours talking to one another and our teacher about the things we are learning. Not only that, but whereas previously I have been the only one talking and expressing my opinion, I find in this class that I am actually competing for time to speak! Almost every single student speaks up and wants to be heard. Some are younger than me, some are older, and I can tell that we all come from different backgrounds. It’s absolutely amazing to be a part of a discussion with others that want to discuss as well.
One of our assignments was to read Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Pericles was the ruler of Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. We were assigned to read his speech and then think about the way Pericles viewed Athens and the way we view our own country.
The first time I read it, I thought Pericles was basically an arrogant prick. He had so much pride and spoke so highly of Athens and I didn’t really notice any humility in his address. When I read it the second time, some days later, it gave me a different feeling. I felt that he was speaking directly to me, someone who lived in Athens, and I got excited. If I can imagine being spoken to that way by my leader, I am basically thinking of every time our President addresses this country. This sparked an interesting conversation.
We talked about Nationalist, which is the love of country and Imperialism, which is extending the power of one’s country into other nations. For the sake of the discussion, we decided that an Imperialist mentality was as a result of hubris.
Our teacher asked us: “Should a person always love his or her country?”
First of all, side rant on the word should. I hate the word. Should is a terrible word. In our language, and society, should has attached to it a very specific meaning. A sense of obligation, judgement, and expectation. Then again, all things being what they are, one could easily argue that the word “is” has an equally elitist attachment to it. Actually, it’s almost worse.
Anyway. So our teacher asks us Should a person always love his or her country? And I bristle on the inside. Should. Should… according to whom? To you? To my neighbor? Who’s asking? Why are you even asking me that? Of course, my teacher was only trying to propel the dialogue, so I understood where he was going. He was basically asking us if there is ever an occasion when loving one’s country is not appropriate. To illustrate his point more clearly, he gave the example of North Korea.
Now, I think we can all agree that in terms of reputation, North Korea is one of the most oppressive and worst countries you could live in. So if you are living in North Korea, born and raised, knowing full well the state of things, are you a patriot? Or do you flee at the first chance you get?
I found this to be rather offensive, and a little too easy, since of course we could all agree that North Korea sounds like a nightmare. Whether or not its inhabitants are patriots, we agreed, is of course a matter of relativity. All persons benefiting from the way that the country does business might be patriots, and it is unlikely that the rest of them are.
So, because I am saucy, I posed this question to my teacher and the class.
“You asked us if a person should always love his country, and you cited North Korea. All of us can agree that it is a terrible place to live and our first reaction is that it is hard to believe one can love his country if the country is like that. But, let me ask you this. Should we love America?”
This brought us to another conversation, now about Imperialism, and the pride of a country and how it tries to extend its power into another. We agreed that America is, and I cannot remember the exact phrasing of my teacher’s question… it was either Should we be imperialistic or Do you think it’s right that we are?
Either way, my answer was a firm no. Like any golden moment, someone else at the exact same moment said Yes.
My teacher looked at me and, with a smile, challenged me to defend my position.
What happened next can only be characterized as a rant, although I tried very hard to speak calmly, quietly, and slowly. Those that know me personally will tell you that I don’t really understand the concept of an inside voice, and a regular speaking volume feels like whispering to me. That’s just regular conversation. In a heated debate, I tend to get louder and talk faster as I get worked up, which might explain why people are always looking at me with that funny expression and walking backwards with both palms facing towards me. Maybe they think I’ll go postal.
Anyway, as I (calmly, quietly, and slowly) explained my position, I could feel the blush spread from my chest up my neck and envelop my face. Part of this was just nervousness at speaking in front of strangers, part of it was also containing my bubbling excitement, but none of it was for fear of rejection or because I did not believe in what I was saying.
You see, I find the quality of our great nation to be severely lacking. We have poverty in our streets, children lacking quality education, the cost of living increasing and the wages remaining the same, the acceptance of unacceptable behavior going up while manners decrease, and corruption in about every corner you can find. And yet, we think we are so mighty. We think we are so fabulous that we should march into another nation and police its people. That we might somehow aid them in their poverty, their corruption, and their third-world ways of living.
Open your eyes, people. Take a hard look around you. Are we not living in a third world state in some ways? Sure, we have high-speed internet and airplanes and fast cars and pornography. We have freedom of speech (sort of, once you get through the red tape) and freedom to live as we choose (if we can find a way around more red tape), but are we really better off?
Now, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not an anarchist and I love my country. But, I am not blinded to its faults. I can only imagine what things might look like if ten years ago we had started funneling all our resources into our own borders. It feels like someone stopped paying close enough attention and it’s all gone to shit. Even in my small New England town there are people starving and freezing to death sleeping outside while we have a superintendent that makes 122,000 a year. How do I know this? Because his salary is public record. And what about the other one? 124,000 a year. And the assistant superintendent? 97,000 a year. The business administrator’s is 105,000!
Perhaps some people will say that this salary is a direct result of a lifetime’s hard work. And, yes, I have to agree with you. But I want to live in a world where we don’t abandon our civic duty to drive a BMW or have a summer-house in the Hamptons. I want to live in a world where instead of funneling money into a war, we funnel that money into our own social security system, our own hospitals, and our own schools.
I want to say, with pride, that my nation ranks top in the world in the following areas: least amount of poverty, most amount of citizens with post-secondary education, least amount of crime, least amount of debt, highest scores in education, least amount of citizens on long-term welfare, highest citizen satisfaction, and least amount of arrogance.
I don’t care that we think we have the best military, because we don’t. Aren’t people always saying that if China ever decides to wipe us out we are thoroughly fucked? And what good are the graduates of Harvard or MIT if children that want to learn aren’t allowed to tools to do so because our budget is being funneled into the war? Is it so special that we have pop stars and great music if the music and art programs are being cut around the country? And how impressive does your Escalade look if just down the road your neighbor has fallen on hard times and you turn a blind eye in your own selfishness?
We, collectively, have lost the art of extending the helping hand. We are supposed to live in a free society and what do we do with our freedom? We watch YouTube videos and stalk our ex-boyfriend on Facebook. I use “we” because I am just as guilty. We have also lost the art of humility. You strutting around bragging about how amazing your country is and then collecting your welfare to buy cigarettes and cheap a beer does not make you a patriot, it makes you the broken cog in the machine that is this nation.
Slandering our fellow Americans while they exercise their freedom of expression and then bragging about how you love being an American? Being an American is about being accepting and allowing each person to find their own way. Being a human being dictates that you treat others with kindness and respect. If you find yourself lacking in either of these qualities, please move to a fascist society and join them in their oppression of others.
Now I am getting all kinds of worked up thinking about all the ways that humanity, and this country, can be saved. Sometimes when I think about it I can feel a little helpless. But here is what I do on a daily basis to try to make a difference, any difference, no matter how minimal.
I am kind to others and do not condone cruelty in my presence. I admonish other people who behave in a manner that is inhumane. I buy breakfast for the person behind me in the McDonald’s drive through. I give to charity, or donate my belongings, or assist in a cause I believe in.
I speak up when I don’t believe something is right, and I pay attention. I understand how I am caught up in this mess and even if I have to do things I do not like, I don’t simply accept them and then FORGET about them. Even now, as I feel my rights being slowly drained from me as if someone had nicked a vain, I am aware.
I urge you all to do the same. We can love our nation and improve it one day at a time, as a collective unit, by being better people and inspiring others to do the same. Instead of stalking your ex’s new fling on Facebook, get your ass down to the community kitchen and ladle some soup. Go through your things and donate what’s too small to the homeless shelter. Participate in a forum about expression, write your senator, attend school board and city council meetings, and act like you belong and that you are accountable, that your existence means something, that you have a duty to yourself and those around you to affect change.
Being the best country in the world starts with being the best people in the world.