Pride and Good Fortune

Science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote a great piece today called “Status Check, Re: USA” as his tribute to the 4th of July. Here is a short excerpt, where he is asking himself if he is proud to be an American:

I am. The United States, like so many things, is better as an idealized concept than it is as an actual entity, on account that the nation is made up of people, and while most people mean well, in a day-to-day sense they struggle with their ideals, which are often so inconvenient to their desires. And so, like a married family-values politician with a Craigslist personal ad, or a vegan Febreezing the apartment so no one will catch the smell of bacon, America often finds itself failing its own expectations for itself and others.

I’m a fan of Scalzi, and his piece is well worth reading. He makes mention of what is good about the USA, as well as nodding to the areas where the country stumbles. It reminded me of an interview I read with the late, great Utah Phillips several years ago in The Progressive magazine. Phillips, a lifelong peace activist and socialist/anarchist, is a man who could easily be forgiven for being pessimistic of the state of this nation, particularly given the time of the interview (September 2003) and the administration in power at the time. Not Utah Phillips, though, as revealed in this quote from the interview:

“You know, every city, every town I go to, for the past forty years, big or little, I have found cooperative child day care, an organic food store, alternative medicine services, all of the interventions, none of which existed when I was in high school. Anywhere. Now they are everywhere I go. Taken together, that is a massive amount of energy. A tremendous amount of energy! That is why I am so optimistic. There are too many people doing too many good things for me to afford the luxury of being pessimistic. I’m like Desmond Tutu says, I am a prisoner of optimism. I cannot betray that kind of optimism.”

At the time I felt better for having read the interview. And in a small way, I was glad I read Scalzi’s post first thing this morning.

I still don’t get the notion of being “proud” to be American, though. I’m not. I live here because the cosmos saw fit to deliver me in North America as opposed to, say, the Sudan. I have very little, if anything, to do with what this country is or is not. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been born in this country. I’m lucky to have a great family and live in a beautiful state with luxury at my fingertips that most people of the world can only dream about. There is more love in my life than I feel I deserve sometimes, and for that I am most fortunate. If ever a man were blessed, it is me, and sitting here basking in the glow of a full belly and skin warmed by a day spent in the company of loved ones I am more aware of it than ever.

I can’t help feeling a little sad, though, as I listen to the crackle of fireworks, the whistles of rockets and the low thuds of explosions reverberating throughout the city. I’m thinking of the destruction this country is visiting on people who didn’t have the good fortune to be born here, in places all over the world, for . . . what? I’m not one of those people who are convinced that bombs and troop deployments are deterrents for whatever threats our country faces. Meanwhile there is a new sheriff in town in Afghanistan, where over 1100 American soldiers have been killed. That grim number is over 4300 in Iraq. How many Americans out lighting sparklers and shooting off bottle rockets are even aware of that? How many people are even directly affected by these wars? How many people go through their day to day lives without even thinking about them? The upper echelons of our government and the Pentagon and the hold all those in power have over our media do an excellent job of keeping as much of that awareness out of the public eye as possible, to grim effect. We are kept blissfully ignorant, and that bothers me.

Perhaps my gloom is tied directly to the book I read this weekend, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It is a book of short stories on Vietnam, and it is heartbreaking. It reminded me that we have been sending young men to die for dubious reasons for decades. It reminded me of the men and women — Marines — I saw when I was consulting on a project at Camp Lejeune, NC, a few years ago, and how amazingly, terribly young they looked. It reminded me of the horrible things these kids endure, and how so many are returned to society unprepared to deal with them, their lives irrevocably changed. No amount of jingoistic slogans on the bumpers of minivans and SUVs will help either. Just what exactly does “I support our troops!” mean anyway? Support them being sent off blindly to die?

Here is an excerpt from the story “In the Field” from The Things They Carried:

When a man died, there had to be blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame whole nations. You could blame God. You could blame munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.

In the field, though, the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever.

Who among us isn’t carrying blame for the thousands and thousands of innocents who have died as a result of our previous leader’s military fantasies, which our current leader has been all too willing to continue? It depresses me, and there are those who would scoff and say it’s unpatriotic to feel this way, or that “can’t we just celebrate the good the USA does in the world on this of all days?!” I don’t know. Maybe I’d feel better if I thought we ever did collectively look in the mirror as a nation and see the ugly stuff too. Until we do, I think too much that is painful and counter-productive to making the world a better place will continue to happen, while the majority of us spend our days blissfully, willfully, unaware.

Late as it is now, the booming fireworks display from the mall a couple miles away that is rattling my house and sending my dogs into a tizzy must be just about over. I’m sure the band has packed up their instruments and their Sousa charts, ready to go home as soon as the mayhem has completed. Tomorrow there will be stories in the paper of fireworks-caused injuries, maybe some reports of fires in the area, and all the usual post-4th of July stuff. By Tuesday we’ll be back to scandals over which celebrity has scandalously fucked whichever other celebrity, not to mention more wild speculation on where basketball superstar Lebron James will be playing next year.

As for the day-to-day minutia of roadside bombs and heartbroken refugees? You may be able to find information on it, if you dig for it. That’s a state of affairs not particularly worth celebrating, if you ask me.