America: Mixed feelings and the challenge to be great

Federal tax rules keep ministers from saying very much about political candidates, but I am allowed to talk about hats. And there’s a certain cap I’d like to discuss.

Perhaps you’ve seen this one up close at a recent family reunion. It says “Make America Great Again,” and it’s inspired a number of variations, such as “Make Baseball Fun Again” (cry for help?) and “Make America Great Britain Again” (history majors = clever).

But not all the variations are light-hearted. A young New York resident named Krystal Lake custom-ordered a hat saying “America Was Never Great.” She wore it to work, and a photo of her went viral, with predictable results. Because her hat spoke a truth: There are large groups of Americans for whom America has not really ever been great. African-Americans, women, GLBTQ folks like myself, and many others do not pine for days of yore. Nostalgia is often a privilege of the privileged.

My (American) calendar tells me it’s Memorial Day, a holiday created not for mattress sales or cabin trips, but rather so we might honor or at least think about our war dead. It’s an appropriate weekend to do some serious reflection on our large, messy, gorgeous experiment of a country, a country that seems to be in the midst of a harrowing and sometimes sinister identity crisis. It can be hard to know how to feel about a nation that gets so much right and has gotten so much wrong.

The truth is I’m actually 75 percent in agreement with the original hat. The first three words, “Make America Great,” are something I can get behind. We should all work to make the whole world great, and greatness itself is not a bad thing.

The problem is that conversations about America’s greatness can deteriorate very quickly, such as when we label ourselves as “the greatest nation on earth.” Any country’s assertion of superiority or supremacy is dangerous, misguided, zero-sum tribalism. And by many measures of human well-being, America’s “greatest” status is demonstrably untrue.

Greatness has been a justification for so many of America’s wrong turns. We’re invading because it’s our job as the greatest to try to fix things. We must know best. “The greatest” also can serve as a slippery military recruitment tool. You want to sign up to serve the country that’s the greatest, especially if you end up sacrificing a limb, your mental health, or your life. In the struggle to make meaning out of war, violence, and death, there can be a strong desire to believe that the suffering and loss happened in the service of something great. It can be shattering for veterans and survivors to realize that the greatness wasn’t true, and for them to have to live with the ways that America fails to care for those who have served it.

For Americans with no direct military ties, seeing our country as the greatest can play a different role. If we’re the greatest, there’s no reason to strive for change, ask hard questions, or even vote. Americans who struggle must be flawed, not the systems of our great nation. The complacent consumers and compliant citizens among us can be content to think that they’re part of the best, viewing their own comfortable lives as proof.

The biggest question to ask about the famous hat is, “Great again for whom?” I get an understanding of the answer whenever I drive through my mom’s hometown – past the site of the motel that has been chopped up and carted away, the bars that used to open every afternoon, the gas stations now abandoned, the industrial sites now shuttered. Even the newer motel, the one I stayed in a year ago for my uncle’s funeral, has gone out of business. The town’s working-class people never got rich, but they have seen better times – earlier, more prosperous decades when America seemed greater to them than it does now.

Feelings about one’s country are rarely separate from what one has seen with one’s own eyes. And if I paid attention to only my own life story, I really should think America is the greatest. I grew up in the middle of the middle class; I went to good public schools and a good public university; I’ve never been laid off. Although being gay did reduce some options for me, particularly in terms where I felt I could live openly, my privileges helped me find safe places to be. And in one way, being gay was for me a privilege: it exempted me from any risk of getting caught up in America’s military adventurism.

Eventually, I came around to the idea that, even though I personally was fine with the Pentagon’s exclusions, they were unfair and harmful to many GLBTQ people. And militarism was nevertheless taking a huge toll, overseas and at home, particularly in less prosperous communities where they don’t need a holiday to be reminded about casualties.

I came around on these issues because I had eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to feel what other people were going through. Ambiguous, grown-up, complicated feelings about one’s country come from understanding the miseries caused by American policies and actions, both within our borders and well beyond them, and understanding how all that co-exists with all the goodness that Americans have done and can do.

Global perspectives also help with seeing all sides. I remember trying to explain to my partner’s Swedish cousins the concept of college tuition. Why would you have that? they asked. The government funds the university, there’s nothing more to pay. In another conversation, we learned that school lunch is free across Sweden. We explained that, in America, some students get free or discounted lunches, depending on family income, while other kids pay full price. You shame the poor by requiring them to prove their poverty? In a word, yes. We shared the chagrin and explained that American culture puts a high value on wealthy people being able to keep the money they’ve amassed, and that Americans tend to have an underlying suspicion that the poor deserve their fate. There’s nothing great about all that.

I had no idea at the time, but our conversations could have been straight out of Michael Moore’s 2015 movie “Where to Invade Next,” in which residents of places like Norway and Italy give Moore baffled looks when he asks about the dearth of guns or hands them photos of American school lunches. (“Frankly, that’s not food,” says a school chef in France.)

The movie has many hilarious moments. But it’s also utterly heartbreaking for anyone who understands America’s unrealized potential. We have the wealth but not the will. We have made an idol out of a disconnected, consumption-based concept of freedom. And radical individualism and a valorization of greed and violence have damaged so much of our shared life.

Critical thinkers in the United States have long been told to “love it or leave it” – a simplistic false choice that omits the option of making America into something better. If we didn’t love it at all, if we didn’t feel at least some way at home here, if we didn’t have any hope whatsoever for the USA, maybe more of us with means and privileges would try to leave. Google searches for “moving to Canada” have spiked, but becoming expats is not something that most of us are going to do.

One thing we can do is continue to be keepers of the truth, and to support media and educational institutions that deal in facts and support critical thought. The truth is in grave danger; facts are losing ground to emotion and identity in shaping Americans’ views of public figures and 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 can start by making sure we’re being truthful with ourselves. As Moore says 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 allow us to live with the ambiguity and live with integrity.

The second thing we can do is to remember that positive change is possible. I’ve already mentioned the sweeping legal advances for GLBT people. Awareness of the problems with racialized policing is at an all-time high. 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 we should remember that the problems are usually interconnected. Economic inequality makes it easier to recruit lower-income Americans into the military. Public military spending boosts corporate profits. Private profits fund the campaigns of politicians who see nothing wrong with inequality or war. Around and around these things go, systemic cycles of greed and exploitation, grinding up communities and individual lives. It usually takes some concerned citizens or civic-minded public officials to throw a wrench into the works, in the form of a lawsuit, or legislation, or protest.

The gears may not come to a halt immediately – in fact, it can take generations. But the work of change is worth doing. And there’s no one but us to try to make America truly great, for all, for the very first time.