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Putting America Right

By Howard Williams

Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right, when wrong, to be put right.

— Carl Schurz (1829-1906), abolitionist, Civil War general, statesman.

If Carl Schurz were here today, I believe he’d say we have lots of putting right to do.


I am an old-fashioned patriot. At baseball games, I stand for “The Star Spangled Banner” and sing it, too. I also like “This Land is Your Land,” “God Bless America,” and “America the Beautiful.” Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of my favorite flicks. I think this is the best country there is and that democracy is so good that Florida elections officials should try it. I believe in the uniqueness of America. I’ve been all around the world and liked most places I saw, but I believe our society is better than the others — not because of our ethnic background; after all we’re all different ethnicities. I believe our country’s better because of democracy and the never-ceasing efforts to broaden it throughout our society. I believe the First Amendment is one of the finest sentences in any language. I believe that same amendment gives the right to desecrate the flag, but I also believe anyone who does is an idiot — at best. And it’s a beautiful flag. I think our land is the most beautiful and I believe that beauty is still expressed in our culture.

But I also believe that patriotism is wanting to improve our selves. That’s more important to me than singing the National Anthem at ballgames or flying the flag on the 4th. In life things get better or they get worse. Rarely do things remain static and never for long. And I fear that our society is falling.

This war in Iraq is showing us our best and our worst. We should leave and we should never have gone there in the first place. But since we are there, I am glad — and yes, proud — that American troops overthrew that mass-murdering dictator and pulled him out of his hole. Many Americans secretly fear that the only way enough of us will wise up to Bush’s hoax will come at the cost of more of our sons and daughters. Yet when reading an article about just one American who has been killed or maimed over there, we are subtly reminded that war doesn’t just kill more of us. War kills the best of us. And how can we stand to lose one more of our best?

We know some of the war’s obvious examples of being at our worst: the deeds of our guards at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah and elsewhere, the still undeclared motives of the administration that got us in this mess in the first place. But those are examples of what we’re doing wrong in this unnecessary war.

What really is our worst is not what is happening in the war by American soldiers who are stuck in a bad situation. What is our worst is revealed by looking at the reasons why we are in Iraq. Not the reasons why Bush & Co. are in Iraq. The reasons we — America — are in Iraq will tell us what we — not Bush — are doing wrong and what we can do about it.

Reverend Billy Talen says we must forgive each other and ourselves. A worthy belief.

But in order to forgive, a person must know what is being forgiven. Could we even pretend that we would be abusing prisoners and bombing civilians for the sake of lies and short-term politics if we weren’t consuming 35% of the earth’s resources? Our obesity is what is driving us and driving is making us obese. Obesity is the national disease, in which being physically overweight is but one symptom. Other symptoms abound: working two or three jobs to maintain this all-time record of consumption; using Afghans to fight first the Soviets and then Al Qaeda, and then forgetting them till next time; doping our children and ourselves with Ritalin and Prozac while studies state that we’re unhappier than we were in the Great Depression; meekly surrendering more and more sovereignty to corporations while arming ourselves to the teeth against a few hundred men with boxcutters; living increasingly urbanized, sedentary, and techno-mediated lives; buying more gasoline and doing less recycling. The list goes on.

But I did say that this war is bringing out our best side, too. And after we do recognize and forgive our “worsts,” we still have to use our “bests” to get us out of this mess.

Right now we’re seeing our best in the resistance to this self-proclaimed wannabe dictator. Michael Moore has produced and distributed against great odds from corporate powers Fahrenheit 9/11, the most popular documentary of all time. As important as Moore’s contribution is, it is being expanded by the legions of Americans who are seeing this movie and questioning the corporate media that now frantically tries to justify its pathetic failure to expose the Bush-Saudi Axis of Banality. And it is being expanded by those who honestly question Moore’s film. Those critics are not running from the questions that Fahrenheit 9/11 has raised, and in sincerely questioning the film they will keep the issues in our scope. Moore’s flick and the responses it inspires are the simple give-and-take communications of a free society that grows strong by facing itself and its own weaknesses.

Moore’s film is just one example of our “bests.” That list goes on as well. It includes our natural heritage. It includes our culture. It includes our Revolution, which wasn’t just the acts of a few wealthy “Great White Men.” In fact, those same GWM recognized the contributions of those who weren’t wealthy or white or men. Franklin and Jefferson both credited the Iroquois federation for its checks-and-balances form of government, which found its way into the Constitution. The contributions of black people to the Revolution helped spur the first major wave of abolition in North America. By 1787 slavery had been abolished in New England, Pennsylvania, and the vast “Old Northwest.”

We need to recognize our worsts. We need to forgive our worsts. We need to use our bests.

We need to remember that, for all our faults, people all over the world want to live here and many die trying to do just that. We need to remember that for all the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, African Americans express a remarkable faith in America. The African-American novelist Ralph Ellison stated that to be American is to be black, no matter what your color. We need to remember that for all the lies and genocide, Native Americans also express a remarkable faith in America. The writer James A. Thom tells the story of a Shawnee military veteran and a well-meaning white man who asks how he could fight “for a country that’s treated your people the way it has.” The Shawnee smiles and says, “You palefaces still can’t understand that this is our country.”

We need to remember that it may be their government, but it’s our country.


This article first appeared in Crazy 8s, a monthly publication edited by Howard Williams and available at fine bookstores throughout San Francisco.