What I love about America

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these — the homeless, tempest-tossed — to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

—Emma Lazarus
From "The New Colossus," 1883

Recently, I wrote a column on what I love about this town [Embracing the hassle of Oak Park, June 12]. A reader who thinks conservatives are more patriotic than liberals challenged me to do the same for America for July 4th.

There is much to love about America, which, as I've often said before, is the idealized version of the United States. Every American loves America. Every American has mixed feelings about the United States. Our attitudes change depending on how great the perceived gap between the ideal and the real.

The passage quoted above, for instance, which never fails to move me — especially when it is sung, as it was, beautifully, last Sunday morning at Unity Temple — is familiar to many from the plaque which has been attached to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty since 1903. It describes a compassionate, open, welcoming America and recognizes that we are at our best when we are a liberal democracy. Liberal means free, open and just, i.e. respecting the dignity and equality of every human being. What differs from that, to the extent of the difference, as Abraham Lincoln said 150 years ago, is no democracy.

I love the America described on the Statue of Liberty. I love the America that welcomes the wretched and the tempest-tossed from other shores, yearning to breathe free. I'm not so thrilled by a country that deploys drones to patrol our southern border. I do not love the more cold-hearted America that places a higher value on border security than on pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers who have lived and raised families and made contributions to who we are.

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be. …
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above. …

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again. …

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

—Langston Hughes

I love that those who have been treated badly by the United States still believe in America because it is so beautiful. America has never been, yet slowly, inexorably, despite frustrating lapses, we are closing the gap between the United States and America. I love the Emancipation Proclamation, the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights, women's rights, and most recently, gay rights movements. We have moved forward, in spite of those who work so hard to prevent it, because the ideal is that good, that powerful. I love this about us. I love that in spite of our racism, we elected an African American — twice! Inconceivable just 10 years ago. And two decisions the same week in favor of same-sex marriage by a Supreme Court with a conservative majority. There is much to love about a country creeping closer to the land we have never been.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

—Abraham Lincoln
Second Inaugural Address, 1865

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

—Abraham Lincoln

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.

—Abraham Lincoln
Gettysburg Address, 1863

I love the America dedicated to peace, which rejects torture, pre-emptive invasions, and Guantanamo-style gulags, which despises these abominations as a fundamental violation of who we are. I love the America that refuses not only to be a slave but also a master, the country that not only espouses equality but lives it. I love the America that would actually fight a war to abolish slavery and preserve the Union, suffering staggering losses to do so. I would love any country that produced an extraordinary leader — and human being — like Abraham Lincoln.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." … I have a dream that my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. … This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. … And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!"

—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
March on Washington, 1963

I love the fact that there are Americans who still try to hold us to our creed, who will never accept widening income inequality and social injustice, who understand that government is not just of the people and by the people but for the people, and not just for those with enough wealth to buy influence.

There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what's right with America.

—Bill Clinton
First inaugural address, 1992

I love many things about this country. I love our national parks and the efforts to conserve our natural heritage. I love the voters in the 2012 election who waited hours in Florida, long after the outcome was decided, because nobody was going to deprive them of casting their vote. I love FDR's New Deal and LBJ's War on Poverty, not because it succeeded but because it was attempted. I love Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. And I will love universal health care when it finally happens — and it will.

I love the Apollo moon landings and the sheer nerve and resourcefulness it took and the national pride it generated. I love the extraordinary goodness and courage and generosity of the American people in the wake of disasters.

I love freedom of speech when it's protected and involves actual speech, not money, and the individual, not corporations. I love freedom of worship and freedom from worship. I love our cultural vitality — our films (e.g. Lincoln), our plays (e.g. Our Town), our music (e.g. Appalachian Spring by Copland and Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin) and our poetry (see examples above) which tell our story and help us understand who we are.

I love our system of public education, public libraries, public transportation, public health, public art, public service announcements, public squares, public knowledge, public domain, public trials, and the public sector. I love anything that goes beyond self-interest and shores up the common good.

On July 4th each year, quietly, I celebrate an America with malice toward none and charity toward all, an America that is neither slave nor master. I celebrate government for the people, not for powerful moneyed interests. I celebrate a country that lifts its lamp beside our golden door. I celebrate an America that is not yet but will be, an America where what's right about us cures what's wrong about us, an America that lives up to its creed — that all men and women are created equal.

July 4th is our day to celebrate the dream. The day after, we go back to the hard work of closing the gap between the ideal and the reality.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Mike from Oak Park  

Posted: July 10th, 2013 7:44 AM

"Liberal means free, open and just." Workers at the village are super-controlled, silenced and treated unfairly. Oak Park is not run by liberals.

Aging Disgracefully from Oak Park  

Posted: July 8th, 2013 12:00 PM

I guess the part I like best is "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what's right with America."

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