What’s Good? What’s Bad?
Thursday, July 1, 2004
A few weeks ago, with the holiday approaching, the nation at war, and an election season heating up, we ran an ad in the paper asking two questions: What’s good about America? What’s wrong with America?
We threw out a couple of ideas, and asked readers to
respond. Some of the essays that we received are excerpted
below. More can be found in a second article on our Web site.
To participate in the conversation, email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
—Eric Johnson, editor
Let’s Learn Some Humility
What’s good about America? Our Constitution. Our Bill of Rights. Our citizens who still believe in both.
Our citizens who haven’t forgotten that the Golden Rule means “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” not “The ones with the gold make the rules.”
The ideals of political liberty, intellectual freedom, and economic opportunity. The diversity of cultures, both native and immigrant. The sense of spaciousness, of room to breathe and more freely. All this, and American roots music too—gospel, blues, bluegrass, jazz, country, rock…
What’s wrong with America? Sexual hysteria: Puritans (sexual repression) vs. pimps (sexual exploitation)—neither side being capable of a mature attitude toward sexuality.
Greed: Politicians selling their souls for power; CEO’s preaching free enterprise while practicing monopolism.
Trendy bigotry: A cowardly, mean-spirited culture that encourages us to duck responsibility for the way we treat others.
Finally, there’s America’s Achilles heel: false pride. Taking pride not in our ideals of liberty and justice for all, but only in our material wealth and our military might. False pride convinces us that we can do no wrong; that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world; and that we are answerable to no one.
Fake pride will take us down, unless we replace it with humility—admitting our mistakes; mending fences; seeking advice from other nations, even if they don’t always tell us what we want to hear.
Patriotism? Let’s redefine it as constructive criticism, not blind loyalty. True patriots want their country to be the best it can be. America needs to walk its talk about liberty and justice.
No more torture, which dehumanizes perpetrator and victim alike. Overhaul the Patriot Act to preserve our civil liberties. Improve the quality of life for all Americans: clean air and water, decent schools, a living wage.
Get out of Iraq, for good—we’ve given them too many reasons never to trust us again. If we’re to regain our nation’s soul and the world’s respect, we dare do no less.
Penelope Ellsworth >> Salinas
The Struggle Continues
What’s good about America? How about a noisy negotiating room full of 50 Monterey Peninsula hotel workers—born in the US, Mexico, the Philippines, El Salvador, Fiji, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, Italy, and Canada—challenging a company owned by one of the richest families in world history to reward a hard day’s work with a fair day’s pay?
How about when, after the contract was signed, these same hotel workers showed up at other Monterey Peninsula hotels to support other hospitality employees in their contract negotiations?
How about when all the area hotel contracts were completed, we now find these same Monterey Peninsula hotel workers in rallies and marches supporting the contract campaigns of hotel workers down in Los Angeles and up in San Francisco?
Many of our Monterey Peninsula workers are new to this country, and they have helped rejuvenate a long and great American tradition of working together for the common good—of solidarity in the struggle for freedom and fairness. At a time when business, political, and media powers are rapidly consolidating, we can find hope in the inspiring efforts of those like the Monterey Peninsula hotel workers. They seek to put power back where it belongs in a democracy: with the people.
Mark Weller >> Seaside
The Law of the Jungle
I like America, it is a lion in the global jungle, although there are a few thorns in its paws. One of the thorns is the situation of Affirmative Action.
Let us jump back in time before Affirmative Action became a common term. The year is 1968. The civil rights movement is at a fever pitch. A small independent film knocks the socks off the Hollywood machine; Night Of The Living Dead, a groundbreaking (pun intended) zombie film. The lead was played superbly by Duane Jones, an African-American actor.
In an interview, one of the producers, Russ Streiner, was asked why they chose a black to play the lead. Russ stated that the simple truth of the matter was that he was the best person for the part. If he was an Oriental, an American Indian or an Eskimo, it didn’t matter. Bottom line: Duane Jones could act. Color was not an issue on his being chosen for the role.
If Indiana Jones had been played by a talented African-American or Hispanic, would the film lose its edge? No.
Job applications should omit sections to select race and gender. Merit and qualifications are all that should matter. If I am on the operating table, I don’t care if the surgeon is a hermaphrodite, as long as he/she has the knowledge and skill to perform the operation.
Second, the debate regarding hate crimes. This term should be abolished. Murder is murder. The hate crime arena poses interesting questions. We are aware of the obvious hate crimes, but what about the not-so-obvious? If a gay murders a straight, is that a hate crime? What if a gay murders a gay? Hate crime? Yes. All hate crimes.
Death is not Orwellian in the sense that some are more dead than others. We should emulate Death’s vision: Death accepts everyone equally, regardless of race, creed, sexual preferences, and religion.
We should embrace the diversity of America and band together as humans regardless. Color and sexual preference shouldn’t matter. We all desire the American Dream: steady job, a home, family, stability. It is bad enough we have to strive for these than to be awakened from the dream by the nightmares of bigotry and intolerance.
Our time here is short. We must love everyone equally. We must embrace fellow humans, our fellow Americans, regardless. We must show that acceptance is not exclusive to Death. We must unite in this place called America.
Clark Coleman >> Pacific Grove
Global Dreams and Nightmares
America does not belong to herself alone. Due to the ideals and dreams invested in her, she belongs to the whole world.
For Europeans, Africans, and Asians, “America” means the land from Patagonia to Alaska. Britain identified its colonies alone as “America.” So Americans accept the definition of their colonizers.
Does America mean something different for women than for men? Or does it matter, for women, from which people they came?
To the American Indian nations, whose land we inhabited, who is America? Surprise? Terror? America is loss, betrayal, broken promises. Damaged earth.
The speeches, songs, art, and essays of the African-Americans who built America portray us in a range of tones and colors, from horror and despair to hope and insistence.
We are where dignity, family and ethnicity are torn away. We are freedom promised, then redefined in token quantities. We are about a new faith, an elusive identity, a democratic ideal. We are a nation of poverty and struggle, where “some of us are making it work.”
We are the Latin American shadows in restaurants, and clumps in the field. We are those who don’t belong, although we’ve always been Americans. European and Asian immigrants are favored above us. We grab for the Dream, in case it might work, “con la ayuda de Dios.”
“We, the people” were Shanghaied to tie the Atlantic to the Pacific. Not meant for inclusion, we’ve made ourselves equal.
We came from Old Europe with the dream of owning a piece of land, our own home. We came with the belief that in the USA we would all be equal; that, through our labor, our children would inherit the earth.
We are the shapers of productive democracy. We are responsible to make our nation work. We stop at nothing. We have priorities. Nothing else matters. God favors us because of our faith and hard work. If you don’t make it here, it’s because you are lazy, unwilling. Perhaps, your reward is in Heaven.
We have commissioned ourselves to make the Earth profitable, to replicate our democracy on a global scale. We, like our British and French forefathers, are the only ones who know true law and culture. If you don’t recognize our corporate capitalism, our Judeo-Christian religion and our language, you need some shaping. We will save you.
We define ourselves by what we cannot be: communists. We don’t accept class struggle. We prefer to define our problems by race and culture.
We’re not thinkers. Thinking ain’t macho. We favor sports. Who cares what the difference is between Iraq and Afghanistan!
The richest nation in the world, we can’t afford education for our children. Schools look like factories. Children pay for college by joining the military.
America is not a melting pot. People are evaporated and burnt, not forged into anything beautiful. We’re addicts to work, cars, drugs and violence.
Mark Poehner >> Monterey
Compassion—Even for the President
What’s Good About America? Its Compassion. What’s Wrong with America? Its Leadership.
A kinder, more humble, more caring people than Americans would be hard to find. But when George W. Bush mouths the word “compassion,” chills dart up my spine.
This is an administration bent on blatant paybacks to friends and contributors at everyone else’s expense. Its single truth: What is good for extractive profits is good for the country.
Trees and caribou don’t contribute cash, so Bush’s environmental policy opens majestic old forests for commercial logging, and protected wilderness for domestic oil exploration. President Bush’s foreign policy confuses justice with punishment, disagreement with treachery, and cultural differences with evil.
Even if Bush does not win reelection, or otherwise get elected, the damage he has done will live on in the form of zealots in judicial robes that will set misguided legal precedents for hundreds of years.
Mindful that the real source of American power does not come from its superior war machine, but from its Constitution, its leadership in the global community, its democracy, its history of respect for human rights, and its compassion, George Bush has seriously weakened America. For this he deserves no praise, only reproach.
But another great American, Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us that true nonviolence means “you not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” Longfellow reminded us, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” The Dalai Lama often speaks of the Chinese with gratitude, saying they have given him the “unavoidable opportunity” to practice compassion and cultivate forgiveness.
Perhaps the consequence of our long suffering under the Bush regime will be a complacent body politic that wakes up and feels an urgent need for a U-turn. The Bush years could be the threshold to another Great Society, an era of great compassion in which elected officials become representatives of the people again and restore the environment, reinvigorate social programs, and bring fairness and integrity back to government.
Maybe one day, we can have gratitude and compassion even for Bush! Meanwhile, let’s makes sure he returns safely to Crawford, Texas, and lives out his days in peace so Americans can get back to doing what they are really good at: acting with real compassion for others.
Allan Hunt Badiner >> Big Sur
America is such a big country, and it has regional and individual differences, like most modern nations. I can only express what I see is good and wrong with America from my experience living in the Monterey/Salinas area and dealing with outsiders who constantly wander through here from all over the country and the world.
There is plenty of food and a wide variety. People who starve do so from their own incompetence or the incompetence of those in charge of their welfare, as in the case of children. The government allows and, in some cases, encourages questionable food additives and practices. As a species, man eats anything humanly possible and limits his intake more from cultural bias than logic. The law caters to this bias and even bans some things purely for political reasons.
The country is safe. I have never felt the need of a firearm. I am baffled with the attitude that an offensive weapon is defensive, or that there is bravery hiding behind a weapon. I see little courage in being in a well-armed pack, yet we are supposed to call individuals in such groups brave if the government sanctions them.
One can still express oneself. One has to use common sense. One doesn’t go to a church and denounce its members. With the decline of independent newspapers, corporate mass media and overpopulation, it is difficult to get diverse points of view. As our numbers increase, the importance of the individual decreases and diversity is discouraged and stifled.
America is plagued by normal human problems: laziness, greed, arrogance and hypocrisy. It claims to be generous, yet exploits the resources of the world for itself. It often fails to see itself as the bully or the instigator in a conflict. It pretends to be the innocent virgin when it is too old and too experienced for such a role.
America is full of dichotomy. It preaches honor and has none. It preaches honesty and lies. It preaches equality and practices discrimination. It preaches individualism and persecutes the individual. It preaches good government, but it maintains corrupt regimes. It preaches free press and supports censorship. The dichotomy list goes on. Yet, America manages to prosper and survive.
W.L. McAtee >> Salinas
Heroism in Private
I had been reading a book on post-Civil War thinking in America when I came upon a quote by William James: “A great nation is not saved by wars, it is saved by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.”
These lines were recited by James in 1897 in a speech to honor Robert Gould Shaw, who died at Fort Wargner. After reading this, I immediately thought of the war in Iraq. I find it hard to believe that through all the wars, all the fighting, all the losses the world has suffered, so little has really changed in America. And I wondered, have we learned anything from the past, or are we borne back ceaselessly into it as tragically as was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby”?
James was part of a group of philosophers, called Pragmatists, who changed the way we thought as Americans after the Civil War. He and his friends—Dewey, Peirce and Holmes—were the Fab Four of the mid-1800s.
The Civil War was and still is the deadliest war ever fought on American soil. Things had to change after our nation suffered so many casualties at home. Pragmatism teaches us that new ideas evolve as our needs change.
The meaning of an idea lies in the observable and practical consequences of the idea itself. After the Civil War, we had to think differently because we needed to live differently in order to survive.
Unlike the Civil War, today’s war in Iraq isn’t taking place at home. We are lucky in this fact. It also allows us to not confront what is horrible about war. We can choose to watch TV, listen to the radio, read the paper—or not. Our information is filtered and we can’t even begin to know how.
The consequence of this distancing is that we have forgotten the words and ideologies of the past, ideas borne out of the necessity to make sense of the consequences of a war in which the suffering and loss was immediate and in our backyard. We are not changing the way we think or act because we live under the protected illusion that there is no need to. Instead, we can sit comfortably and let the elected officials think for us, repeat past mistakes, invent a current list of errors, tumble off mountain bikes.
James said that great nations were saved by “acts without external picturesqueness.” What he was referring to was the lonely courage of every person who quietly fights to prevent war from occurring, and this is still true. Our nation and “we the people,” will only be saved when we make the decision to learn the hard lessons of life from the lives of those who have fallen before us. And, when we start preferring true men or women to empty quacks as leaders.
Lisa Coscino >> Pacific Grove
Put Effort into Thought
The most obvious difference between the United States and most other countries is the size and scale of its institutions. An outcome of a large government is that an individual does not see an immediate effect of his actions. Much time would need to be devoted, usually beyond the resources of most individuals, to pursue a major impact on policy.
Another result of a huge bureaucracy is lack of accountability. Detrimental policy may be executed without majority consent. Common examples are the US invasions of foreign countries.
Corporations are the most apparent mega-institutions. Their influence spans the globe. Even in areas as remote as villages in China, locals believe in the superiority of American brands. Indeed, the marketing industry should be proud.
If a foreigner were to step foot on the US for the first time and turn on the television during prime time, he would think the main goal in life was to become famous and make money. The media provides many distractions, such as movies and sports, that entice us away from important matters.
Mass communications seemingly has also produced a certain uniformity of thought. Most behaviors and results are defined in terms of monetary value. For example, if one were to overconsume food and become obese, that would increase the GDP. Economists would hail that as good news. One needs to dig deeper in order to make sense of the issues.
America still ranks at the top in terms of degrees of freedom. A free flow of quality information is available in this country. We can use it to gain deeper insight into ourselves and the world. However, we must put thought into it.
Ambrose Toan >> Salinas
Don’t Forget to Vote
What happened? We are supposed to be a democracy. We are supposed to be a beacon of light to the world and serve as an example about how great democracy is. Instead, we are reviled around the world, and our own democratic freedoms have been forfeited in the name of the “war against terrorism.”
We have allowed ourselves to be duped by a hidden agenda belonging to the ultra-conservative executive arm of our government. Sadly, the legislative arm of our government, representatives elected by “the people,” also allowed themselves to be misled by the current administration.
Trying not to appear unpatriotic and standing behind the leader of the “free” world, we stood dumbfounded as our government made plans to preemptively strike at a country that many, if not most, citizens realized was not responsible for 9/11. We heard the respected Colin Powell address the United Nations about the imminent threat of non-existent WMD. We saw our representatives cave in to the authority of the White House and the false statements made by the administration. Despite international protests, the US administration thumbed their nose at the world, deciding to invade Iraq with little apparent thought of the consequences.
Reagan’s name back in the news has further inspired me to voice my opinion about the dishonesty and corruption currently in the administration of our government. We were brought into the severe problems our country is now facing based on the ineptitude of our executive branch, yet Reagan had already denigrated our country during the Iran/Contra years. I was amazed that there was more attention paid to Clinton’s inconsequential mistresses than to the deaths of uncountable innocents in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador during the Reagan/Bush I rule, and to the arming of Iran and Iraq during their reign.
We have been either ignored or lied to by this administration, resulting in loss of life and respect. It is time to end the reign of the arrogant and secretive Bush/Cheney duo. Please vote for a new administration in November, even earlier if possible. Do we really need to keep paying Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft to lie to us about Gitmo or Abu Gharaib?
I admire journalists who write for a living. It is not a job for wimps. I am grateful that we still have the freedom to write about issues that do not coincide with the views of our government. I dedicate this essay to my recently-deceased father, a life-long, staunchly conservative Republican, who said he could not vote the party line this year. Unfortunately, his vote won’t count this year. Ours will.
Diane Glim >> Pacific Grove
To Hell With The Weekly
What’s wrong with America? The hatefulness of “liberal” political discourse exemplified by the omission of any reference to the death of the 40th President of this great country in the June 10 issue of your so-called “newspaper.”
Andrew Allison >> Carmel
God Has Abandoned Us
America is known as the land of the free. We do have freedom—freedom to do what is right. Freedom to live the way our Creator meant us to live. We have abused that freedom. We have taken that freedom to mean that we can live any way we want. And now here in America we are reaping the consequences of our ungodly way of living.
There is a spirit of lawlessness rising in America. Crime is out of control. Kids are killing kids. Teens are killing themselves in record numbers. They have no hope.
Life is becoming valueless. Drug abuse and alcoholism is on the rise. Most marriages end in divorce. There is an epidemic of kids being raised without the benefit of having both parents.
Our schools are failing. The U.S. economy is approaching collapse. Sickness and disease are rampant. There has been a huge increase in natural disasters. We daily live with the threat of terrorism.
These are the consequences of the God of the Bible being pushed out of this country. Oh, it’s popular to mention God to a degree. But only a god who turns his back on evil. The God of the Bible is a God of righteousness and holiness. There are always consequences to sin. Slowly but surely He is lifting His hand of blessing and protection that has been on this nation for 200 years. We need to wake up here in America and get back to our Christian roots.
Psalms 33:12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord…
Psalms 9:17 The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.
Beverly Shaffer >> Prunedale
Our God Bless Our America
“In God We Trust” has been the American way for centuries. The freedom of religious belief was a critical part of the founding basis by our forefathers, the intent of their toil and struggle, the reason innumerable numbers of immigrants sacrificed their lives so that we, our children, and our children’s children might relish in the freedom to worship the god of our choice.
Today, there are those who would remove God from our government. Yes, I appreciate the premise of “separation of church and state.” However, while there are those who wish to eliminate God from schools, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc., I don’t recall them expressing these same objections when it comes to sanctioning the closing of county, state and federal offices to celebrate religious holidays, Easter and Christmas for example. I suppose extra time off with pay appeals to every segment of the population, believers, or otherwise.
Religious freedom is paramount in our democracy. If it works, why do we need to fix it? I respect those who are atheist or agnostic; that is their right. In a free country, we have the right to choose our god, or not to believe in God at all. I don’t pretend to be an expert in legal matters, but from where I sit, the law appears based on intent.
Clearly, our forefathers intent was to seek religious freedom. Religious oppression was one of the primary reasons they sought a better life and a better form of government.
I approach life from a common sense perspective and attempt to analyze issues in logical terms. Apparently, the law seeks the common good. Just as eminent domain can justify the taking of one’s individual property for the good of the majority, it seems obvious that if the majority of the US citizenry believes in a God (of some form), and favors leaving God in our Pledge of Allegiance, etc.—should not the majority prevail? Those who do not believe are still afforded the freedom not to believe.
Without our God, where are we? Look around; tell me what you see? Our culture is degrading. Ideals, morals, principles are fading. Even common courtesy is nearly non-existent. There are wars and rumors of wars. Don’t we need a constant reminder of who we are, why we are here, and from whence we came? We need our God. May he forever bless our America.
Jan Mitchell >> Prunedale
America’s Homegrown Religion
Life has taken me around the world a few times. I’ve been to every continent except for Antarctica and, while there’s much to appreciate in other countries, I’m always thankful to come home. America is still the land of freedom. Stories of immigrants building new lives here are commonplace. Our country teems with dreamers, entrepreneurs and the self-made. What’s more, we still have the courage to teach freedom to less fortunate countries. Thus, for example, Russia and China, once strangled by socialism and forced to import food, have now adopted free-market economies, resulting in both being among the world’s leading wheat exporters.
Today, however, we stand at a cultural crossroads, in danger of forgetting where our freedom comes from. America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and it is those principles that give us our freedom and provide the moral impulse that inspires people to use freedom wisely. John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and our second president, remarked that “[o]ur constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Adams warned that democracy cannot survive without morality, but we seem determined to ignore his warning. Morality is crumbling in favor of tolerance (oddly enough, the devotees of tolerance are intolerant of those who disagree with them). Judges seem dedicated to the destruction of such things as family and the sanctity of life as opposed to actually punishing criminals. Legislatures seem bent on ignoring the will of the people, busily inventing more laws and taxes. Frogs and fish are favored over people. Media and entertainment devote themselves to irrelevancy.
Academia crawls with neo-communists who huff about evil America while sighing in delight over progressive utopias such as North Korea, Iran and Cuba. Our intelligentsia reveres the European Union, that enlightened association with the motto “unity in diversity,” even though the Union’s national anthem has no words, as they apparently couldn’t agree about what it should say.
Happily, however, America is still full of people who choose to exercise their freedom by living decent, moral lives. That’s the America I’m thankful to come home to. That’s our America—folks working, paying bills, raising their kids, going to church, giving to charities and having a barbecue now and then. However, we cannot forget the foundation on which our country stands. That which is forgotten cannot be preserved.
Christopher Bunn, Jr. >> Salinas
There Are Two ‘Americas’
I see the United States of America through the eyes of an African-American and as one who has been a victim and is now a survivor of and fighter against racism and oppression. One could conceivably see US wealth as something good about this country, but one would have to take into account such heinous acts as slavery, genocidal pogroms against native people and stolen land as the reason for such wealth. One would also have to account for the fact that in this incredibly wealthy nation, massive poverty still exists for tens of millions of people.
Seeing so-called “America” through the eyes of an African-American means understanding that racial profiling and police brutality against African-Americans remains a rampant problem in America. Coupled with that is an unequal justice system that results in the disproportionate arrests and incarcerations of people who look like me.
Seeing this “America” through these eyes means knowing that, 50 years after the Brown v. Board decision, schools in many parts of this country remain as segregated as before that decision and that part of what maintains segregated schools is segregated housing patterns in Southern, Northern, Eastern and Western “America.”
While African-American students continue to suffer unequal and adverse educational experiences and opportunities, they now find themselves being left even further behind under the implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation.
Even conservative Rod Paige, Bush’s Secretary of Education, said “We face a de facto apartheid in our schools, a crisis that is similar, perhaps identical, to the situation in the 1950’s South.”
As the unemployment rate for African-Americans doubles that of whites, and racism remains a burden that adversely affects health care access and, ultimately, the health and well being of African-Americans, the question of what is good about “America” is a question that leaves a person who looks like me to ponder.
And then this “America” embarks on “wars against terrorism,” which has nothing to do with making the world safe from terror but everything to do with making the world safe for profits for the US rich. As is the case in all imperialist wars, there is also this government’s war at home against workers and national minorities—people of color. We have gone from the FBI’s secret and murderous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to Clinton’s signing of the Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorist Act to the USA PATRIOT Act, all of which have nothing to do with keeping us safe but everything to do with squelching dissent and open disagreement with government policy.
So, what is good about this “America”? The answer is “Nothing”!
But we must realize that there are two “Americas.” There is the America of the rulers of this country—the rich—and there is the other America that is made up of working people, minorities and the poor. That is the America I belong to. And what is good about that America is its people, who have proven throughout history to be resilient, courageous and valiant in their efforts to fight for a free, just and egalitarian society.
Mel Mason >> Seaside