It was July 4, 2007, America's Independence Day. Behind the guest services counter at the Best Western Hotel in San Jose, an American flag covered the wall. On our pillows in our room we found a small chocolate wrapped in red, white and blue cellophane with a small note attached reading "Happy 4th of July!"
All of this would seem rather ordinary under most occasions. But this was not San Jose, California. It was San Jose, Costa Rica. For only the second time in my life, I found myself thinking of home, of America on its birthday, from a foreign country.
On the television, the smarmy twang of country music confusing militarism with patriotism provided this musical reminder of the day:
And I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.
And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land - God bless the U.S.A.
- Lee Greenwood, God Bless the USA (1984)
I think it would be easier to be proud to be an American if I didn't actually love my country. I've always found some wisdom in the worn maxim that we like people because, we love people in spite of. I think that is true about father or motherlands as well.
But America is giving us much to love it in spite of these days. The week preceding Independence Day, George the Unready commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, convicted of lying repeatedly to a grand jury about the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame as a means of getting back at her husband, Joe Wilson for refuting the lie about Iraq and nuclear capability as a pretext for the invasion. There will be no penalty for the abuse of power that could have cost Ms. Plame her life, a crime that no doubt originated at the top of the White House food chain. As usual, there will be no accountability for this administration whose hollow use of "the rule of law" when convenient has provided a moral lesson in hypocrisy.
Earlier in the week, the Bush packed Supreme Court handed down three rulings that ought to make even the most moss backed conservative nervous. In a case originating out of Alaska, the Supremes ruled that a sign held by students off campus at a public but not school sponsored event reading "Bong Hits for Jesus" could be the basis for disciplinary action by the school because the message advocated drug use. This is a Court that has lost sight of the very purpose of the First Amendment - the protection of unpopular expression from what DeTocqueville rightly recognized as the ever present potential for the "tyranny of the majority."
Previous courts have readily recognized exigent circumstances as grounds for curtailing expression - clear and present danger, defamatory potential, fighting words. But few have ever set themselves up to judge the content of speech as the grounds for failing to protect it. Were the Supremes particularly candid (and the Bush v. Gore case suggests that is NOT the case) they might have admitted to allowing the troubling religious content to have impacted their vote. Or they might have admitted that the drug element points to a serious problem in our society, a reflection of who we are rather than an invitation to behavior for which we have already demonstrated no need of invitation to engage. Instead, what we get is a blow to individual expression, albeit offensive expression, with a lame excuse that the banner somehow ran afoul of the "war on drugs." Please.
The second and third rulings essentially confirmed the court's complete sell-out to business interests. The first rejected the right of tax payers to challenge administration awarding of contracts to "faith based" organizations to provide social services. Groups like the Salvation Army, whose services to the homeless are often overshadowed by its manipulative evangelistic tactics in providing those services and by its homophobic hiring practices, can now receive tax moneys with impunity. The second ruling struck down the limitations on campaign spending by corporations and unions with so-called "issue ads," little more than thinly veiled partisan attacks. Elections can now function as auctions to the highest bidders with impunity.
There is a name for a governmental system which goes out of its way to protect the rights of its artificial persons, i.e., corporations, at the same time it represses the rights of its natural persons, i.e., human beings. Mussolini called his version "corporatism" but most people of his time simply called by its common name - fascism.
The lead story on the July 4 morning news on CNN, provided on the local cable system, was the winner of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, NY. The obviously ill young man managed a wan smile when it was announced he had stuffed 66 hotdogs down his gullet in 12 minutes, a new world's record. Fortunately we were spared the inevitable regurgitation that would surely follow.
The second story alluded to the terrorist plots, both aborted and successful, in the United Kingdom and then jumped into the Chamber of Commerce required notice that no terrorist activities had been detected in the US, our terror alert had not been heightened, and thus it was OK to go spend money at the malls, American flag festooned car lots and fireworks stands.
The third story focused on the speeding stop of Albert Gore, Jr., the former vice-president's son, and the variety of prescription drugs found in the vehicle. The story began with his arrest photo, mentioned previous entanglements with the law and treatment for drugs and ended with the note that the Gore son had not yet hired an attorney. Another celebrity life available for the feeding frenzy of a bored people demanding passive entertainment.
Earlier in the day, ESPN had been touting a golf tournament sponsored by Tiger Woods in honor of the military, an interesting event considering Tiger's non-existent career in the service, a privilege available to him as a man of color as the exception to the rule in America. A spokeswoman for the tournament recited a rather mindless statement about how freedom is never free and must be defended by our military. Of course, if one's military were not so busy defending protecting corporate interests and their exploitative economic relationships with most of the world, perhaps it would not find freedom in such need of defense. Indeed, perhaps it's not freedom that's being defended at all.
This is what Costa Ricans - and much of the world - saw of America July 4, 2007. What a wonderful face my country provided the world on its birthday celebration - gluttony celebrated as accomplishment, a never ending fear of the possibility of terrorism its own actions has inflamed, a culture so unhappy with its life that it feels the constant need to escape it through drugs and alcohol. G-d bless the USA!
If one didn't love their country, it would be easy to be proud to be an American, as Greenwood suggests. But the reality is that we're hardly free even if we delude ourselves with that notion. We are slaves to a materialism that expresses itself in many pathological ways ranging from our addiction to petrochemicals to an epidemic of obesity. We are prisoners of fear which at heart implicitly recognizes that our relationship to much of the world has been exploitative at best, destructive at worst. But most of all, we are unable to escape the unhappiness that our materialistic, militaristic culture causes us even as we continue to buy into the messages of our culture industry that we are supposed to be happy.
Three days after Independence Day, I mulled over all these things as I flew back to Miami International. I found myself excited about being home, about having my aging dachshund and two cats greet me, about seeing friends and family and being in my chosen hometown. But I simultaneously found myself strangely ambivalent about coming back to a United States that six weeks in Latin America had given me some distance from and some trepidations about my return to it.
We are a good people. We are creative, ingenious, compassionate. We have the capacity for great nobility when we strive for the ideals our great documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and "I have a dream" speech represent. We know how to be a just nation. But we also have the capacity to elect presidents with little capacity for handling such responsibilities, deluding ourselves that his mediocrity (not to mention mendacity and mean-spiritedness) somehow makes him one of us. We are all too readily manipulated by fear which allows for unjust and often inhumane treatment rivaling that of history's greatest despots to prevail. And we fail to demand from our media that the whole truth be told, preferring to be entertained with half-truths, banal sit-coms and staged "reality shows."
To which America have I come home? Where is the country that I have loved and served these 52 years? And where is it going? May G-d bless the USA with a wakeup call soon.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.