Center field: Why I remain an American patriot

When assessing complex democracies like America, our striving for perfection should never blind us to the good – nor numb us to the bad.

A WOMAN wears a patriotic mask at Gantry Plaza State Park in New York in honor of July 4th. (photo credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)
A WOMAN wears a patriotic mask at Gantry Plaza State Park in New York in honor of July 4th.
(photo credit: CAITLIN OCHS/REUTERS)
America is traumatized. We’ve got riots on the streets and corona victims filling the hospitals. Statues of presidents are pulled down as fury about past sins builds up. African-American professors run articles lacking all proportion, claiming that “not much, beyond the cosmetic, has changed” since slave days, while maskless Trumpians mindlessly chant “USA, USA” as if that can solve racism, corona, and every other problem. Meanwhile, the demagogic president lashes out in the White House, while his – ahem – ever-maturing contender hides out in his basement. And with nearly 20,000,000 people unemployed, only 24% of Americans believe they’re headed in the right direction.
As a presidential historian, I feel irrelevant. My detailed essays linking presidential speeches to earlier ones, because presidents once sought legitimacy from their predecessors, seem absurd today. Donald Trump doesn’t know or care. He lives in the moment. He speaks to feed his ego and preserve his power not sustain our souls or weave constructive links to America’s proud history and redemptive ideals.
Nevertheless, I still toasted America this weekend.
I COULD hide behind world-weary sighs that it’s been worse. July 4, 2020 ain’t July 3, 1776 with a Declaration of Independence still hotly debated and a Revolutionary War yet to win. Today ain’t July 4, 1860 – as Civil War clouds formed – or July 4, 1940 as a Depression-scarred, violently-divided nation resisted rousing itself against the Nazi threat. And for all today’s pain, confusion, anger and polarization, America has never been as embracing and empowering of immigrants, women, gays – and yes, people of color, too.
When assessing complex democracies like America, our striving for perfection should never blind us to the good – nor numb us to the bad. Activists ask: “Why not?” Historians additionally ask: “Where have we been?” and “In what direction are we going?”
America passes most of a society’s essential road tests. True, we’re suffering through an ugly moment. Our commander-in-chief keeps pouring salt on our political and social wounds. Too many protesters have lost faith in the very ideals used to heal and progress. And, yes, the gap between rich and poor grows. But America is heading in the right direction by almost any measure: health, social justice, tolerance, education, fairness, technology, prosperity and freedom, while acing a key confidence test: is there an earlier moment when a higher percentage of Americans lived this well and this free?
But my confidence doesn’t come only from looking backwards at more sobering July 4ths. It’s forward-looking, too. It comes from believing in America’s defining ideas as keys to addressing the very problems it faces. America remains the country seeking the Declaration of Independence’s core goals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America remains one of the most life-affirming places on the planet, generating medical breakthroughs, life-saving drugs, technological props and hope – cutting cancer rates, smoking rates, death rates from most diseases.
America continues spreading liberty throughout the land – and the world – while expanding the Declaration’s five most subversive words: “all men are created equal” – with “men” having expanded from white men to black men to everyone. And America remains one of the easiest places in the universe to live happy endings – in our shared Hollywood fantasies and most Americans’ real lives.
Bruised and jumpy today, America nevertheless remains the land of hot dogs and baseball; of the Constitution and the Supreme Court; of the American Dream and “of the people, by the people, and for the people;” of Appomattox, where slavery essentially ended; of the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed my immigrant grandparents; of the neighborly “how ya doing” and collegial “have a nice day;” of iPhones and smart pills; of The Greatest Show on Earth and the world’s first mass middle-class civilization.
DESPITE LIVING in Israel for a decade, I am still a “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I could no more give up on America than give up on Benjamin Franklin and Sojourner Truth; on Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King; on Frank Capra and Betty Friedan; on evolution and Revolution; on Eureka! moments and Hail Mary passes; on the faith that the “sun will come out tomorrow” or that the Star-Spangled Banner yet waves.
Such ardent Americanism actually shapes my Zionism. Israel and America are two of the most extraordinary, just, democratic countries in the world – yet two of the world’s favorite targets. I’m frustrated by the nihilists who can only see the America of 1619 – when the slave ships came – and not America of 1776 and 1865 and today – when freedom rang louder and louder, but I’m also frustrated by the fantasists who overlook America’s failures. Similarly, I’m frustrated by the Bash-Israel-Firsters who can see Israel only as a problem and the Boost-Israel-or-Elsers who cannot admit any problems with Israel.
Loving both countries teaches that good patriots cannot be complacent, and must be vigilant and visionary. Just like David Ben-Gurion answered “Not yet,” when asked if Israel has fulfilled his dreams, I’m still waiting for America to fulfill its ideals – while working on it, too.
Proper not-yet-ism’s good dreamers are activists and catalysts, cataloging the blessings while exorcising the curses, seeing the opportunities to reform, not just the obstacles to change. With a clear diagnosis, a proper proportion, a commitment to our redemptive ideals and massive doses of bravery and creativity, we – in Israel and America – will succeed, as Thomas Jefferson dreamed, to “right” the “evils” which humanity has usually just been “disposed to suffer.”
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” the writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of 10 books on American history. His next book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky will be published in September.

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