What Are Americans’ Values, Exactly?

aclulogoI know it seems a bit jingoistic to say, but this truly is “my country, right or wrong.” The key words there are “or wrong.” The reason I protest or write columns about things I feel are wrong is because I love America and Americans. I don’t complain about things because I hate my country; I do so because we need to be better than we are, not accept things as they are and pretend they’re perfectly fine. I protest and try to fix things precisely because I plan to live here for the rest of my life, and because I hope that my son will want to live here and raise my grandchildren here, as well. I want everyone I love to live in a country where everyone has an opportunity to succeed, and impediments to success are minimal and certainly not based on skin color, gender, sexual preference or any other arbitrary “standard” people manage to come up with. The more successful everyone is, the better off we all are as a nation. We should aspire to be an example that every other country in the world wants to emulate.

This truly is a great country in many ways, but the fact is, we’re slipping and too few will acknowledge it. And frankly, it’s not “patriotic” to see your country slipping and do nothing to reverse the trend. We don’t take care of the poor, and we pretty much make them fend for themselves, which places them in a cycle they cannot break away from. Consider the barriers we set up with low welfare payments, a lack of child care support and the fact that we don’t provide the poor with decent jobs or training. Our welfare system produces despair and quashes hope. It doesn’t create more working, productive citizens. And what’s worse, even when they do get a job, we don’t see to it that they make enough to live up to even a minimal standard. You know those neighborhoods in every city that none of us will drive through? We create those ourselves; it’s not an accident.

censorshipIt’s a funny thing; Americans probably talk about morality more than any other society in the world, yet we don’t seem to follow up with action. We give more money to charities than any other country, while we do little to nothing to help people here. Up until recently we were the only industrialized nation in the world where a citizen could get sick and lose everything, and even though we’re trying to fix that, there are still many who would go back to the old way. We’re still the only industrialized nation with a useless and seriously underfunded welfare apparatus, and yet we seem to assume that welfare mothers are lazy or duplicitous when they dare wait in line to prove they’re worthy of their pittance. We attach shame to the use of welfare and SNAP money, despite the fact that most people who get welfare will pay far more in taxes than they will ever receive over their lifetimes. We claim to care for our children, so we pass laws that brand molesters forever, even though we do little to nothing to see to it that all children have enough to eat, basic health care or loving adoptive parents, whether they’re black, brown, white, gay or straight. We seem to claim a God-given right to pollute the air and water at will, to build as many roads as we want, to kill every species of animal that gets in the way of our bizarre concept of “progress” and to threaten and toss bombs at anyone who doesn’t think exactly as we do.

So, the question is, what are American values? Why do most of us all put our hands over our hearts when we say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem, and yet not bother to vote? Why are the same people who are willing and even eager to send our fighting men and women to other countries to die for a cause they themselves can’t even articulate, try so hard to get out of jury duty and constantly whine about their taxes – which, by the way are among the lowest in the world? Why do we tell everyone else how religious we are and build so many churches, and then act in a way that belies the doctrine so many claim to worship?

These are loaded questions, but they are questions that must be answered if this country is to move forward in any meaningful way. And lest you think it’s only those on the far right that are to blame, think again. Many liberals claim to want social justice, but seem unwilling to do what is necessary to gain it. We choose not to vote against the far right, out of some sense of “protest,” and constantly bash the party that, while not perfect, is ideologically closest to us, while giving the other party a pass. This country should be about social justice, but where is the social justice in acting in a way that keeps people in power who really don’t care about us? Social justice requires that we consider everyone when creating a social mechanism, and the current Republican Party routinely leaves behind 90% of us. There is no balance anymore, and we used to have balance. Yes, we should have a strong social welfare system, but we should also refrain from penalizing those who manage to find success in their endeavors and get rich. We should do all we can to protect the environment, but just as no one should be allowed to strip mine Yosemite, we have to realize that the transition away from fossil fuels will take a while, and jacking gas prices up to $5 a gallon is bad for a lot of people.  Isn’t taking a real moral high ground a better way?

2_great_depression-fullAs everyone who has read the Progressive Manifesto know, I think we should create an America where every man, woman, and child has a birthright to basic food, shelter, education and healthcare, regardless of any factors we invent to prevent full participation. America should be a place where every person within our borders is treated with respect and every culture is given a chance to thrive. America should value a concept of freedom that is coupled with responsibility, not independent of it. Liberty is not about being able to do whatever you want whenever you want; it’s about being free to do what makes your life better, while still being cognizant of those around you. We all live here together, and all decisions we make should reflect that reality.

And the concepts of freedom, liberty and tolerance shouldn’t end at our borders. We are part of a global community, and we must start acting as one. The fact that the United States is a sovereign nation does not mean that we’re alone. We must begin to understand that we’re not entitled to our riches because we’re Americans; we have to work for them just like everyone else. We live in a competitive world, in which everyone is trying hard to create a market for whatever they create, and that does not give us a right to exploit others simply because we’re in a position to. There is a responsibility that comes with being a “superpower.” We are the most militarily powerful nation in the history of the world, but just as liberty without responsibility usually results in the loss of liberty, the judicious use of power will eventually lead to our downfall. That may seem impossible, but the British, French and Romans, among others, also thought they were invincible at one time.

Now is the time to seriously consider what we think American values should be. It’s time to take back our democracy and start living what we claim to believe in. And we can start by ridding ourselves of the current incarnation of the Republican Party and forcing the far right back to the fringe, where they have always belonged.

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