Friday, September 26, 2008


Not unlike Michelle Obama, I've been a lifelong critic of my country.

In college, I was active in the civil rights movement. Racism was a blot on an otherwise nearly-perfect country, I thought. So yes, I went to those rallies and sang "We Shall Overcome" and marched against the Klan in Raleigh, North Carolina. I even used to go out with a black engineering student named Clarence. We were just friends, but we went out together whenever we wanted to be sure of getting seats. All we had to do in Raleigh was walk into the theater or concert hall holding hands and right away a number of people would get up and leave.

I was active in the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era. My dad would go to his job at the Pentagon to help run the war, and I'd join protest marches. A war fought for trumped-up reasons (President Johnson had lied to us) was un-American, to me.

So I was surprised when I went to Hawaii once and Mom and I went to the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and I got all teary-eyed. Some years later, I had the chance to go there again. This time, I resolved not to be such a wimp. But I couldn’t help myself; unaccountably, I cried more than I had before.

The same thing happened when I visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia; much to my surprise, I just bawled. What was this?

Yesterday, I understood what it was and is. I was having tea with my friend Vada and we were discussing the current financial crisis. I said I hoped it would be resolved, but I’d rather let it all come crashing down than to suffer the loss of our liberty, than have a “solution” that would overthrow the Constitution. She said there was no way to overthrow the Constitution. Well, legally there isn’t, but you can undermine it, subvert it, work around it until it becomes meaningless. As Senator Barry Goldwater once warned, it’s just a piece of paper unless people respect it.

“Liberty is what our fathers fought and died for!” I exclaimed, astonished at such platitudinous preachiness. “Liberty is what our soldiers right now are fighting for, or at least they think they are. It isn’t something we should just let slip away! No, I’d rather be impoverished than a slave. I’d rather – well, Patrick Henry was right!”

WHAT? "Give me liberty or give me DEATH"? Come on! Better to stay alive, even in a tyranny, than to lose your life, right? But as I sat there sipping my tea (tea, taxes, Boston), wondering what was this blather coming out of my mouth, I realized I meant it. The signers of the Declaration of Independence committed “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the cause and they were right. I understood, in a flash, that it is idealism, apparently it’s actually patriotism, (patriotism! who knew?) that makes it possible to be a lifelong critic of your country.

The American Dream – not the shallow avarice that passes for it today, but the original dream, the dream of our Founding Fathers – is very much worth the sacrifice of my life, should that ever be required. Liberty really is to die for. To my ongoing shock, I stand squarely with that radical, young Virginian, that hothead, that firebrand, Patrick Henry, who gave his famous speech right here in Richmond.

Kyrie, eleison!

(Credit: Larry Smith/EPA)


Anonymous said...

Sometimes it takes awhile. Nevertheless, better late than never.

Shamassy Monica said...

I laugh a little to myself. I'm a critic too. (and a Debate coach - how could I NOT be a critic!)

My most recent frustrations came from reading about the systemic racism entrenched by past government laws at pbs:

On one hand, I am grateful for a country in which I can protest and can worship freely. On the other hand, I do not blindly praise its 3 branches, past or present.

Thanks for the reflection,