Ain’t That America?

America has always been a country of contradiction.

The European settlers came here to escape persecution, and immediately set up a society that did not tolerate ideas or values that differed from theirs. They proclaimed a country with liberty and justice for all, where all men are created equal. But that doesn’t include black men. Or first nations men. Or poor men. Or women.

It’s a nation where you are free to practice any religion you choose. We do not discriminate on the basis of religion or creed. As long as you’re a mainline protestant, you’re good. We’ve even learned to tolerate Roman Catholics in small doses, as long as they don’t make too much noise about allegiance to the Pope. Coaches in public schools can lead their athletes in prayer. Private religious schools can use public funding for religious instruction. As long as the God you’re praying to is Christian. We don’t want to talk about temples or mosques or gurdwaras.

Samm Schinker, 2010. She definitely questions the status quo.

It is ironic that the original words in the Pledge of Allegiance were “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” and God was literally used to divide the indivisible nation in 1954 with the addition of those two words.

In the early 20th century, America needed labor. So they opened the gates to immigration, promising a land of freedom and opportunity. And they came, those wonderful huddled masses, on those ships from Europe and Asia, and across the border from Mexico, to work in our factories and farm our orchards and dig our mines. My great-grandparents among them, they toiled under brutal conditions for meager wages under the promise of a better life. But America was never for them. They were just the hired help.

The “government of the people, by the people, for the people” did not perish from the Earth. But it had a pretty narrow definition of “people.” Our representatives serve the people who elected them. And the people who elected them are the ones who write the checks. We could fix that, but it wouldn’t be good for the check-writers, and we really need the check-writers.

Lately, the government has been working pretty hard to limit our freedom. We’re free to carry guns to protect ourselves. How can you tell a bad person with a gun from a good person with a gun? If we pretend we’re not using skin color, we can’t. I wonder how many black men can shoot at cops because they’re (justifiably) afraid for their lives? I’m willing to bet that they won’t live to see their day in court. And every black child knows that.

We also seem to be suspiciously concerned with the welfare of unborn children, who are clearly too young to vote. Let’s not pretend that the abortion ban is about anything other than controlling what other people can and cannot do. Right now, it’s women. But challenges to gay marriage and civil rights laws and the rights of the accused are coming. With stare decisis dead, everything the supreme court has ever decided is on the table again.

At this time of year, we love to talk about independence. We love to talk about liberty. We honor our military heroes. We celebrate America and a land of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. We salute the grand old flag. We admire the bombs bursting in air. We marvel at the amber waves of grain. And we thank God for blessing America.

We leave out the ugly bits. The not-so-savory parts of American history. We don’t really talk much about Sam Adams’ propaganda machine (the Boston “massacre” wasn’t really a massacre). Paul Revere was captured. Thomas Jefferson may have written the phrase “all men are created equal”, but he also owned more than 600 of those equal men. We skip over the important verses in This Land is Your Land. We leave out the bits about refining gold and western expansion and mending flaws in America the Beautiful. We forget that Born in the USA and Pink Houses are protest songs. Don’t ask any questions. Just wave that flag and sing along.

But we have a problem.

For the last 20 years or so, we’ve been teaching our kids to ask questions. Every school in America wants their students to be critical, independent thinkers. We want students who are curious, creative, and innovative. In an era of information abundance, we want them to question the media they’re consuming. We teach them to question sources and credibility. We emphasize the need to verify and analyze the information they’re using. We want them to question the status quo, and find unique solutions to complex problems.

But when we teach our students to ask questions, it’s terrifying when they actually do it. They see the hypocrisy baked in to the American experience. And they’re going to keep asking questions. Do we really believe in these ideals? Then we have to stop hiding our history and start actively working to form a more perfect union. And if we’re not serious about this, maybe we should stop using that “land of the free and home of the brave” rhetoric.

Ain’t that America?
For you and me
Something to see
Home of the free
And little pink houses for you and me.

One thought on “Ain’t That America?

  1. The last two paragraphs are the opposite of what’s happening. In the last three decades, we STOPPED teaching students to ask questions. They’re being told what to think, not how to think.` Children are told not to question politicians, institutions, and especially our educators. And it’s a shame, since universities and public schools are feeding students poison, under the guise of gospel truths.

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