David Michael Miller
Rudy Giuliani has rekindled an old debate in America. At a fundraiser last week in New York for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the former New York mayor showed up unannounced to claim that the president of the United States did not love his country.
Walker had a moment right then to step up and show that he deserved consideration for the presidency. He could have called out Giuliani and risen above the petty, hateful rhetoric of the day. Instead, he gave the answer that has become the Walker response to every tough question and even some easy ones, which is no answer at all.
What apparently has Giuliani peeved is that Barack Obama has, from time to time, admitted the obvious, which is that our country has not been perfect in all of its domestic policies or in all of its foreign dealings. We make mistakes, and sometimes they're not even mistakes.
The president has said, often and in so many words, that he does love his country. But for Giuliani and apparently for a large part of the Republican base, that is not good enough. Apparently the only acceptable answer to the question is something like, "Sir! Yes, sir! I DO love my country, sir!"
In this context, nuance is treason. But if I were to examine my own feelings about that question I'd have to parse it in half. I love the idea of America, the promise of America. Because what America promises is to be a true and pure meritocracy. No matter who your parents are or what color your skin is or what your gender might be or who you love, if -- as a great man who was impeached once said -- you "work hard and play by the rules," you will have at least the chance to get ahead.
And, what's even better, America promises that you get to define success any way you want. It might be the accumulation of stuff or financial security or spiritual fulfillment, whatever. We are supposed to be free to decide who it is we want to be and then go pursue that happiness however and wherever we want so long as we follow some basic rules of conduct. America doesn't promise the achievement of fulfillment, but it does promise freedom to pursue happiness, and that's pretty special.
A perfect meritocracy is impossible to achieve, but I love that idea so much that I want to date it. I want to take it to the movies and buy it the large popcorn with butter or whatever its heart desires. I want to marry that idea and own many dogs together and grow old with it. I love the notion of America completely and unconditionally, sir! Yes, sir!
But then there's the reality of America. And while there's love there, it's complicated. You have to start with history. The historian Joseph Ellis has written that America's founders knew that slavery was wrong, and yet they couldn't muster the political courage or skill to deal with it at the outset. And their punting on that issue led to decade upon decade of human suffering, a terrible Civil War, and then a long struggle ever since to take out the stain of our nation's original sin. It will never go away; we can only try to make it fade.
And while slavery might be the worst of it, there's a lot more there not to love. Our treatment of Native Americans could be described as a kind of genocide, and we waited until the 20th century to allow women to vote.
We've had all manner of foreign conflicts, some of which can be thought of as imperialism and some that can be thought of as tragic errors. Our leaders fermented a coup so that we could build the Panama Canal, ginned up an attack on an American vessel to justify the start of deep American involvement in Vietnam, and lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as reason to invade that country.
And, today, right now, social mobility in America is less likely than it is in Europe, a fact that even some prominent Republicans have come to recognize. It's easier to get ahead in the hidebound, socially stratified Old World than it is in the new one. Who your parents are matters more here than it does across the Atlantic.
And as for working hard and getting ahead, the concentration of wealth and income in America is the most severe it has been in almost a century. The Geni Coefficient is a complicated measure of the distribution of income reduced to a simple 0 to 100 scale. So if everyone made exactly the same amount, a country would score 0, and if Bill Gates had all the money, instead of most of it, we'd score our country a 100. In short, the lower the number, the more equitable the income distribution. The latest World Bank calculations gave the U.S. a 41. Not surprisingly, Scandinavian countries were the most equitable, scoring in the mid to high 20s. Germany came in at 30 and Great Britain at 38. India scored a 33. That's right. The nation of the caste system has a substantially better distribution of income than the United States.
Having said all that, America has done some wonderful things. Mostly with the help of the Soviet Union (a caveat that nobody likes to mention) we defeated the Nazis. We went to the moon. We invented jazz and hamburgers. We produced Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. We welcomed millions of refugees from around the world and promised them a better life (though not without prejudice and not without self-interest; we needed the cheap labor). And today, whenever there is trouble around the world, whether it's an epidemic or an earthquake, America is there with doctors and medicine and food.
And our greatest invention, in my view, is the First Amendment, which in a few words sums up the most fundamental promise of America: the freedom to say what we want and live the way we like with or without religion. Sadly, in my view, we didn't waste any time messing up the Bill of Rights with the Second Amendment, which has been the source of so much pain and death and tragedy.
In Republican World, a candidate is supposed to be uncertain about a lot of things like evolution and the causes of global climate change. But they need to be absolutely unflinching and resolute about their love for America. That doesn't serve America well because we can't improve without first acknowledging where we're coming up short. President Obama gets it right because he expresses his affection for his country without sweeping its imperfections under the rug.
So, I love my country. I love it with all its real flaws, but I love it more for what it promises to be, which is so aspirational and inspirational, and so impossible to achieve, and so wonderful.