Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Proud to be an American

I see those bumper stickers everywhere, and I wonder. Why I should take any pride in the accident of birth that makes me a U.S. citizen?

Certainly my birth was fortunate. I was among those many Americans who had privileges and opportunities, which I didn't entirely squander. And, as a citizen of the United States, I have obligations to contribute to the society and the polity. Some might take pride in the extent to which they have done so. I also have obligations to the people around me, and I might take pride in the achievements of people who are close to me, and anyone whose achievements I may have encouraged, or assisted or supported. But just being an American? Why should I be proud of that?

So when I see the Cadillac Escalade with the "Proud to be an American" bumper sticker, I can only imagine what that means to the proprietor. Maybe he was once a poor campesino in Guatemala, whose ancestors had hoed the same mountainside for 10,000 years. But now the European settler government in Guatemala City was making war on his people to squash their demands for land, education and health care. After they killed his father and uncles, and destroyed his livelihood, desperate to feed his babies he hiked through the jungle and jumped on a freight train, riding it north for three days with nothing to eat. Then he ran through the desert and nearly died of thirst, until he found his second cousin. For the next five years he hid in the shadows, doing back breaking work for $20 a day, half of which he sent home to feed his family until, in 1986, Congress and President Ronald Reagan gave him a way to make himself fully a part of the community he had helped to build and feed. They even made it possible, eventually, for his wife and children to join him, and for his family to make a life here just as Mr. Reagan's impoverished and oppressed ancestors had once done. Maybe that's what they are proud of.

But that's highly unlikely. I think they despise such people, who they call criminals who were given amnesty for their despicable deeds. Or maybe they really despise them because of their dark brown skin, and strange food and music, and because they pray in the wrong language. The people in the Cadillac, of course, pray in English, the language of the Bible.

Judging by their other bumper sticker, maybe they're proud because they twice cast their presidential ballot for a talentless and narcissistic son of privilege, who failed at everything he tried but was always bailed out by his powerful Daddy and his Daddy's rich friends, until some of his Daddy's friends put him in the White House, because they needed a malleable fool to pretend to be president while they tried out their demented plans for world domination. I guess that makes them proud, even though the world domination thing hasn't worked out so well, at least not so far.

Or maybe they're proud because they get to sit in front of their television and cheer while they watch the bombs they paid for blow up houses and people. Hey, it is the home of the brave. Maybe they're proud because in the richest country in the world, only 32 million people can't afford an adequate diet. That's only 10 percent, after all. Or maybe they're proud that the United States imprisons the highest proportion of its population of any country in the world. Now that's quite an accomplishment -- especially for the land of the free. Maybe they're proud of spending the most on health care of any country in the world -- an even more impressive accomplishment when you consider that we have the worst health of any wealthy country, and are the only one that leaves a big chunk of its people with no health insurance at all. Maybe they're proud that 5 percent of the earth's population manages to consume 25 percent of the earth's resources. We're number one!

I don't know. I can think of a few more things they might be proud of, so I can't decide. But in any case, can they really take credit for it?

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