“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
—John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961
In the first part of our analysis (posted 1/28/10), we talked about some universal human tendencies, such as being swayed by the attitudes and opinions of those around us. In the second part (1/31) we talked about the unique mix of characteristics that tend to define the character of the typical American: extremely hard-working and spontaneously helpful to others in need but also spiteful, paranoid, and a sucker for conspiracy theories.
In other words, Americans tend to think and act emotionally, not rationally, in many areas of their lives—including politics. And in a democracy like America, everyone is involved in politics, whether they want to be or not. To be apathetic and disinterested is a choice that has as much impact as the choice to pay attention to what’s going on and cast a vote. Maybe more—all too many elections are decided by the people who don’t show up.
Americans tend regard themselves as patriotic. According to my European friends, more flag waving goes on in America than in most of the world’s other free nations combined. (I’m not counting places such as North Korea, where the citizens had better wave flags on command—or else.) “Patriotic” emails circulate like dandelion seeds, full of flags, syrupy stories about soldiers sleeping in pits, and snide remarks about how much better things used to be—back in some mythological time when America was the kind of paradise it ought to be now. The one I got yesterday exhorted me to make sure the light bulbs and drier sheets I buy are “made in America.”
That’s all well and good, but—leaving aside the whole question of reducing the complexities of global economics to a platitude—I wonder if the person who sent it along to me even bothers to check labels. It’s so easy to prattle on about the good ol’ days, complain about the present, and hit the “Forward” button. Those are the kinds of things people do every day without thinking. All they require is a little emotional tick, an impulse that’s there one minute and gone the next.
To actually do something constructive for country or community—that’s another matter.
Waving flags, bitching about the government, and forwarding emails have nothing to do with patriotism.
People tend to be proud for two reasons: because of what they have, or because of what they’ve done. Kids—who haven’t lived long enough to actually do much, tend to be proud of what they have—the hottest computer game, good looks, or designer jeans. As they grow up and do things, they may begin to take pride in what they accomplish. Pride in what we have may feel good, but it’s shallow and meaningless self-congratulation. Taking pride in what we do can spur us on to new accomplishments and greater achievements.
I submit that for all too many Americans, pride in their country is a kind of childish, egotistical pride in what they’ve inherited and what others have worked to achieve—pride of place, pride of ownership, the kind of “ha, ha, mine’s better than yours” mentality that’s so common among children.
It’s good to be grateful for what we’ve been given, through no effort of our own—but gratitude isn’t giving, and pride isn’t contributing.
These days, thankfully, American sentiment is at least supportive of those who serve in the armed services. Unlike during the Viet Nam era, when soldiers returning from war were often treated like the enemy, we at least appreciate the men and women who show up for duty—whether or not we agree with the policies that sent them where they had to go. For the moment, at least, the emotional wind in America is wafting in support of those who put themselves on the line for their country.
But what about the men and women in Washington—in Congress and the White House and on Capitol Hill? They, too, are at least showing up every day. Whether you question or admire their motives, they’re at least doing something—some of them selflessly and with genuine desire to be of service to their country. When I hear people trash the government or politicians in general, the question in my mind is, “so what are you doing for your country?”
Obviously, we can’t all go to Washington and help make public policy—just as it’s not everyone’s job to carry a weapon in war. But as Americans, there are things we can do and should do to earn the pride we feel in our country.
First, I think it’s the responsibility of every American to think. And thinking has to be more than turning on the TV to our favorite news channel and soaking up the headlines. More than forming opinions, thinking involves withholding judgment—trying to keep an open mind until we’ve accumulated enough information to understand all sides of an issue and make reasonable, rational decisions. It also means understanding our own basic values, and accepting that others may be working in good faith from a different philosophy and set of core values. It means reading, listening, and looking for understanding—not just picking up attitudes from others like we pick up a cold.
Second, I think it’s the responsibility of every American to actually do something in the service of others—and in the spirit that we are all one another’s brothers and sisters. President Kennedy started the Peace Corps, in which over 200,000 have served as ambassadors of hope and peace to nations around the world. AmeriCorps, founded by President Clinton in 1994, has involved nearly 600,000 Americans serving Americans—and, in the process, gaining and job skills and experience. Thousands of Americans regularly heed President Obama’s calls for public service—as did Presidents Bush and Clinton when asked to lead the American efforts to help the people of Haiti.
Finally, I think it’s the responsibility of every American to maintain a positive attitude. In our nation, as in our families, schools, communities, and companies, attitudes—positive or negative—determine both morale and productivity. Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring problems—it means approaching them with a can-do attitude and working cooperatively with others. It means focusing on the solution rather than bemoaning the problem. It means not blaming others—or even ourselves—but rather working toward resolution and a vision of a better tomorrow. In a healthy country—as in a healthy family, school, community, or company—there’s no time for cynicism, pessimism, snide remarks, or tearing one another down.
There must be time, however, for problem-solving and for respectful, constructive criticism—not of people, but of policies and procedures that are in conflict with our basic human values or that simply don’t work.