Reviews | July 4 is the time to sing the praises of our complicated country

A participant holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held for the annual Independence Day celebration of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library on July 1 in New York.
A participant holds an American flag during a naturalization ceremony held for the annual Independence Day celebration of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library on July 1 in New York. (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
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Richard Danzig is a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and served as Secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration.

The faults of the United States are so numerous, and the intensity and antagonism with which we fight those faults are so great that we often forget the virtues of this country – and how our antagonisms reflect both our virtues and our faults. .

Racism, sexism, inequality, hate speech, climate change, battles around abortion, immigration and many other issues demand our attention. Amidst this maelstrom, many Americans yearn for the common purpose of our Revolution, World War II and its aftermath.

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But take a step back and take a broader perspective. Imagine showing our country to a Greek or a Roman, to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to the framers of our Constitution, or to the rulers of any country or city-state over the three millennia in which our species celebrated what she calls “civilization.” What could they see?

First and foremost, they would see a country in which a majority of citizens devote considerable energy to moral discourse: debating the fair balance of embryonic and maternal life, focusing on injustices and inequalities, quarreling in the courts and legislatures on how to govern, including when and whether to admit immigrants (who are now entering this country at the rate of 1 million a year) as potential citizens. No one before the Second World War had known a democracy of so many, so diverse and so committed citizens.

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Why should we be surprised that once this is done, the results are messy, rowdy, even tumultuous? Americans consider it their birthright to develop and express their political views – and, for that matter, their views on vaccines, international trade, the right to execute convicted felons, the nature of changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, etc. . By and large, Americans do it within the bounds of the law; and usually, but not universally, they do so within the bounds of civility. You want it otherwise?

Of course, there is the nostalgia for the unity of the mid-twentieth century, when, as is often recalled, a few trusted broadcasters carried the news, many young men had experience of compulsory military service, and workers were economically closer to business leaders. — and to each other. You could say it was a time when there was less deception and dead ends and more politeness.

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But the unity and placidity of this society were built on a foundation steeped in weaknesses and injustices that contemporaries were unaware of. It was a country which, like most countries, vigorously and shamelessly suppressed sexual and political deviance (recall McCarthyism). He systematically penalized differences in skin color, religion and culture (recall segregation and anti-Semitism). It was a society that placed economic and social limits on women, waged war in Vietnam, polluted the environment, and ignored police brutality.

What achievements have resulted from the disorderly, often infuriating, sometimes destructive energy of modern America? There were reasons to call the heroes of WWII “the greatest generation”, but I will claim the generations after them. Over the past two-thirds of a century, we Americans have created a society that has uprooted entrenched and widespread ways of viewing race, gender, and sexuality. We have remade our ways of life. Along with this, modern Americans have woken up and forced some to consider that our species, “the toolmaker”, is also the devastator of our planet and the wanton destroyer of other species.

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As happens to almost everyone most of the time, we Americans have preached better than we have practiced, but what we have preached and what we have practiced has greatly improved. And our country has done this while developing extraordinary technologies and extraordinary wealth, which have brought many benefits – although, admittedly, also brought about much upheaval and, for some, deprivation.

Do you think such gains could be achieved without debate, disruption and division? Do you want the America of old – which actually had a lot of conflict and divisiveness (even more, like in the 1960s)? Yes, on this 4th of July there is much to regret in our country. I wish we fought less and more productively. But our struggles reflect American virtues. I will take this America with its enmities, its conflicts and its divisions. Indeed, while regretting the faults of our country, I sing its praises.


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