I had a conversation with my host father this morning about the state of America. He is a true Tunisian: he hates talking about politics, because, with the freedom of press and expression banned here, as long as the state keeps him and everyone else happy, it is a small price to pay. It was in this conversation that I realized something very important in my perspective of America.
The conversation shifted towards talking about the woes of America. I referenced the economic crisis, the homelessness problem, the hundreds of thousands of troops we have abroad, the downfall of social security. As I explained them, my host father shook his head every minute or so, his brow furrowed and his eyes sad. It was clear this was all news to him. "In Tunisia," he said softly, "People have homes. People retire with enough. There is bread for everyone. Our children don't go to war." I could see the unspoken question in his aghast expression: Was America great anymore?
To which my own expression answered: We're not.
America has a curious complex of convincing the world that they are the best, when they have just as many problems as everyone else. Thousands live homeless and in poverty. Our education, health care, and retirement systems are shot. We have refugees in our own borders from Katrina and teenagers enslaved in sex trafficking and vicious gang life.
Did you know about these problems? If we were truly great, why haven't these issues been the main conversation in elections? Why was the main issue in 2008 Sarah Palin's shopping spree and not the estimated 2 million people living homeless in the States? Why was the main issue in 2004 Swift Boat Veterans and not the fact that my generation won't have social security? Why are Republicans saying our government should be more religious and Democrats saying we should be more green when teenage girls in San Francisco are being bought for prostitution and people with life-threatening health conditions are being dropped from insurance providers?
This is not patriotic. This is not greatness.
We are not patriotic because we are not having the right conversations. We are not great anymore because we elect people on issues that don't matter. You, me, the media, and politicians form a vicious circle: the media focuses more on Bristol Palin and Paris Hilton because it sells more than a story on Katrina refugees; the public pays more attention to these stories because that's all that's selling; and politicians think they can get elected by going to church more than the other guy instead of devoting his political career to reforming mental health in America or the prison system.
This cycle of misplaced attention is making us fat, lazy, and complacent. We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our current culture is distracting, deluding, amusing, and insulating us.
Believe it or not, those last two sentences were said 60 years ago, by Edward R. Murrow, the famous television broadcaster influential in bringing down Joseph McCarthy.
Patriotism is a conversation about the problems of society and how to fix them. We need to revive this. The Founding Fathers weren't afraid of having this conversation. Two hundred and thirty-three years ago, they had this conversation, and 233 years later, I'm writing this blog in a country halfway across the world, telling you, fellow Americans, to reignite this conversation.
America's true potential is in its ability converse and its freedom of expression and ideas. When what we think is dependent on how everyone else thinks, and we lose the motivation to think new ideas and talk about them, this potential will die, and America--and patriotism--will cease to exist.
But in every tunnel, there is a light. We can revive this conversation. All we need to do is have it. We don't need Obama or anyone else to inspire us to have it. America isn't great because of its leaders--it is great because of its people. We need to be the change we wish to see. We must have this conversation, not the New York Times or Congress or the Supreme Court. Our new anthem must be: Patriotism is being the change you wish to see.
As Murrow once said,
“I believed years ago
and I believe today...
that mature Americans can engage
in conversation and controversy...
the clash of ideas, with Communists
anywhere in the world...
contaminated or converted.
I believe that our faith, our conviction, our determination
are stronger than theirs…
and that we can successfully compete,
not only in the area of bombs...
but in the area of ideas.”
I am a patriot. How about you?