Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
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Keith Burris

What makes our country great?

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    In February, 1949, English dignitaries welcome the first shipment of Caribbean sugar made under the Marshall Plan of U.S. aid for Europe.

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    Walt Whitman remains a towering figure in American literature.


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    Keith Burris.

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Almost everyone has heard by now of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Freudian slip.

What he really thinks eeked out: “We’re not going to make America great again. It never was that great.”

Though he was addressing a liberal audience, there were immediate gasps, and a sound that was more like a primal groan than a collective boo rose up. He immediately tried to back into a context that might save him, saying we would be truly great when women are fully liberated and all Americans realize their potential. And he’s been in walk-back mode ever since.

It wasn’t entirely voluntary honesty. But it was honesty, and for that I am grateful to Mr. Cuomo.

Read more by Keith Burris

But, oh my, what a thing to say, to think. Every once in a while, the culture wars reveal a deep divide that takes one’s breath. It happens when there is a school shooting and conservatives say, in effect, “whatever.” And it happens when liberals show their hand and talk about “deplorables,” or “couch potato anarchists,” or fellow Americans who smell bad and have bad teeth, and ergo, of course, vote the wrong way.

One of those chilling moments happened to me the other day. A colleague told me that the origin of the nation’s problems are simply traced: Most Americans are stupid.

The best response to that is probably silence which, due to my stunned state, was the response I gave.

True patriots can face the nation’s shortcomings and secular sins. They want to make the country better.

True patriots also have affection for the nation and its citizens, for all the warts — even the “leaders” who are larcenous and bumbling.

I fear that, between the yahooism of the right and the contempt of the left, and the battles they wage, we might lose sight of the things that really do make us great. We might fail to impart to the young that ours is the most generous and idealistic nation in the history of humanity.

As a down payment on one man’s gratitude, here are five things that I think make this country great:

1) Freedom of speech, the press, and religion.

No other nation has enshrined these rights in its founding creedal document, its law, or it culture.


The deep beauty of these rights, which are also duties, is the claim to the sanctity of individual thought and conscience. That is why, though one might wish that every person would stand for the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, again out of gratitude for all that they stand for and all the sacrifice that has been made for them, one must defend the right not to stand. The right of each of us to think differently, and to say “for me, maybe not,” is what the country is about.

2) The Fifth and Fourteen Amendments to the Constitution.

The Fifth says in part: “...nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law ...”

And the Fourteen says: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

These, to me, are the most beautiful words in the document save Amendment I. They enshrine and protect the rights of the individual against the state. They elevate due process of law and equal protection of the law to that same creedal, indeed sovereign, status.

No other citizenship on earth is so protected.

3) American literature.

The Declaration of Independence. The speeches of Lincoln. Mark Twain. Walt Whitman. Emily Dickinson. Emerson. Thoreau. Hawthorne. Faulkner. Hemingway. Langston Hughes. Rachel Carson. James Baldwin. John Cheever. Tom Wolfe. Joan Didion. Our literature is as unique, powerful, and ennobling as our system of government.

American literature reveals our nation’s soul, and also feeds that soul in times of aridity and political fratricide.

4) American music: The blues, gospel, jazz, folk, country, and rock.

This country created new forms of music, forms which, again, celebrated utterly independent thought and idiosyncratic expression — freedom in the best sense. I don’t think that any country in the span of history has created so much new music, or so much popular participation in music.

When I think of Louis Armstrong, and Duke Elllington, and Mary Lou Williams, and Ella, and Aretha, and Mahalia Jackson, and Oscar Peterson, and so many others, from Dylan, to Willie Nelson, to George Jones, to Dean Martin, I think our popular music is the essence of America.

5) Generosity of spirit.

This nation enacted the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II. What nation has ever rebuilt the cities of the powers it vanquished in war? We did this for Japan, too. We helped our former enemy create an open and self-governing society. Amazing.

We also created the national park system to make the wonders of this land available to the great mass of people and to preserve some of those wonders.

Franklin Roosevelt created the Social Security system and two generations of American politicians expanded and refined the system.

When there is a natural disaster in the world the cry goes up for the Americans to help, and we always do, no matter who or where it is.

This generosity of spirit not only has manifested itself in our charity, our foreign policy, and our public policy but in the spirit of forbearance, neighborliness, and humor that has characterized so much of our cultural history.

Thus, Fred Rogers and Jack Benny are as important to us as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

America beckons — to every inventor, innovator, free thinker, and creator. It gave us Woody Guthrie and it gave us Walt Disney.

And that’s why America is that great, always was that great, and always will be.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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