Aren’t “We” supposed to be better than “Them?”

This column was printed in the Northern Express on 5-25-2015.  You can read the whole paper here:  Northern Express

When I first started laying out this column a couple of weeks ago, I intended to write about the horrible job this version of our State Legislature is doing since taking power a few short months ago.  I had a lot to say about their botched attempt to abrogate their responsibilities on repairing the roads and their constant attempt to force their religion down our unwilling throats.  Pertinent to northern Michigan, I had a lot of questions for State Reps Cole and Chatfield who seem to be living down to their expectations as undereducated one-trick ponies regarding their jobs as government officials.

But print deadlines being what they are, and this legislature’s apparent plan to do something more outrageous each week, made me realize that by the time this column hits the newsstands, it would have to be entitled “Today’s Old News – Legislature Still Messing Up.”

So I scrapped that column,  but I will continue to collect and document the egregious acts of this group so that when the 2016 election roll around, northern Michigan will be far less inclined to reward these folks with a second term during which they can do further damage to our state.

Instead, this week, I was once again reminded about how many Americans seem to be very uncomfortable living up to the responsibilities of being “Leaders of the Free World.”  It is a very difficult job walking the walk when our talk is generally related to being the “greatest country on earth.”   I’m pretty sure every country on earth aspires to that title, but only a select few have the hubris to repeatedly and publically declare it.

Declaring yourself to be that great requires, of course, your willingness to avoid answering such important questions as “What do you mean by great?”   Greatness is really hard to objectively define, so most of us simply nod in agreement whenever anyone suggests that we live in the greatest country in the world.  It’s easier on our leaders, and it’s easier on our citizens to simply accept that platitude and move on.

Time for a disclaimer:  I think the United States is a really terrific place to live for most people.  Our freedoms, while under constant assault from some elements in our government and from many religious zealots, are better than in most countries on earth.  Decent opportunities to earn a living are available to most people, but it is a struggle for most Americans to live the kind of life they seek.  Job security and leisure time are unavailable to most workers.   There is plenty of good medical care available, but far too many people have little or no access to it.  Women, LGBT people, and racial and religious minorities rarely have to be worried about being gunned down or stoned to death, but genuine equality and justice remain elusive goals.  We have been generally safe from attacks by outsiders, but our bloated military consumes far too much of our resources, and our military might has given our leaders the opportunity to abuse our power with impunity.

On balance, then, the United States remains a very desirable place to live and continues to attract immigrants from all over the world despite the way those new immigrants are largely abused once they get here.

Two events this week, however, provided fodder for those who question America’s “greatness.”  The first of these came May 7th on the curious “National Day of Prayer” on which our national leaders are expected to violate the Constitution and promote religious belief.  All the presidents have participated since this day was established (pun intended) during the second Red Scare of the 1950’s when certain paranoid Americans thought they saw Communists under every mattress and believed by declaring the USA as God’s favorite country that it would all be ok.  (Insert picture of God sitting on a cloud holding a giant foam finger with “USA #1” on it.)

Apparently this obvious violation of the First Amendment that happens each time a President, in his official capacity, asks us to participate in Christian prayer hasn’t caused any of them, from Eisenhower to Obama, to say to his staff, “Let’s not violate the Constitution today.  Have someone else do this.  Maybe like a priest or a preacher or a rabbi or an imam.”

Every time a president promotes a certain religion, or any religion for that matter, he brings our nation closer to those places that we think we are so much better than.  As the lines between civic duty and religious observation blur, we are no better as a nation than those places we condemn as hostile to freedom.

Then, on May 14th, a jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the bombings during the Boston Marathon a few years back.  If he is in fact executed, the United States will once again re-assert its title as the only western-style democracy that still executes people.  I fully understand the desire for revenge when heinous crimes are committed, and I can imagine myself struggling with my own conscience if anyone I loved was murdered.  But revenge and state murder are not part of “great countries.”  The fact that states around the country are involved in bitter battles to decide how to “humanely” kill someone speaks to the laughable hypocrisy of the death penalty itself.

Should Tsarnaev be denied the opportunity to ever use violence to promote his radical political agenda? Of course.  Should the United States act more like a civilized country than the places we claim to be evil and backward?  Of course.

In the end, if we truly want to claim the title of “Greatest Country on Earth” we ought to be able to back up that claim with our actions.  We should look a lot less like the countries who we consider inferior to us, and a lot more like the place that truly promotes freedom and justice.

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