It is the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States, a day when we dress up in red/white/blue outfits, eat hot dogs and barbecue, and set off small explosives. It also is a day for pontificating about what it is to be an American. We don't really need a special day for that, as we now are in a state of continuous political campaigning and under a barrage of propaganda from our "deregulated" broadcasting industry.
But a comment that I saw the other day about how we need to return to "traditional American values" is stuck in my head, so I am going to do a bit of pontificating of my own.
I'm pretty deeply rooted as an American -- 10 generations on this continent, not counting the native ("Indian") parts of my family tree. I grew up in the Midwest: Illinois, land of corn and soybeans and Lincoln. Here's a bit of trivia from Illinois law:
"Section 16 in every township, the sections and parts of sections granted in lieu of all or part of such section, shall be held as common school lands."
From the very beginning of Illinois state government, free public education was recognized as a cornerstone of society, so much so that the precious land itself was dedicated to the public purpose.
Such education benefits the pupil, of course. Much of today's discussion seems to assume that the purpose of education is to enable future employment and increased income. But that's wrong. The purpose of public education is to benefit all of society. That's why everyone is expected to pay school taxes -- not just the parents of school-age children. That's right: social engineering. A "progressive" agenda. Paid by taxes levied on wealth.
We hear a lot these days about what it is to be American, including some very bad ideas from people whose claim on Americanism is pretty thin. One is Rupert Murdoch, a Australian foreigner who bought his way into citizenship and controls propaganda mills all over the world masquerading as news organizations. His "Fox News" gives airtime to crackpots like Orly Taitz (Moldavian), the conspiracy theorist and professional Obama-hater, and spreads ideas from Ayn Rand (Russian), whose twisted mind pronounced selfishness a virtue and charity a vice.
We have built this country on the contributions of immigrants, but Murdoch's hate-for-profit machine has imported poisons into our national conversation.
Not all of our traditions are good. We had slavery for generations, and have suffered greatly as a nation from "American traditions" rooted in racism. Just like the Middle East, we have some especially vile traditions in some religious communities. Continuing evil for tradition's sake is crazy. We should be willing to change. Fortunately, we have a tradition of doing that, too.
As we pick and choose our values going forward, we should be careful. Some very bad ideas are out there, and some very bad actors, yelling about "socialism," and "dictatorship," spreading hatred and discord, libeling public employees for being public employees, preying on ignorance, leveraging bigotry, and destroying for personal gain. They are corrupting our civic conversation with lies, corrupting our elected representatives with cash, and corrupting our laws to raise corporations above human citizens, entangle government and religion, and take away the very right to vote.
If we are to celebrate traditional American values, let's recognize that the best of them are centered not on selfishness but on altruism, the concept that shriveled old Ayn Rand hated so much. E Pluribus Unum. It is not un-American to value education and honor our schoolteachers. It is not un-American to take care of our poor and elderly and infirm. It is not un-American to provide public health care (indeed, American cities throughout history have built and maintained public hospitals). On the contrary, these are great American traditions, reflecting great American values.
We have a tradition of political disagreement, one that on occasion has gotten out of control. Said Abraham Lincoln: "Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events." Sounds like today. We have had the Ku Klux Klan and we still have the Ku Klux Klan, along with the John Birch Society and various bands of gun-toting white supremacists plotting revolution and committing the occasional murder, individual or mass. But we can choose, and we should choose, to reject the attacks on our decent American values from those who would wrap themselves in our flag in celebration of all the worst that we have been.