I once knew a teacher who kept on his wall the following words: America is great because America is good.
It wasn’t eloquent or profound, but it made its point: there was goodness that maybe didn’t permeate our country, but at least predominated.
The America alluded to in that little saying comprised a populace that, for instance, reacted with amused disbelief at headlines in the Enquirer. But the America of today fights for Alex Jones’s right to torment the parents of the Sandy Hook murder victims.
Yes, I’m generalizing. And yes, most of us with the most meager of thoughts in our heads recognize Jones as a deplorable, often sadistic, and always fatuous purveyor of lies. But in an America that is truly great because it’s truly good, people like Jones would exist only in—and for—the most dismal dregs of society. And yet we find him and his crusades displayed daily in our most respected newspapers.
Jones is a symptom. Charlottesville was another. So was the abandonment of Puerto Rico after last year’s devastation. And how high up, on the goodness meter, does one place the isolation and imprisonment of 565 children, 24 of whom are five years old or younger.
I read an editorial this morning from Times op-ed writer Bret Stephens contesting Cuomo’s slap at America, claiming that “greatness, like happiness, lies less in the achievement than in the striving—and in the question of what we are striving for.”
I get it. It’s that old “more perfect union” idea which is grammatically off-base but theoretically ideal. We’ll never have perfection but we can strive.
I don’t think Andrew Cuomo sees enough striving. Instead he, like many of us, sees a news cycle dominated by the rantings of a boy-king and the cowardly toadies who have traded their principles and those of their constituents for a friendly tweet.
We’re angry. We’re frustrated. We lash out in blogs and tweets and launch screeds against friends and family members.
Like this one. Like me.
Bill Clinton, in his 1993 inaugural address, said “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” For the time being at least, what is right is our right to free speech and our right to vote, both of which are under almost daily attack by a faltering and unbalanced president and a gutless Republican Congress.
America has never been great for everybody: Native Americans, people of color, the LGBTQ community, Jews, Irish, Asians, Italians, women—the history of America is replete with groups for whom America’s greatness was merely theoretical. Today, with the ascent of Trumpism as the law of the land, more of us feel as though we’re one of those groups. And we don’t like it.
As for Andrew Cuomo, I wish he had been more prescriptive with his comment, and I wish it could have been formally debated. I think some good may have come from it. And maybe it’s that kind of good than can make us great—or put us on the pathway to greatness—again.