What’s wrong with America?
Just ask our European friends who live here.
They’ll be happy to tell you how uncivilized we are, how much better the food and wine are at home, that Americans work too hard, that we don’t know how to enjoy a vacation…and as for our government?
Don’t even ask.
The one question I always want to ask—and sometimes I do—is the obvious one:
If things are so bad here, why don’t you just go home?
To criticize and tear down for no particular reason is a distinctly European pastime.
Get a few Americans together and we will also criticize our own society, but for a different reason.
We want to make it better.
My America is imperfect in terms of its government, social structure, economy, infrastructure, race relations, policing, mass transportation, and a hundred other things.
But in this country, we self-criticize because we want to improve.
We are never satisfied.
We are not extremists or overly idealistic.
We simply want the best for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and those with little or nothing.
In other countries, and at most other times of human history, you could never criticize the State.
In Soviet Russia, your children might turn you in.
In other places, you would be ostracized, or fired, or expelled, or shot.
We don’t seek to hide our shortcomings.
American history, for all its fits and starts, has been about taking an imperfect system and an imperfect Union and making them better and stronger.
Birthing freedom and dignity remains a painful, fitful, confused, and even bloody process.
Yet we keep on groping toward the light, simply because we are not afraid to tell the dark truths about ourselves.
Justice Louis Brandeis said it best a century ago: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
I’m proud to be an American because we are not too proud as a society to acknowledge our numerous, perhaps endless, flaws.
But somehow we keep lurching forward toward something better.
We tell the ugly truth about ourselves, our communities, and our past -- not to tear down, but to find a way to build.
The scar tissue that forms over the wounds we salve is the strongest tissue that exists.
We should really call our flag the Scars and Stripes.
We Americans tend to sit patiently when our foreign guests remind us of our various national embarrassments, past and present.
Our real response, however, is the same as what the young Muhammad Ali told Soviet “journalists” probing him for his views on racism in America:
“We’ve got our best people working on it.”
In the United States, I’d like to believe, “our best people” means pretty much all of us.
There’s hardly a soul in this nation not engaged with the struggle to make something better—whether that something is a family, a community, a law, a belief about others, a job, a group deprived of its rights, or the country as a whole.
Let the Europeans, and the rest of the world, criticize us all they want.
Their words mean nothing.
Our national thirst for self-criticism, unslaked from our earliest days, keeps making us better and better and better.
I’m proud to be an American not just because of what we have accomplished, but because of our never-ending desire to make right our wrongs instead of hiding them, denying them, or wishing them away.
We may have settled a continent, but as a nation, we never settle for less.