My guess is that whoever wrote the chain email saying how lucky it was being born between 1925 and 1955 was a straight, white male. That golden period might have been described differently by a black person. We might have heard about Jim Crow, Emmitt Till, lynching, inferior schools, job discrimination, public accommodations discrimination, the Green Book, Rastus jokes, and so on.
Women might also have presented some other facets of these golden generations. I was raised with the notion that I could be and do anything I wanted that my talent and effort allowed. Many girls during that time were raised with the notion that they could do anything as long as it was being a homemaker, a schoolteacher, or a secretary until they, at last, got married. They knew that they had to suffer sexual harassment and senseless restrictions on their dress. In my day, girls could not wear slacks to school. We all walked to school in Wisconsin winters. To avoid frostbite, the girls wore pants under their skirts to get to school and then had to find a modest way to take them off to store them in their lockers until day’s end and the trek home. I wonder if they feel nostalgia for this part of their youth.
And I doubt that the five, ten, or twenty percent of us who are not straight wax nostalgic for that golden period.
I am not trying to suggest that everything is better now, and I recognize that it is natural to think about the good old days. I certainly miss aspects of my childhood, but there has never been a time when everything was wonderful. A friend, a former marine, responds to the slogan “Make America Great Again” by asking, “When was this country ever great?” He believes that the widespread faith in America’s exceptionalism distorts our history. Pick a time when you think our country was great, and I can tell you about the flaws that existed along with the positives. 1776 or 1789. Both north and south then benefited from slave labor. The Civil War. As if any of us would wish to have lived through that period. Was the Gilded Age great with its excesses that led to a now mostly forgotten but long-lasting depression? How about the 1920s with grinding poverty in much of rural America? The 1950s and 1960s with its bombings of churches, homes, and institutions? The 1970s with the hatred and divisions of the Vietnamese War?
Too many Americans have an unjustified and ahistorical faith in this country’s exceptionalism. Too many have the sacrilegious view that we are somehow God’s chosen. H. Richard Niebuhr was right when he said in The Kingdom of God in America, “The old idea of American Christians as a chosen people who had been called to a special task was turned into the notion of a chosen nation especially favored.”
When we see ourselves as chosen, we serve neither God nor man. The true patriot should be seeing the good and bad in this country, trying to preserve the good but also trying to make the bad better. We should be striving to make this country greater, but that can only be done if we recognize what needs to be changed, and that requires honesty about our many flaws.
Of course, there is a flip side to this. Many of the students in the class I recently taught seemed to think nothing was positive about this country. Without recognizing what is right and good about this country, they can’t conserve what needs to be conserved.
Both groups need a proper perspective about this country, and often we seem to fail in that basic task.
And, oh yes, that Jay Leno quote near the end of the email that had him saying, “With hurricanes, tornados, fires out of control, mud slides, flooding, severe thunderstorms tearing up the country from one end of the country to another, and with the threat of bird flu and terrorist attacks, are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?” I wondered if he had said that especially since there have been no recent controversies about the Pledge. So, of course, I googled.
I found that the chain email has been appearing for at least three years and that the Leno quote had closed out a different column that urged Americans not to be so negative about the country. The column was written in 2008. Other sources indicated that Leno gave the quoted question as part of a monolog in 2006 when there was some controversy over the Pledge, but, of course, Leno uttered it as a laugh line. That was the point to his Tonight Show monolog.
Perhaps the comedian would see the irony that his piece of humor was followed by the email’s closing passage: “For those who prefer to think God is not watching over us, go ahead and delete this. For the rest of us please pass this on.” Hurricanes, tornadoes, mud slides, and the like are often referred to as acts of God. Even though He has visited death, destruction, and fear, we should believe that God is looking over us during those acts of His. Now that is truly an act of incredible faith.