Writing is an agreeable profession until someone sends you something they’ve written and asks you to make it better. They don’t, of course, want you to make it better. They want you to tell them it’s fine, which it never is, so one learns to lie. A college student recently asked if I would help him write an essay for his freshman composition class. I told him I wouldn’t write it but would be pleased to tell him what was wrong with the one he’d written, since it’s easier to be critical than constructive. His essay was a lamentation on America’s perceived decline. The student isn’t an alarmist, so I was surprised to hear him ringing the farm bell, summoning the field hands to an imaginary fire.
As evidence of our decay, he cited the poor quality of public education, which he blamed for his inability to write a good essay. One benefit of youth is being able to blame others for your flaws. After high school, I blamed teachers for all my shortcomings. Then I blamed the Communists until they went out of business. After that, I blamed Newt Gingrich. Now I am a mature adult and place the blame for my failures squarely where it belongs: on the Swedes.
Complaining about our country is a long and distinguished tradition, begun by politicians. No politician has ever been elected to office by saying everything is fine. If there weren’t a problem, a politician would invent one just to have a platform. Still, it bothers me to hear a young student speak with such raw pessimism. The duty of youth is to give the rest of us hope. I don’t want to hear them moaning that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. That’s the job of old white guys with bad knees. Kvetching about your country is a privilege earned. It requires the careful cultivation of animus and misery. We don’t need some whippersnapper who hasn’t paid his dues stealing our thunder.
These days, most gripers seem to be white guys. Every now and then, I hear a disgruntled woman whine about things, but she’s likely married to a grouchy white guy, and the surliness has rubbed off on her. Since I’m a white guy, I’ve been trying to understand why my peers have their knickers in a twist, and I have concluded it’s because other people are now riding the gravy train we had to ourselves for the past, oh, 100,000 years.
Not that old white guys don’t have legitimate concerns. We’re in hock up to our portholes from fighting the two longest, costliest wars in U.S. history without raising taxes to pay for them. Just so you know, I was opposed to both wars, so I’m not responsible for any of this mess. Not that I’m without blame. To get out of paying my share, I’m thinking about switching my citizenship to Somalia, where they don’t have pesky things like a functional government, resurfaced roads, or an honest police force, but those are trifles I’m willing to overlook so long as I don’t have to pay taxes or get rid of my guns.
Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else."
That’s one thing I agree with the disgruntled white guys about—keeping my guns—because anyone with half a brain knows universal healthcare inevitably leads to tyranny. First a government provides healthcare, and then the next thing you know, it’s tossing us in concentration camps. It has already happened in England and Canada and all those other freedom-hating socialist countries. My younger son serves in the United States Army. He told me the military is plotting to take over the country when the president gives the go-ahead, which should be any day now, according to Rush Limbaugh. It’s a secret; only 2 million soldiers know about it, and me. And now you.
As I said, the white guys might well have valid concerns, though I noticed their ire was kindled around the same time a black guy was voted into the White House. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but then they were even more annoyed when our nation elected him again, and now that he seems to be getting a few things done, some white guys can hardly contain themselves. God forbid our nation should take its Declaration of Independence seriously, that all men are created equal. For centuries we said it with a wink and a nod, and now that it’s coming to pass, some folks can barely stand it.
I wish the hostility were wholly confined to one political party so I could join the other one in protest, but this ignorant indignation, like most viruses, pays no heed to borders. I have noticed it has not infected at least two groups: African Americans and Hispanics, who seem positively giddy that a man with brown pigment holds our highest office with grace, dignity, and intelligence.
Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” We are in the trying-everything-else days. I have no doubt America will finally do the right thing, that the sun will shine once more, but I am weary. Weary of bumper-sticker answers to complex problems. Weary of lies shouted as facts. Weary of office-holders who speak of freedom and opportunity but destroy the bridges that lead to both. Weary of arrogance masquerading as accomplishment. Weary of the scowling dismissal of science and reason, the raging hubris, the manipulation of democracy by the powerful. Weary of allegiance to a party and not a nation. As for allegiance to a wider world and the kinship of all, that would be too great a hope.
When my son joined the military, I was distressed. I am a Quaker and a believer in peace. But I believe also in sacrifice, self-discipline, and selflessness. My son stumbled into the one American institution that still seems to prize those virtues.
During a recent visit, we were walking side-by-side. He glanced over at me and said, “Stand up straight, Dad. Have pride.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, snapping to, laughing, enjoying our reversal of roles.
Hardly a day passes when I don’t want to say that to the gripers: “Stand up straight. Stop griping about the president. Your guy lost the election. That’s life in a democracy. Get over it. Stop waving the flag as if you’re the only one who loves our country. And stop running around like Chicken Little, acting as if the world will end tomorrow.”
I told the college student to start over on his essay, that our country, for reasons I do not fully understand but fully deplore, is suffering from a surplus of angry men with fearful minds. There is no reason one so young should join their ranks.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
This column appeared in the February 2014 issue.