Once you hear his version of that song, every other rendition feels empty. I think his version of that song is a far superior personification of this country than our current national anthem. But that’s just me.
As I listened to Ray Charles sing that song again, a few lines stuck out to me:
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain Divine!”
It is common that I receive a lot of angry feedback to any criticisms I make about my country. It is no secret that I don’t exactly fit in with American culture and would love to live abroad. But I am continually frustrated by the attitude that by criticising America’s faults I am somehow detracting from its “greatness.”
Those lines from “America the Beautiful” stuck out to me today because I want them to become true. I don’t want America to happily skip down the path of arrogant self-righteousness it has been travelling. I want all our successes to be noble. I want to see the end of what I consider to be a mockery of our claimed values. I want the inscription on the Statue of Liberty to be true. I want America to stop acting like Regina George.
We proclaim liberty, equality, and freedom. Yet we have a distressing legacy of inequality, hatred, paternalism, and imperialism. When people try to come to our country for a better life, we kick them out, separate them from their families, spit on them–and that has been true with each wave of immigration.
All cultures experience some level of ethnocentrism, meaning each culture believes it is the best culture–it’s an “Us v. Them” attitude. The United States is no exception, except we take it to the next level. An Italian might say Italy is the best, but the sentiment won’t be filled with resentment toward everyone else. Italians might think Italian-made pasta and leather and football is the best (come on, they’re probably right) but they won’t behave like it’s their way or the highway. Instead of attempting to enforce their culture, they’ll share it.
We constantly judge other cultures by our own standards and conclude that non-Americans must suffer so, or are pitiful because they don’t live here. We are not better than everyone else. Country lines do not decide value and happiness and worth. All cultures are different, all cultures matter.
I don’t like to say there is a “best” country in the world. That is impossible to measure, especially since so much depends on personal opinion and values. However, of the measurable markers, the U.S. does not measure up. We are one of three countries that doesn’t require maternity or paternity leave. A recent report says at the current rate it will take until 2121 to reach parity in the federal government. On the Global Peace Index our rank is 101 out of 162 (a drop from 99 several weeks ago). Our government is basically owned by big business. We claim to welcome the tired, poor, and huddled masses, but we absolutely reject anyone who dares come.
We are categorically not the best, but not only do we insist we are the best, we stomp on anyone who disagrees–even if that someone is not American.
My purpose in writing this isn’t to spew America-hate. My purpose is to propose an alternate way of thinking. Namely, instead of insisting America is perfect the way it is, we work to make all our successes noble. Instead of yelling, “We’re the best! We’re the best!” while running an interior monologue detailing why America is better than everyone else, we embrace our culture while loving everyone else’s. It is possible to love your own culture without hating on others.
And the idea that ignoring a country’s problems is the ideal form of patriotism is just plain bizarre. As the song says, we need to refine our gold. Or in other words, we need to refine ourselves. We need to refine our attitudes, our politics, our intercultural relations. The world doesn’t revolve around us and it’s time we stop acting like it does.
So this Independence Day, celebrate the great things in our history. Celebrate that a small band of revolutionaries beat the British army and navy against all odds. Celebrate that we value freedom and independence and individuality and bravery. Celebrate the men and women who have worked and fought to preserve those values. Please, celebrate these things! But don’t forget that America is far from perfect. Don’t forget that other cultures and countries matter and don’t define themselves against an American backdrop. Don’t forget that there are people within our country-lines who suffer and don’t experience the freedom we claim to value so highly.
America has a long way to go. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there.