Reasons to Temper Our Pessimism

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The young woman, an editor, said in a private conversation that "there's not much going on in our country today that makes me proud to be an American."

She sympathized with Michelle Obama, wife of the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, Senator Barack Obama, for the flak she took after being widely quoted: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country." Ms. Obama is 44 and thus suggested that she had not been proud of America for two decades.

Neither the editor nor Ms. Obama, however, seemed to be so pessimistic as a couple who said in personal correspondence: "Our country is dying." Nor did they go so far as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago preacher who was even more widely quoted as calling on God to damn America.

Surely no American can afford to be complacent as the nation celebrates the 232nd anniversary of independence this weekend. In the White House is a deeply unpopular president, George Bush, and his gray eminence, Vice President Dick Cheney. The armed forces are trapped in a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, the consequence of strategic blunders by the Bush administration.

The polls say a large majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the nation. The Congress is dysfunctional. The economy is caught in a downward spiral of high fuel and food prices, lost jobs, home foreclosures, and failing businesses. The press and especially TV news focus more on trivial pursuits than on vital issues. Bitter civil discourse compounds already severe divisions throughout the country.

And yet....and yet, when measured against the ideals set down in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Bill of Rights in 1791, America today seems fundamentally sound.

Among the truths that Americans hold to be self-evident, the belief that all men are created equal is finally being realized after two centuries of struggle. A Democratic primary in which the candidates were a black man, Senator Obama, and a white woman, Senator Hillary Clinton, would have been unthinkable not many years ago. Whether the voters agreed with their policies was not the issue, that each ran unimpeded was.

As the Economist magazine asserted: "For a country whose past is disfigured by slavery, segregation, and unequal voting rights, this is a moment to celebrate. America's history of reinventing and perfecting itself has acquired another page."

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence admonished Americans to have a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. That respect may be scant in Washington but several decades of watching American diplomats, military officers, Peace Corps volunteers, exchange students and others in Asia attests to their "decent respect" for their Asian hosts.

The signers of the Declaration closed that document with a pledge to put at risk "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." The young men and women who volunteer for military service today despite the danger of being killed or wounded in a faraway war that a majority of Americans no longer support evinces their willingness to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for their country.

The heart of the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and to petition the government. While just how much freedom is assured is forever debated, especially the separation of church and state, that debate itself is evidence that the freedoms are secure.

Nearly every religion under the sun, from Assemblies of God to Zoroastrianism, is practiced in America even though some were persecuted in the past. Related to their practice of religion, Americans have shown themselves to be generous, having donated $306 billion to charity and disaster relief last year. That was almost equal to the gross national product of Denmark, 28th on a list of national economies.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in pleading with impunity that God would condemn America, produced perhaps the best evidence that freedom of speech has been preserved in America. And the repeated broadcast of his sermon on TV news programs, without consequence, surely underscored the freedom of the press.

In sum, for all its flaws and troubles, America is not doing so badly on her birthday. At the same time, John Curran, the Irish orator speaking about the time the Bill of Rights came into force, reminded Americans and the world that nothing can be taken for granted. "Eternal vigilance," he said, "is the price of liberty."

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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