A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.
Remember ever hearing that?
Substitute the word “American” for “scout” and you used to have something wonderful.
One day this week, we looked at the front page of the Wall Street Journal whereon a headline declared triumphantly: “Housing Prices Climb.”
On the same day we turned to the front page of the New York Times to see a photo of thousands of Asians stored temporarily in Indonesia while hoping for asylum from Southeast Asia.
If we weren’t Americans, we might very well hate ourselves.
What seems particularly other-worldly is that we, within this country, know about the huge differential between the very rich and the very poor. When did we learn that we are able, totally without conscience, to hold both realities in our minds at the same time – death and prosperity?
We’re used by now to films of immigrants from North Africa trying to make landings on Italian islands in the Mediterranean. Now we have to turn our attention to pictures of the same kinds of homeless, fleeing Bangladesh and Myanmar, for the comparative safety of Thailand. Italians want no more homeless; Thailand wants no more.
Germany and Sweden and even Iceland accept refugees, perhaps unwillingly but with understanding and concern. France will, Great Britain, Spain. The U.S. won’t.
Imagine, for the sake of today’s argument, that citizens from a besieged South Carolina or Alabama took to the highways to trek north or west by the millions, looking for better wages, better jobs, solid safe homes. Or move your telescope to the Midwest as millions flee tornedos which nightly devastate communities of farmers living in wooden homes and in trailers, in clapboard houses and brick schools.
Can you imagine Colorado, California, Kansas or Washington more welcoming than they are to these floods of the needy, the decimated?
True enough, we seem finally to have admitted a gap between law enforcement and the people it is supposed to protect. But being who we are, we know that this opportunity to adjust, retrain, teach is going to pass – may already have sped by – and that the awful and dirty little secret part of the reason for this shattering of American values is because a great many Americans believe in another American value, carrying and using firearms whenever and wherever they choose.
We do see Americans across the width of the nation rush to assist their neighbors in mid-tragedy, which is reason for hope. These volunteer workers leap into action because they know that others would do the same for them. But if instead of thirty families needing help or new shelter, there were a need for thousands. What then?
Americans as a breed are full of hope, good wishes, happy dreams, and enormous achievement.
But we are increasingly selfish.
Having convinced ourselves we are “exceptional,” we seem to believe this status is deserved. The disappearance of an entire class of people means nothing as long as housing prices increase.
Worse, for reasons beyond understanding, we seem to still believe that our country is safe from all others because of the Atlantic and Pacific. Most of us are horrified by what happens in the MidEast and not worried at all about becoming targets. Our “exceptionalism” extends to our self-defense. Really?
We spend billions on politics, money that wisely should have gone to infrastructure, police psychology, clean water and air, oil clean-ups after predestined spills in mid-ocean or on river-fronts, discovery and development of medicines to keep us alive. We think nothing (or certainly very little) of sacrificing young men and women in quarrels that are not ours, or should not be. Confident behind our watery borders, we are able to concentrate on what really matters: piling it up for our families.
Tragedies strike daily. We react: “Oh, how awful. But that’s their problem.”
Yet many react differently, sending millions of dollars in large and small gifts to needy, maimed, starving people around the world, or just to the neighbor down the street whose father has been suddenly diagnosed and hasn’t the loot to pay for treatment. We buy and wear printed t-shirts for good causes. We run endless 5K races for charities, local and national. We donate to food banks; we rebuild wind-broken homes; we really are trustworthy and kind, helpful and brave.
But we are also selfish, self-protective, self-satisfied. We disdain those whose gifts are not as gleaming or golden as our own. We criticize those whose opportunities for success have never been as complete as our own. We love our families. We do not love other peoples’.
So in addition to being “exceptional,” we are also “bi-polar,” at home and abroad, in Washington D.C. and Peru, in the Arctic and at a base camp in Nepal.
Sooner or later, we’re probably going to heave a gigantic sigh and just snap!
We’re Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Roadrunner and Wiley, George Washingtons and Josef Stalins.
This tension is unbearable and will, we fear, in the end, break us.