May 26, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

America remains a great, if changing, nation

On national holidays such as the upcoming Memorial Day celebration, I always think, “Is this a great country or what?”

Not only is it huge and various, but also it shifts focus constantly. While the true purposes of its origins remain, the way they’re implemented changes, sometimes for the good and sometimes not.

That’s because our nation, like every other institution in our lives, is run by humans. In one ordinary lifetime as an American, I may experience pride, shame, fear and almost any other emotion about this country. But, in the end, I believe in the United States of America and am grateful to be one of its citizens.

In less than one century, we’ve gone from severe economic depression to inflated war profits to rebounding optimism and growth. This was followed by generally continuous economic stability culminating in a stock market bubble of greedy proportions. Now, we seem cautiously prosperous; at the same time, the division between rich and poor is widening.

We’ve changed friends over these years as well. Russia was our noble ally then our Cold War enemy, and now is one of those colleagues we want to trust but don’t quite. China was also a pal who then became our enemy, with a splinter faction of good guys living in Formosa. Nowadays, we’re finding ways to coexist with China in business, if not in ideology.

We’re rather miffed as Americans to know that European countries devastated by a war we helped to win, and then aided by us in their economic recovery, now criticize us because we are powerful enough to have done both. We’re also rather chagrined to find that many of the least desirable aspects of American culture have been enthusiastically adopted by the rest of the world. We’re criticized for that, too.

The face of our country has certainly changed over this time. We were largely a Caucasian European-origin population, with a sizeable minority of African-Americans plus a few Asians and others. Now, Caucasians are fast losing prominence, with Hispanics gaining and people of many other ethnicities joining African-Americans in the minority column.

Education has undergone changes as well, partly due to improved technologies that eliminated much physical labor. College degrees, formerly earned by professionals, the wealthy and intellectually gifted people, are now common requirements for most jobs.

Attitudes about military service bounced from the patriotic views of World War II to the contempt displayed in the ’60s’ Vietnam era. In turn, that became admiration of the Greatest Generation and, lately, support of our troops if not always our cause.

Changes have also occurred in the role of women in society, in ideas about raising kids and the composition of families. Tolerance of sexual matters that formerly were illegal, if not immoral, is now the norm, and “individual rights” have replaced concern for the “common good.”

Still, we live in a country that the world perceives as friendly and nominally dedicated to the worth of each individual. As long as we stop confusing freedom with license and instant gratification with moral justification, we may continue being proud to be called Americans.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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