I’m always baffled when I get a message from a reader that accuses me or my site as being “America haters.” Of course, I shouldn’t be. There’s always a strong element of “America: love it or leave it” in our popular discourse. It’s an element the government actively encourages.
There was a time I identified with the U.S. government because I was part of it. Having served in the US Air Force for twenty years — having worn this nation’s uniform with pride — I can understand those who think that the government and its actions represent them, or that patriotism somehow requires deference toward our elected representatives or government employees.
But this is indeed a dangerous attitude to have. It’s not we who are supposed to serve the government: it’s the government that is supposed to serve us. Even when I was in the military, I took an oath to defend the Constitution, not the government.
Governments are human constructions composed of imperfect humans. They are vested with power, which feeds corruption. So governments must always be kept in check. They must always be viewed critically. “Question authority” should be the byword of all true patriots.
Government is supposed to represent us. When it fails to do so, we should elect new leaders who will do their jobs as public servants. And if that fails, people need to organize and protest. Sometimes, direct political action is all that works to right wrongs. Think of union strikes; think of the civil rights movement; think of antiwar protests, as in the Vietnam War.
Government requires constant criticism. That is the very reason why we have rights such as freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press. It doesn’t help when people reject criticism as unpatriotic. Indeed, it just empowers the worst elements within government.
I know all of this is obvious to my readers, else they wouldn’t be here. Suffice to say our incredibly powerful government, which is increasingly shrouded in secrecy and therefore often unaccountable to the people, needs a lot more criticism.
Don’t confuse criticism with hate. In fact, criticism may indeed be driven by a kind of love.
When I was in CCD and preparing to be confirmed at St. Patrick’s Church in the late 1970s, our teachers tried to teach us kids what “love” is. We were asked to give definitions. As teenagers, we came up with the usual definitions of romantic love, all valentines and holding hands and smooching.
No, our teachers explained, love should be selfless. It’s not about you. Love is about giving without expecting anything in return.
Throughout her long life, Aunt Mary demonstrated that kind of love. She gave to her own mother, caring for her as she aged. She gave to her sister Corrine through her struggles. She gave to her brother Gino. She gave to us all, and she did so with generosity and goodness and grace. She gave without expecting anything in return.
So, if my old CCD teachers asked me today for a definition of love, my answer would be a simple one. “ ‘Love,’ ” I’d say, “is my Aunt Mary.”
Aunt Mary blessed our lives for 94 years. Let us give thanks to God that she was with us for so long. And let us all learn from her shining example the true meaning of love.
On this Super Bowl Sunday of 2014, doubtless we’ll be hearing about the “heroes” of the gridiron. Whichever team wins will have its “heroes” (Peyton Manning, perhaps?). Meanwhile, remote feeds will show various military units watching the Big Game, and doubtless these troops will be touted as American heroes. (They’re indisputably a tad more heroic than a multi-millionaire quarterback who shills everything from pizza to cars.)
But who are the real heroes of America? I tackled this question on Memorial Day 2011 at Truthout. For me, it’s loving, hard-working, self-sacrificing people like my parents. I recall learning in Catholic catechism class that love is all about selfless giving — giving of yourself, freely and generously, without expecting anything in return. That is assuredly one characteristic of a “hero.”
Here is what I wrote back in 2011. My thanks to Truthout for publishing it back then.
This Memorial Day , let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).
Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.
My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.
America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.
There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).
My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.
And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.
God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.
Back in July, my wife and I visited the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. At the shrine, there’s a simple, moving, memorial to the Sandy Hook children (see photo above).
Rarely has the Biblical phrase, “Jesus wept,” been sadder or more appropriate. Christ said to suffer the children to come unto me, for they are the kingdom of heaven. How have we as a society lost this message?
Children are our innocents; they are also our future. Yet far too many of them are mistreated–even murdered.
The Sandy Hook children are martyrs to an American society that is saturated in violence. A society that claims to put its trust in God even as it resolutely ignores His teachings.
We have to do a better job of protecting our children from our all-too-violent tendencies. As a friend put it, we need to do better than to hope our children are safe. We need to knowthat they are safe.
We need to know because the agony of more lost innocents is too much to bear.