How to Be Pro-American

Recently, I wrote on the perils of being a super-power. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the United States hasn't fared well as the world's only super-power, given our enormous fall in global approval and the misadventure in Iraq. The article was labeled "an anti-American screed" by one right-wing blogger and attacked on Fox News. Which got me thinking about what it means to be pro-American, or for that matter, just American.

There will always be a contingent who believes that no one is American who wasn't born here, even someone like me who has lived in this country for nearly forty years, raised my kids here, and worked as a physician from coast to coast. The politics of xenophobia is alive and well in the Birthers movement in that a recent Research 2000 poll showed over half of Republicans do not think that President Obama is a natural born U.S. citizen. These so-called nativists aren't as strong as they used to be, but they remain a powerful force in the debate over immigration, for instance. To them, the only option for dealing with the current flood of illegal immigrants is to deport them all, and you're not a real American unless you agree.

Then there's the larger group on the right that believes in "my country right or wrong." They cannot tolerate any criticism of America and equate unquestioning patriotism with Americanism. This group becomes stronger when the country is threatened and has had a major influence since 9/11. Their targets tend to be anyone on the left -- leftism is automatically un-American -- or anyone who doesn't buy into the doctrine of maximum security, weakening of civil rights, and permanent detention for any person suspected of terrorism, preferably without trial. If given the chance, they will also mount witch hunts against anti-Americanism, as happened in the McCarthy era of the early Fifties. The disgrace and general uselessness of those campaigns doesn't seem to discourage them.

You will already know if you fall into any of these groups, but if you don't, if being pro-American isn't part of right-wing ideology for you, what does that leave? A new kind of Americanism is being shaped right now. President Obama exemplifies one aspect, the desire to look out on the world and accept it rather than look inward to America and reject everyone else. He doesn't panic over security or instill fear of "the other," especially Muslims. This stance goes back to an Americanism based on progressive ideals. There has always been a historical struggle between two value systems, with the progressive side valuing toleration, free markets, open immigration, extended civil rights, and no color barrier.

Since the Reagan revolution, this value system has been weakened to the extent that the first Pres. Bush could call his first campaign opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, a card-carrying liberal, echoing the terminology that Joe McCarthy used against card-carrying Communists. During the second Bush administration, when progressives had to duck and cover, the reactionary world view pointed the finger of anti-Americanism at anyone who didn't want to batten down the hatches and turn this country into a fearful, anxious place full of electronic surveillance, incipient terrorists around every corner, and an expanded military fed on unlimited funding for new weapons systems.

There is no doubt that both value systems must bend with the times. Ideas on immigration and security, civil rights and equal opportunity, free markets and open trade can't be the same now as they were in 1945 or even five years ago. Nothing is written in stone either on the right or the left, as much as certain partisans wish it were. With that in mind, I'd like to suggest a new view of being American that involves the following values we can all agree upon:

  • Being open to change without fear and suspicion.
  • Seeing the rest of the world as our back yard, not as a set of faraway places.
  • Accepting the trend toward faster and faster global communications.
  • Suppressing knee-jerk reactions of fear and paranoia toward immigrants.
  • Re-examining on a regular basis the country's need for a standing military of enormous size and scope.
  • Not labeling someone who disagrees with you as anti-American.

This isn't much to ask for, and it leaves room for a great deal of discussion and disagreement. We are coming out of a fiercely partisan schism that made America vulnerable to all the problems of a house divided against itself. Now we have a president determined to reverse the trend; his election was the first and biggest step in that direction. I only hope he realizes that sticking to the middle of the road isn't the same as having a vision. With a vision, being pro-American will turn into an honorable position we can all embrace. Without a vision, the ideals of Americanism will be paid lip service while the reality will continue to be simmering suspicion and anger toward each other.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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