As another new year begins, we again have the opportunity to reflect on the state of our collective consciousness. What ails us? What might be our cure?
In my youth, I used to make a list of New Year’s resolutions, thereby following instructions from my mother, who always urged me to learn from my mistakes and to strive constantly to improve myself. Somewhere along the line, I dropped the resolutions idea, but I think I have retained some of the learn-from-my-mistakes and strive-constantly-to-improve-myself sermons.
Our country will soon inaugurate a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to a second term as our president, and I suppose that fact alone should provide reassurance that you don’t have to have common telephone-book last names like Carter or Ford or Reagan or Bush or Clinton to serve in the nation’s highest office. And the racial stereotype that had seemed to be a pre-requisite for the job since the country’s founding? Forget about it.
But if the re-election of Obama stands for the advances the country has made against tradition and prejudice, the fact that his first term has been marked by political divisiveness and legislative intransigence is ample evidence that we still have much to learn and many aspects of our system of governance we need to improve.
All things considered, Obama had a good first term. In the face of the Republican’s stated intention of making him a one-term president, Obama was still able to pull the country out of the deepest recession it had experienced in over a quarter of a century. Whether some of that recovery would have occurred even without his efforts will never be provable, and whether an entirely different, far-less government-intrusive approach would have worked just as well, if not better, is also highly debatable.
But there is, in all the back and forth on economic theory and political philosophy, one aspect of the country’s current difficulties that seems more reflective of the citizenry of the country than of its leaders. I’m referring generally to the idea of patriotism, which seems to have undergone a redefinition, if it hasn’t been lost to our lexicon entirely, in the last 40 or 50 years.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In the years since 1961, when John Kennedy included that line in his inaugural address, we have lost that sense of patriotism the line evokes. Sacrifices are rarely asked of the people, and the people have grown accustomed to not being asked.
Of course, we’ve been spoiled. In my formative years, two years of military service was required of all young men. We were the sons of the men who had defended freedom in World War II. It was inbred into our psyches that military service was the way we expressed our patriotism. Few of us ever questioned that requirement, and in one way or another most of us served.
But then came Viet Nam and the assault on the draft, which led to the draft lottery and, ultimately, the all-volunteer military, which now consists mostly of young men and women from the lowest economic strata. In many instances, they sign up, not out of patriotic fervor, but because the alternatives—unemployment and impoverishment—are even less attractive.
“Nothing is certain but death and taxes,” Ben Franklin is purported to have written in the earliest years of the country’s existence. The tone of his letter (to a fellow citizen) was more of the “grin-and-bear-it” variety, than anything even hinting at a plausible alternative. And so it was, until the anti-tax revolution began in the late 1970s. And in the years since, this form of patriotism has also fallen into disfavor.
When President Obama suggested, in an admittedly awkward way, that successful American business owners hadn’t built their businesses single-handedly, he wasn’t confirming anything other than the reality of what is intended by the claim that America is the true land of opportunity for all. It is the sacrifices of everyone that makes it possible for individuals to realize the American dream.
Those sacrifices come in the form of public service, be it the teachers who educate our young people, the firefighters and police officers who keep our communities safe, the mayors and water board commissioners who keep our trains running on time, and, yes, the soldiers, who secure the liberties and values we cherish.
And those sacrifices also come from the taxes that we all pay to employ those public servants and to give those less privileged in our society a chance to reap the benefits the rest of us enjoy.
So let’s be clear: it’s patriotic to pay taxes, and it’s patriotic to support the imposition of taxes. That doesn’t mean debates can’t be waged on what level of taxation should be imposed on particular segments of the society. But anyone who claims they oppose all taxes or would never vote for a tax of any kind isn’t seeing the big picture, which is that our country is the land of opportunity precisely because of the contributions and sacrifices everyone, in one way or another, makes.
Yes, paying taxes is a sacrifice. It means giving up a portion of hard-earned income for other than purely personal benefit. But paying taxes is the best way to support the country that facilitated the success many Americans achieve. Lapel pin flags and bumper stickers that say “support the troops” may make us feel patriotic, but the true patriot acknowledges that all of us need to be invested in the country’s promise. And, if we are already reaping the benefits of that promise, taxes are a way to pay back on the country’s investment in us.
And so, as we prepare to commence the second term of the presidency of Barack Obama, I humbly suggest we re-commit to the true spirit of American patriotism by sacrificing from our own prosperity in such measure as we have realized it, so that others can have the same opportunity and thereby continue to know the American dream.
Happy New Year, everyone.