25 December 2012

Christmas in July

Christmas in July – A Skeptic is Born

            When I was 5 years old, the summer going into my first year of elementary school, GM or Chevy or some other American auto manufacturer held a “Christmas in July” sales event akin to the contemporary Toyotathon.  Lately it seems like every month is Toyotathon and every sales event is a once in a lifetime special offer, but such is the way with American marketing.  Make the consumer want it and need it, then tell them they can’t have it (unless they act now!)   Christmas in July TV commercials featured Santa, all decked out in his customary wardrobe, plus sunglasses and a sunscreen nose.  As is typical with Christmas-related car commercials, a fleet of sporty new vehicles had usurped the place of Dasher, Vixen and the rest of Santa’s reindeer fleet.  I have often wondered why no car companies ever made a car called a Blitzen.  I would have bought an Oldsmobile Blitzen based on the name alone.  I doubt car companies have a guy that gets paid six figures to come up with goofy names for their automobiles, but if they do, and if I was that guy, I’d come out with a new reindeer car every Christmas.  My marketing scheme would culminate with the ultimate (and most expensive) luxury automobile, named (obviously) Rudolph.  The Oldsmobile Rudolph.  That’s catchy enough for auto marketing.  It’s better than the Cutlass, which sounds more like a nickname for Jack the Ripper than an American made automobile, and that’s one of the bestselling American made cars ever.  Christianity is huge in America, Christmas is even bigger and the Rudolph would sell.  GM didn’t need a bailout; GM needed more reindeer-names.  It doesn’t even have to be a new car every year.  Instead of calling the “Supreme” version of the Comet the Comet Supreme, call it the Vixen.

            My five year old brain watched some obese geriatric actor in a Santa suit with sunglasses and sunscreen nose tell me to have a “Merry ‘Christmas in July.’”  He assured me that I’d been good this half-year and therefore should treat myself or the one I love to a brand new Chevy Constellation for only $199 a month.  That got me thinking.  Had I been good this year?  Was the real Santa watching me right now?  According to the song and the dogma, when he isn’t staring at me in bed he at least knows when I’m awake…for goodness sake.  But how?  I didn’t see him there.  Once when I was younger (it was probably the Christmas right before “Christmas in July”) I tried to convince myself that when I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, it was trailed by a red coat.  Santa had been watching me the old fashioned way: by breaking into my house and peeking around the corner of the area between kitchen and living room.  But I knew it wasn’t really him; that was impossible because that would mean an infinite (or at least a few hundred million) Santas existed to be able to spy on every child in the world physically.  He must’ve used remote surveillance.    

            I hadn’t seen any evidence of him – no reindeer prints in the snow on the roof and no sleigh tracks up there either, and I’d definitely never seen reindeer or sleds fly, and I didn’t see how (or why) some ageless old man in a suit could know everything about me and every other child on the planet.  And how come he didn’t do anything for my parents?  They were good, weren’t they?  As far as I was concerned they were better than I was.  I never saw my dad lie about breaking a window or heard about him splashing three inches worth of water out of the bathtub all over the bathroom floor as a side effect of trying to create a wave pool.  So what gives?  Sure, they don’t want or need the new Ghostbusters ghost trap or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles play truck, but can’t Santa’s elves make grown-up stuff too?  At what age does Santa stop caring about you?

            And about those elves…I never got a wooden train set or truck for Christmas; I got real live in-the-box toys.  With the manufacturer labels, Styrofoam packaging and everything.  Were the elves that good that they could create exact replicas of NERF footballs and the packaging and the instruction booklet and convince the genuine toy companies that they weren’t infringing on copyright?  Something didn’t add up.  Someone was lying or at least withholding the truth.

            I had to know.  Mid-afternoon on a 90 degree day in July I walked right up to my mom, sat her down and said that I needed to know.  I didn’t want any hypotheticals, I didn’t want to talk about “belief,” I wanted answers. 

            “What do you think?” She asked.

            “I don’t see how there’s any way; it doesn’t make any sense.  I think there is no Santa and it’s you and dad.”

            “You’re right.  Don’t tell you sister.”  But it was too late, my sister (15 months my senior, but we might as well have been twins) had overheard part of the conversation.  She knew of my newly discovered Santa-agnosticism and she decided she wanted to know too.  I don’t remember if I told her directly or if my mom did, but I like to think I told her.

            “Don’t tell the other kids at school.  You have to let them believe.  Don’t tell Jimmy either.” Jimmy is my younger brother and he was 3 at the time.  Even at 5 I knew you’d have to be a real asshole to ruin Christmas for a three year old (or your five year old classmates), so I went on pretending.  I never said I believed in Santa or pretended to believe in Santa, I just kept my mouth shut.  Mostly.

            Eventually there comes a point where encouraging Santa belief is creepy and no longer just letting your child believe something fun.  It reaches a point where it’s lying, disingenuous and damaging.  Almost everyone had that one kid (or small handful of kids) in their class who believed in Santa for way too long.  Usually it led to teasing and ostracism every December.  I had a friend who believed in Santa until 6th grade.  Late 6th grade too – like mid-April 6th grade.  There was nothing wrong with him intellectually or developmentally – he was a normal 12 year old…who also happened to still believe in Santa.  He believed because his parents kept lying to him.  They didn’t just let him believe, they told him to believe. In 5th grade when I got really fed up with the charade, I flat out told him there is no Santa Claus and that our classmates were starting to think that he was weird for believing it.  He told his parents of my blasphemy and they told him I was wrong.  That’s always struck me as creepy.  At that age your parents are the ultimate authority.  What they say is infallibly correct.  There’s something very weird about parents who after a certain age continually lie to their children about the existence of Santa (or the Easter Bunny or any other make-believe childhood hero) and they are doing a great disservice to their children.  Interestingly, his parents were very religious.  Like, “god is the reason (the only reason) you hit that home run, so you’d better thank him or you’ll never do it again” religious.  Possibly (probably) coincidence, but once you’ve spent the first 11 years of your life believing in (and being lied to about) the existence of a supernatural being that you could actively prove did not exist (or at least prove that he did not visit your house every December 25th), it makes it very difficult to ever stray from believing in the existence of a supernatural being that you cannot actively prove does not exist.  Especially considering that, unlike Santa, he is spiritual (rather than physical) by nature.

            My initial reaction to the truth was parental admiration.  My parent’s stock went up by an order of magnitude in my eyes on that mid-July day.  The first thing I said (my mom reminds me and the rest of the family of this story every Christmas) was, “so wait…it was you and dad who bought me all that stuff?!  Thanks!”  (She never mentions that I actually said “thanks,” but this is my story and I know I was a polite little kid, so I said it.)  My younger brother’s Santa story is funnier.  He was 6 or 7 and some kids at school had been talking about it, so he came home and he asked my mom.  When she told him there is no Santa, his reaction was melodramatic grief.  “Everything I have ever been told is a lie!” he wailed. “I’ll never believe anything again!” That’s some pretty good stuff for a second grader.  He should have gone into acting.  But those tears were real and he really was devastated.  For me, it was the opposite.  I was more relieved and satiated.  There was no Santa because the world didn’t work that way.  There is no man who flies around the world in one night in a sleigh driven by reindeer (who also fly) with an unimaginably huge bag of toys for every (well-behaved) child in the world.  That worked for me.  I didn’t think of it in quite those terms when I was five, but to me that made sense.

            My brother added a vengeful (and tearful) “where’s Kerry?! I’m telling Kerry!” during his emotional breakdown.  His first reaction was to weep at the loss of a childhood icon and at being lied to.  He was understandably upset that the world didn’t work the way he thought it did.  His second reaction was to ruin it for my younger sister, who was the only remaining member of the household who still believed in Santa.  That’s hilarious to me.  She would have been 4 or 5 at the time, and my mom stopped him from ruining her Christmas too, but it’s interesting where he was coming from.  He wanted to do it out of anger – in his mind at that moment Christmas was forever ruined for him and that was unacceptable, and he wanted to bring someone else down with him.  For me that need to inform still existed, but not out of vengeance or any type of vindictiveness, but because it seemed like the right thing to do.  I never did tell anyone that Santa Claus does not exist (barring the incident in 5th grade, when a friend was being mocked for it) because I could appreciate the difference between a holiday legend that adults who know better tell kids for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is to get them to behave and finish their broccoli) and actively lying, believing something fantastical or simply repeating misinformation and urban legend unintentionally. 

            I don’t want to try to pretend that at the age of 5 I took realizing and then confirming the truth about Santa Claus, applied it to every area of life, and became an atheist and a skeptic, because that is far from the truth. But it is a good introduction.  It was a long road from July of 1989 until officially considering myself either (or even considering the possibility of either), but on that day the seeds of skepticism were planted and a skeptic was born.

The Face in the Blanket

            Right around the time I finally broke down and told my 5th grade friend that there is no Santa Claus (and his parents promptly discredited me as an infidel), my Social Studies teacher decided he was sick of teaching Social Studies and it was time for us to watch some supernatural documentaries.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances of it, but I do remember vividly that the videos we watched had nothing to do with the Fertile Crescent or Mesopotamia or anything else we were learning in class.  I also don’t remember what pseudo-academic channel originally aired these “documentaries” and I haven’t been able to find them since, and I’ve looked hard, but I’m guessing it was National Geographic (they have no qualms about airing that nonsense Ancient Aliens series and presenting it as fact and/or something seriously debated and questioned among archaeologists, paleontologists and other scientists, so I don’t feel bad for blaming them for this - even if it turns out I’m wrong and it was a different station).  This was my last year in a public school setting, but I think it’s important to note that the specific story I’m about to relate wasn’t specifically the reason for my parent’s decision to enroll me in Catholic school, it serves as a prime example of public elementary school job-security-as-tenure gone wild.

            The first show we watched was on the Bermuda Triangle.  It was presented in typical sensational hyperbolic television fashion, without any rebuttal from the other side.  The hypothesis was that the Bermuda Triangle was a relatively small area in the Atlantic Ocean where an unusually large number of people have disappeared forever.  The program gave multiple explanations for the disappearances, every one of which was supernatural.  One posited that it was due to leftover technologies from the “lost city” of Atlantis buried deep below the triangle.  Aliens and UFO activity were another “scientific explanation” offered by the experts.  Your tax dollars at work.  A grown man who was paid good money (he was probably in his late 50s then, so I’m betting that adjusted for inflation, in New York State public schools, he was probably pulling down 75-80 grand in 2012 dollars…plus another 12-15 grand in benefits) was teaching young, impressionable 11 and 12 year olds that the Bermuda Triangle is supernatural in nature and possibly related to the lost city of Atlantis.  Brilliant.  And the concept terrified me.  At that age, teachers were right up there with parents in their infallibility.  Plus National Geographic was scientific, right?  And these “experts” on the program were scientists who had spent their whole lives studying this stuff.  None of them would lie to me and this was not a horror program, this was science; it wasn’t designed to scare me (and it really didn’t scare most of the other kids in the class), it just happened to scare me as a side effect.  So it had to be fact; aliens were real and were responsible for the disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  I lived nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle, but I was sure I was next.  I did not sleep well that night.

            The next day, my Social Studies teacher was still in babysitter mode rather than paid educator and he decided it was time to introduce a little religion into our public school, masquerading as science.  I’m not talking about any type of Creationism or Intelligent Design argument, no no – this was another pseudo-scientific documentary.  This time the subject was The Shroud of Turin.  This particular program introduced our impressionable and developing brains to the thesis that Jesus Christ was real, he was magical, he was possibly (probably) the son of god, and after he died he rose from the dead and the “energy” from the resurrection had left a daguerreotype imprint of his face and body on the shroud he was buried in.  Not only that, but we somehow managed to find the cloth (over a thousand years after the fact, something the documentary neglected to mention) and could now subject it to testing.  If you’ve ever seen the Shroud of Turin you know it’s not exactly flattering to the late JC, and it definitely isn’t calming, as some Christians try to claim.  And the photographic negative images that the show kept using were horrifying.  Those black and white images of a lifeless face imprinted themselves on my brain and refused to leave.  And they terrified me.  I’m still not sure why; I was raised Catholic and in 5th grade was still an unquestioning believer, shouldn’t the verification of the existence and resurrection of Jesus Christ be a source of great comfort and joy?  It wasn’t.  I couldn’t sleep – I saw that hauntingly expressionless black and white face everywhere.  In the dim light of my bedroom, I saw it forming in posters on my walls and in wood grain patters on my bed.  That image wasn’t benevolent and it was out to get me. 

I don’t even remember the specifics of the Shroud of Turin documentary.  I just remember the frightening image and that the overall point was that numerous scientific tests had shown that there was a very high probability that the Shroud was authentic.  I also remember that my teacher strongly agreed with the program’s conclusion.  The second night of seeing Jesus’ creepy shroud face every time I closed my eyes and not being able to sleep because of it, I realized I had to do something.  I went to my parents and told them about it.  I didn’t even remember the name of the burial cloth.  I called it “the face in the blanket.  You know – Jesus’ face from when he was buried and rose from the dead…”   Luckily they knew what I was talking about and they (two lifelong Catholics) assured me that it was nonsense.  They didn’t try to tell me that the (alleged) face of Jesus should bring me joy instead of fear or some other religious jive; they instead told me it was a hoax.  My dad told me he didn’t know what “science” show I had seen, but that he knew it wasn’t real science.  I felt better, but still pretty uneasy.  Although sleep came much easier that night, the face still wouldn’t leave my mind.

Arriving home from work the next day, my dad took a library book out of his briefcase and handed it to me.  “Read this,” he said. 

Looking for a Miracle” I read aloud.  “What’s this?”

“This will explain why your teacher and that show are wrong about the Shroud of Turin,” he replied.

The Shroud of Turin was only one chapter in the book, which featured a full survey of alleged miracles, magical icons, weeping religious relics, reports of stigmata, and other similar fare.  I opened to the chapter on the Shroud of Turin and read it three times, each time growing more assured that this thing was a hoax and I had no reason to be afraid.  The ghostly Jesus face was still in my mind, but it lost its power to scare me because it wasn’t real.  Again, this is all a bit paradoxical for a 10 year old Catholic, but for me at the time believing in an unseen god in the sky was fine – ghosts (and ghostly images) here on Earth were not.

I remember being angry.  My entire class and I were exposed to this Shroud of Turin business in a Social Studies class.  After having read Joe Nickell’s accounts and descriptions of what real scientists, historians, archaeologists, proper testing of the shroud by proper scientists, and even religious clergy had to say in Looking for a Miracle, I realized that not only was there no way that the Shroud of Turin was supernatural, but there was also no way it was even the authentic burial shroud of Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t only bad science, it was bad history, bad archaeology, bad everything.  It was even bad religion in the sense that if it’s fake (which it is) then it’s a false icon and it’s blasphemous.  I again felt the need to explain all this to my classmates.  This wasn’t Santa Claus, this was real stuff.  We were being given inaccurate misconceptions, myths and flat out lies as truth and fact.  This time, I was going to set everything straight.

But the next day at lunch when I started telling my classmates about the truth, no one seemed to care.  It didn’t matter to them at all.  The few students who did care only cared to challenge me, one of them even saying (I really do remember this verbatim) – “Innocent until proven guilty – it’s right until you prove it’s wrong.”  I tried telling him that the opposite is true – it’s wrong until (or unless) the evidence shows it’s right (my 5th grade version of the scientific method) – but he wasn’t having it.  Now even some of the other kids started to jump in (the ones who “didn’t care”) to agree with him.  It wasn’t about supernatural faces in a cloth or alien abductions in the North Atlantic; it was about the truth and reality.  No one was on my side.  It wasn’t a big deal and the whole thing blew over within a minute and we were back to talking about how many swear words were on the new Green Day album and whose older brother had to album so we could listen to them on repeat, but being on the minority side of debate about supernatural forces, science, truth, and reality would become a common theme for me.

That Joe Nickell book was my first introduction to formal skepticism and the idea that claims of paranormal ability, supernatural forces and pseudoscience could be subjected to real scientific scrutiny.  It taught me to question claims and to examine the evidence for what’s actually there versus what we hope is (or think it would be “cool” if it was) there.

The Majority of Americans Can’t Be Wrong, Can They?

We are a supernatural nation.  Considerably less so than many other countries, yes, but according to numerous polls, a considerable majority of Americans believe in all kinds of weird supernatural stuff.  I’m not sure exactly how these polls define “belief” (or if they even define it at all), but I define it as an active psychological state in which one holds something to be true.  “I don’t know/maybe/there could be/it’s possible” is not belief.  If you don’t know, you don’t believe.  By definition you can’t believe if you don’t know.  I’m not sure how many of the 73% of Americans who said (in the findings of a recent Gallup poll) that they believe in some type of paranormal/supernatural phenomenon (including ESP, ghosts, and telepathy, but not god – god wasn’t considered “supernatural” in this poll…) really meant “I don’t know for sure.” Based on experience, I’m guessing very few.  In fact, other polls measuring belief in various phenomena have included an “I don’t know” column and, like any good third party candidate, “I don’t know” consistently scores very low. 

Despite the insistence of members of the religious right, America was not “founded on the principles of Christianity.”  If anything, it was founded on principles of Paganism, Freemasonry, (not the paranoid conspiracy theory “New World Order” kind of Freemasonry) and liberty.  However, despite the insistence of members of atheist movements and secular groups, it is technically accurate to say that America is a Christian nation in the sense that a healthy majority (coincidentally, also 73%) of Americans identify as Christian.  We generally consider Iraq and Turkey to be Muslim nations, but officially they are actually secular.  We just call them Muslim because a huge majority (99.8% of Iraqis and 98.6% of Turks) identify themselves as Muslim.  If 73 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, technically we’re a Christian nation, even if we do not have an official, state-sponsored religion.  While we do not have an official national religion, we do hold to some peculiar traditions and religious tendencies on an official level.  In courtrooms, we place our hands on Bibles, swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help us god – implying that morality and god are inseparable and apparently believing that this hollow act of placing one’s hand on a book and promising not to lie will make someone tell the truth, as opposed to just saying, “if you’re caught lying during this questioning, you’ll be found guilty of contempt of court and/or perjury and could go to jail.”  The whole exercise is rather silly anyway considering the myriad gods and deities that exist in popular and historical religious mythologies.  So help me which god?  The Old Testament vengeful god of the Hebrews?  The New Testament “father of Jesus Christ” god?  Muhammad?  Thor?  Not to mention that if I don’t believe in the Bible, then “swearing” on it makes as much sense and holds as much weight as swearing on any other mundane old book. 

We hold other peculiar traditions for a nation that holds “separation of church and state” as a guiding principle (that phrase never actually appears in the Constitution, but was actually stated by Thomas Jefferson in his now famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, but this is the essence of the Establishment Clause).  Since 1956, the national motto of the United States is “in god we trust.”  This motto was figuratively reaffirmed by Congress in 2011 in a whopping 396 to 9 vote.   Separation of a specific church or religion and state may exist in the United States, but separation of magical thinking and magical beliefs and state certainly does not.  We also went ahead and starting printing this non-denominational, but still highly religious motto on our paper money in 1957 (it had been on coinage since the mid-1800s), another peculiar act, if it is indeed “in [the Christian god that 73 percent of Americans identify with] we trust,” because according to scripture, that god doesn’t like money (although his churches certainly seem to.)

Perhaps most questioningly, we debate over reality and try to change and control reality democratically.  School-board debates in Cobb County, Georgia; Topeka, Kansas; and a handful of other areas across the country over the teaching of the religious based intelligent design in public science classrooms have shown our strange view of reality.  We can debate until we’re blue in the face over evolution vs. intelligent design and we can put it to a vote over who believes what, but in the end, reality doesn’t care.  If, during the next statewide election, New York State decided to add a proposition to the ballot that said, “we affirm and believe that the Earth is the center of the Universe and all celestial bodies revolve around it,” and the vast majority of New Yorkers voted in favor of it, nothing has actually changed (except maybe the nation’s view of New York State’s level of education).  The geocentric proposition “passing” by a large majority doesn’t change the actual nature of the universe.   The Earth is not the center of the universe.  That’s the reality.

This is not to say that evolution or Einstein’s general and special relativity or anything else is the ultimate and unquestioning truth.  They could absolutely be wrong as well.  The point is that even though the vast majority of modern scientists believe that evolution and Einstein and a whole score of other principles and theories are fairly accurate descriptions of the natural world, they could absolutely be wrong and if they are, the nature of reality doesn’t change.  As another example: either an individual is male or female.  Voting on the sex of an individual doesn’t change the true gender and that reality is not democratic.  In America we seem to have this strange view that reality is democratic and that if enough people believe or vote on the reality of something, it becomes the truth.  It’s a common argument against skepticism and atheism: “the vast majority of Americans believe in some kind of god, and the majority (73 percent, remember) believe in some type of additional supernatural or paranormal phenomenon.  The majority of Americans can’t be wrong, can they?”  They can.  In many cases they are, and just because a majority believe (or claim to believe) in something, that doesn’t make it true (just ask the naked Emperor.)

Born in the USA

Have you ever really listened to the lyrics in Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”?  It’s played at patriotic rallies, baseball games and Memorial Day parades all across the country.  It probably gets played over one million times across the country at various locations every single year on the fourth of July.  If Bruce is getting royalties per play, he should really trade in his “t-shirt and jeans working guy” look for some six-figure Versace suits.  The song is supposed to (and somehow, actually does) inspire patriotic feelings of America-love and how great the country is and chants of USA! USA! USA!  But once you’ve really read the lyrics, it feels kind of strange hearing it at “patriotic” rallies and Yankees games.  The only lyric the average American knows is the chorus and the rest is just poppy filler.  The real lyrics evoke images of a war-hungry, heartless nation that’s as keen to kill the “yellow man” (direct quote from Bruce) as it is to ignore the kids that they send to actually do the killing who get royally screwed up, both physically and mentally, if they make it home.  It’s a song about killing people different than us, for reasons we either don’t or can’t understand (and probably don’t want to), and then trying to live with the consequences.  It’s all because you were born in the USA, and that’s just how we do business.  Not exactly Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” an equally goofy American “rally song” but for completely different reasons. 

Although most people probably wouldn’t admit it, I bet they have similar feelings about America as the disenfranchised speaker in Springsteen’s song.   Not necessarily about the oversimplification of war as a violent and fruitless mess (although that’s pretty spot on for Vietnam) or the criticisms leveled at the United States, but most would probably agree in the exact same, “I was born in the USA” kind of mentality.  It’s that same mentality that inspires them to sing-along with the song and wave their flags in ardent patriotism to a song generally critical of what they’re rallying for.  Politicians and pundits constantly prattle on about how America is “the greatest country on Earth,” which always reminds me of parents with a double-take inducingly ugly baby who think he’s the most beautiful creature on Earth.  Sure, to them he’s beautiful.  He’s theirs – they made him.  No parent wants to admit their kid is ugly.  Similarly, no civilized country’s citizens want to admit they might not be the best.  “America is the greatest nation on Earth.”  Greatest in terms of what, exactly?  In education we’re ranked 13th, and that’s according to the very generous “education index.”  If you look at test scores on standardized tests measuring reading, mathematics, and science, the United States ranks 33rd, 27th and 22nd, respectively.  That’s not the greatest.  In terms of freedom, we’re 10th on the index of economic freedom and 7th in terms of civil liberties.  That’s not the greatest.  GDP per capita?  Depending on what source you look at, we’re 8th, 6th or 9th.  Not the greatest.  There is one significant factor that the United States consistently ranks number one in, and that’s the size of the military in terms of spending.  We account for 41% of the world’s share of military spending.  Almost half of the money in the world that is spent on military is spent by the United States.  The next closest is China, at 8.2%.  We also spend the most money per capita.  China has about 1 billion more citizens than the United States and we spend over 500 billion dollars more than they do on military expenses (adjusted to like currencies – I’m not comparing dollars to renminbi here).  Maybe we’re the “greatest country on Earth” because we can blast to pieces anyone who disagrees with us.   

Outside of the United States, almost no one considers the United States to be the greatest country in the world.  Generally, only other Americans consider America to be the “greatest country in the world”.  It’s like the parent who thinks their kid is the greatest ballplayer on the team and wants the coach tarred, feathered, and thrown in jail for benching little Samuel.  And that’s the problem; that’s the “Born in the USA” syndrome.  And similar to the hypothetical “geocentric proposition” passed by New York State that I mentioned in an earlier section, everyone deciding that America is the best does not magically make it true.  How many of us would honestly “love” America or become American citizens if we weren’t born here?  That’s my worry about my own American identity.  I was born here so I’m “American”.  It’s really all I know.  But if I was born in Canada (because it’s geographically closest) or China (because it’s the mathematically the most likely), would I be saying that Canada/China is the “greatest nation on Earth”?  Sure, there are a number of poverty stricken and severely oppressed countries where yes, without a doubt, most people would leave the second they got the chance, but out of the large number of developed countries, what makes the United States so great?  Many would argue the ideas of freedom and liberty make the United States so great.  That was true, but how many of those ideals still truly exist in the same strident form that they did when “give me liberty or give me death” was not just a catchy hyperbole, it was a literal demand?  Now we fight bloody battles against our own citizens over what they choose to put into their own bodies (the drug war), we fight bloody wars overseas for phantom weapons of mass destruction or oil, and we haven’t had a free market probably ever but definitely since the New Deal.  We gladly hand our 4th Amendment rights over every time we fly and in a number of other situations in the name of “safety” or “fighting terrorism” and show little to no concern for the ever increasing presence of the Nanny State.

I don’t think I’ve ever specifically identified myself as an American.  If I did, it was way down on the list and to me has always been more of a circumstance of birth than anything else.  I’m an American in the same way as I have blue eyes and am an uncle.  It’s just something that happened due to circumstance, either genetic or familial.  But that really is one of the things that make America “great”; the (still mostly free) marketplace of ideas that exists all across the country.  That really doesn’t exist in a great number of other places and in many other countries you could be jailed, beaten or put to death for speaking out against the leaders or state-religion.  But that’s just comparison and relativity though.  America is great because it doesn’t stifle free speech (mostly) and allows you to believe what you want (mostly).  That’s giving America credit for not doing something.  North Korea is worse than America because of the ways they oppress their citizens, but should America get credit for not doing the same thing?  It’s like saying that the creepy looking guy on the subway is a great person for not violently robbing you because another creepy looking guy in a different subway car does violently rob people.  The actions of the other creep don’t make this creep less creepy.  Maybe he was going to rob you at the next stop but you got off at a particularly busy station.  Or maybe he was going to rob you but something about you specifically kept him from doing it, like maybe you look similar to his sister so he didn’t rob you, but he did rob a different person who looked like someone who used to bully him in high school.  You don’t know. The point is that he should get no credit or be considered “great” (or even good) for not doing something horrible. 

On the other side of that same coin, America (or any government) should not be given credit for or be praised for things that already exist.  For example, many (myself included) are quite pleased with New York State for granting homosexuals the same right to marry as heterosexuals.  That’s fantastic.  But that’s a right that already should have existed; New York is being praised for once being homophobic, exclusionary, and discriminatory, but not doing it anymore.  That’s not something they should be praised for.  That’s like praising your assailant for no longer assaulting you.  The same thing is true for civil rights.  It’s fantastic that African Americans have the same rights as everyone else in the United States and thankfully we’ve evolved enough that I believe that very few people would argue against it.  The problem is that African Americans always had those same inalienable and undeniable rights as everyone else.  Those rights were forcibly and violently taken away from them and then slowly given back after much politicking and violence.  Repealing the racist and disgusting Jim Crow laws in the 1960s was met with great praise (rightfully so), but today a good number of Americans look upon that with a sense of national pride and cite that as a reason that America is great.  Once violently enslaving, oppressing, and ignoring the rights of an entire race of human beings and then deciding to no longer do that and to now treat them as human beings is not “great.”  I don’t believe America (or any other government) should get credit for giving back rights that they once violently stripped away.  Gay marriage and civil rights are two extreme examples of the multitude of things that already exist (like “free speech”) and are attributed with great thanks and pride to government for granting.   

So I don’t know if I’m American because I was born here or if I’m American because I really like America.  Certainly I stand behind the ideas in the Constitution and celebrate them daily.  Compared to quite a number of other countries, I would definitely say that I did hit it lucky by being born in America.  My concern is that those ideas are gradually becoming a small voice in the national consciousness and the worse off the rest of the world is, the better we think we are.  The government of North Korea committing some abhorrent act against its own citizens or enacting laws creating an even more oppressive style of government does not somehow make America freer, but a troubling number of Americans (rightfully) look upon them with pity but (oddly) look upon Uncle Sam with admiration and a sense of national pride just for not doing the same.  I fear that for too many Americans, their national identity is simply unshakable pride and unquestioning loyalty to their government, and for no real legitimate reason other than circumstance of birth.

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