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William C. Altreuter
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Friday, July 04, 2014

It is discouraging to think about what America is at the moment. I try hard to avoid nostalgia, and I believe to my core that the idea that there was ever a "better time" is a fiction. Me 'n' St. Augustine believe that striving for perfection is as close as we can ever get to achieving it, and I like to think that most of us are trying, even if the evidence suggests otherwise. A more perfect Union is what was set out to accomplish, and that seems like an Augustinian sort of goal, especially for a nation with its roots in slavery and genocide. You can point to all the cathedrals you like, I think the First Amendment is a greater accomplishment. This week, in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that declared that some people's religious beliefs should receive favored treatment over others I find myself, once again, endeavoring to contemplate why I should feel patriotic. It is mostly true that the United States was conceived in Liberty, even if our history makes it clear that we had and have a long road in front of us. For a long time I thought that the mere fact that ours was the first nation created out of an idealistic set of principals was sufficient to distinguish us, but I don't think that way any more: I want to see better execution of the high sounding concepts laid out in Philly back in the day before I'll accept that the US deserves to be distinguished from anywhere.

But that is a bleak way to set out onto Independence Day, so I will consider instead the Americans that have given us reasons to be proud of our country. I take as my cue Sarah Vowell's remarks in The Partly Cloudy Patriot:
I said that I had recently flown over Memphis, Tennessee. I said that the idea of Memphis, Tennessee, not to mention looking down at it, made me go all soft. Because I looked down at Memphis, Tennessee and thought of all my heroes who had walked its streets. I thought of Sun Records, of the producer Sam Phillips. Sam Phillips, who once described the sort of person he recorded as "a person who had dreamed, and dreamed and dreamed." A person like Elvis Presley, his funny bass player, Bill Black, his guitarist, Scotty Moore.... Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins. Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.
And, of course, when we think about Memphis, Tennessee we also have to think of the brave men who were employed as sanitation workers and went on strike in 1968. And about Martin Luther King, Jr.. And then I start to think about the other Americans who have stood up: the March on the Pentagon. ACT UP. The Occupy movement. And then I circle back, and think about Chuck Berry, who invented an art form that celebrated the America he wasn't even allowed to take part in fully. I think about Gloria Steinem, and Justice Holmes. George Clinton. Mookie Wilson-- thinking about Mookie Wilson always makes me happy. I see him outrunning that play at first in my mind's eye and I am reminded that you always work as hard as you can until you can't work any more.
Mookie Wilson was an Augustinian ballplayer, and therefor an Augustinian American, like me.


I have a longer list, but thinking about any of these people is what it takes to get me through the 4th. I'm happier than ever this year to have them to think about.

| Comments:
A road trip took us through Memphis a few years ago, and we made two stops: Sun Studios and the Civil Rights Museum, which includes the motel where King was assassinated. Both good places to stop and see a bit of American history.
 
Yup. Sun made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And the Civil Rights Museum is very moving. Graceland next time through
 
It's still the best country there is. It still needs to be better. My fear is that we may not have enough people of greatness in positions of greatness to fill that need. It's no less complicated than it ever was. Mostly wealthy, educated people have stepped up. They were often quite flawed people but they did have the courage to take on the heavy lifting that's required to move us to be better. One problem is that this kind of people may just not want to sacrifice so much of their own lives anymore; their lives , their fortunes and their sacred honor. Dare I mention that I think Hilary Clinton has what it takes, flaws and all.
 
"Best country there is" is a tough category. What's the metric? I wince every time I read it, but every American should have a look at Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize lecture: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2005/pinter-lecture-e.html.
 
I had to look it up. Mookie hit that grounder on the tenth pitch.
 

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