Guest opinion: Criticism of America is not condemnation of America

·3 min read
Wisconsin legislator Carl Schurz famously said: “My country right or wrong.  When right, to keep her right; when wrong , to put her right.” Like Schurz, each of us has a responsibility to address American problems, to shine a light on them, not to cover them up.
Wisconsin legislator Carl Schurz famously said: “My country right or wrong. When right, to keep her right; when wrong , to put her right.” Like Schurz, each of us has a responsibility to address American problems, to shine a light on them, not to cover them up.

I got a diatribe on a list serve today, ending like this:

“We have had enough! America is the greatest country on Earth, and if you don’t like America, then you can leave. We are done caring about your misguided “feelings.”

My response to the “Love it or Leave it!” preachers is this: Criticism of America is not condemnation of America. Misplaced patriotic fervor leads to an imbalanced view of our nation. As an historian (PhD Marquette), I recognize the brilliance and the flaws of our founding fathers, military leaders, and lawmakers. Proscribing discussions of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, housing redlining, and disparate treatment of our minority citizens is counterproductive.

My fellow Wisconsin lawyer and legislator Carl Schurz famously said: “My country right or wrong.  When right, to keep her right; when wrong , to put her right.” Like Schurz, each of us has a responsibility to address American problems, to shine a light on them, not to cover them up.

The list serve rant particularly targeted CRT (Critical Race Theory) as an evil foisted upon naïve whites by guilty liberals. Many CRT challengers don’t know what it is, and ignorant legislators and parents  have framed it (fueled by opportunistic politicians) as morally reprehensible. CRT is a theory (primarily for law students) to better understand the history and legacy of race and white supremacy in the U.S. It’s part of Critical Legal Studies, looking at how supposedly fair and impartial courts interpreted supposedly neutral decisions that disadvantaged groups like Blacks, immigrants, workers and sexual minorities. I’ve found it a useful analytical tool for my law students (and for me).

Ten years ago a Jeff Daniels monologue on TV’s “Newsroom” caused quite a stir, and still resonates today.  A news anchor, he was asked by a student whether America was the greatest nation on earth. He hesitated, and said, “No”. After paying short tribute to the notion of freedom espoused by  the founding fathers and  captured in the brilliance of the Declaration of Independence, he noted that of 207 sovereign states, 180 have freedom. But, he continued, the US ranked:

  • 7th in literacy

  • 27th in math

  • 22nd in science

  • 49th in life expectancy

  • 178th in infant mortality

  • 3rd in median household income

  • 4th in labor force, and

  • 4th in exports.

He noted that we lead the world in only 3 categories:

  • The number of incarcerated citizens per capita

  • The number of adults who believe angels are real, and

  • Defense spending (spending more than the next 26 nations, 25 of whom are allies.)

Giving the US its due, he acknowledged; “It sure used to be. We stood up for what’s right. We fought for moral reasons, passed laws for moral reasons, waged war on poverty, not poor people; sacrificed, cared about our neighbors,..never beat our chests, built great things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, didn’t belittle it… We were able to be all these things and be all these things because we were informed…the 1st step in solving any problem is to recognize there is one.”

An update of those 2012 statistics, indicates  America is nowhere near the greatest on earth, as a major polluter, with high crime rate, a high percentage of people living in poverty, with bad health outcomes due to bad health habits and substantial uninsured population.

Daniels had it right. He said “Its not the greatest nation on earth, but it can be.’ Turning a blind eye to our past history may make some of us feel better, but won’t help make America great, no matter how many math books we purge.

Bonita Springs resident Thomas M. Domer is a lawyer and lecturer from Wisconsin.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Making America Great Again: The U.S. is not greatest nation but can be