By Bhakti Larry Hough
Every time I hear somebody refer to America as great, I cringe.
One dictionary definition of great is, “Of ability, quality or eminence above the normal or average.” No doubt, according to that definition, America is great in some regards. But on the whole, not so much, because there are also some areas in which it is failing miserably.
For some people, greatness means technological advances, military superiority, and laissez faire capitalism. For me, greatness is a reflection of how all of the nation’s citizens are faring. How is the nation caring for its people, especially the most vulnerable -- children, the elderly, the sick and disabled, and the historically disadvantaged? The gap between the haves and the have-nots and the struggles of the groups just named are too great for America to be truly great. If it was impossible for the nation to do any better than it is doing by many marginalized and underserved groups, I could understand. But this is the land of infinite possibility, isn’t it? We can accomplish anything we set our minds to, can’t we? So, it’s disingenuous and insulting of one’s intelligence to suggest that the leader of the free world can’t do something as important as take good care of all of its people. It simply does not have the political will to so, and that’s not greatness.
Yes, I love my country; for the most part, my ancestors provided the labor that built it, without compensation, even. Yes, I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. Yes, I have been able to get education and have more than one satisfying career through which to make a difference and take care of myself without too much trouble. Yes, I have been fortunate to have my life enriched with friendships and affiliations with people of many racial and ethnic backgrounds. Yes, I have had some of those same people join me in fighting for justice and equality for African American people. Yes, I am glad that we can vocally protest injustice and inequality without being harassed or disappeared by authoritarian governments. And yes, I have been able to worship how and where I please.
I don’t take these things for granted because I have met one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who fortunately arrived in the U.S. after running for his life for months through hundreds of miles of the brutal African bush with nothing but the clothes on his back. I have met, read and heard about people whose daily lives in their homelands consist of trying to find morsels of food to feed their families, or cowering in their homes or whatever shelter they can find hoping not to get bombed or caught in the crossfire of armed warring factions. I know of those who have to keep their heads down and not complain to or about their governments about horrid living conditions and human rights abuses for fear of reprisals.
So, the fact that I am blessed to be in America is not lost on me. Some suggest that being the case, I should be grateful and not complain about anything.
Though I am grateful to the God of my understanding for the blessings I enjoy in this land, it hasn’t been all gravy for me and so many others, either. I have experienced racism, discrimination and suffered because of government failure. Therefore, being blessed in some ways doesn’t mean that I should turn a blind eye to and remain silent about glaring problems that affect me and too many other people in this country.
There are too many persistent social, political and economic problems that have to be solved before we can consider the nation truly great- or even truly civilized. The potential for the greatness we claim to already have achieved is certainly there, but when we don’t admit that we have not arrived yet, we rest on our laurels and fail to do the work required to realize the potential for true greatness. Having strengths does not give us the luxury to ignore our weaknesses. If we do, eventually your weaknesses, like termites, will gnaw away at our foundation and cause our structure to crumble eventually, regardless of how strong and invincible we think we are. A major reason historians cite for the fall of “superpower” civilizations is a decline in morals and values.
That’s why Exhibit A in my argument is the recent government shutdown over President Trump’s desire for $5.7 billion from Congress for a wall on the southern border with Mexico. The shutdown put 800,000 federal employees of out of work on furlough. Many of them were required to work and not get paid, and struggled to provide for themselves and their families during this time. The billionaire president and the U.S. Congress, many of whom are filthy rich themselves, and continued to get paid, seemed indifferent to the pain of their constituents. That’s not greatness; that’s callous insensitivity to hardship you caused for your people in the name of politics. In my mind, no political argument is great enough to justify that. This is a capitalist society where everything revolves around money. If you do not possess, have access to or can earn enough to meet your basic needs and have a disposable amount left, you have no decent quality of life, and will even suffer. Most people in this nation work for a living and a very large percentage of them live paycheck-to-paycheck. To miss a paycheck or two is to court financial disaster. A government that knows that, but doesn’t mind putting its own employees in such a vulnerable position, even for one pay period, is not great. Instead, it is cruel, probably capable of far worse, and not to be trusted. You can’t do more harm to average working people than to hinder their livelihoods when they have mouths to feed and bills to pay.
There is a litany of reasons I could cite as to why we can’t accurately call this nation great -- at least in my definition of great. Number One on the list, however, is how it treats its citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones. There is nothing more harrowing, more heart-wrenching, more embarrassing, and scarier than having insufficient money to meet your needs and nobody to turn to for the level of help you need to stay afloat. Trust me, I know. To borrow a phrase, I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirt. Not everybody has a support system to shore them up in desperate financial times. And there aren’t sufficient and adequate safety nets from government or charities, either. Inevitably, in such cases, some people will suffer. And when there is no moral, legal or ethical way to acquire money, many people will turn to crime. Those that don’t turn to crime might take out loans they can’t afford to repay or, if their credit isn’t good enough, fall prey to illegal and legal loan sharks like predatory lenders who put them in a deeper hole that is almost impossible to dig out of.
This affects not only citizens’ financial situations, but their morale, their self-worth and self-esteem, their confidence, their hope for the future, their mental and emotional health, and ultimately their faith in their nation. A nation that fosters such a state of affairs not only hurts its citizens, but undermines its own legitimacy, and therefore is undeserving of the label “great.”
Contrary to what some would like to believe, America is not truly great on the whole and never has ever been. But it can be. Therefore, instead of Make America Great Again, our slogan should be Make America Great, period.
(Contributing columnist Bhakti Larry Hough is a resident of Lee County and president of NewWorld Arts, an arts presenting and public relations organization. He is an award-winning journalist who has been a staff writer for a number of newspapers. Hough is also a former chairman of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission.)