Because it’s the Fourth of July, and because I indicated last week that I’d be writing about the Godfather trilogy again, I titled my post with the first line of the first film. In the opening scene, a minor character whose daughter was assaulted by two young men, who were given what he sees as a lenient penalty, is asking Don Vito to help him avenge her. Fascinatingly, he begins with this qualification, following it up with “I have raised my daughter in the American way.” It’s like he feels compelled to defend his chosen country before he goes on to express his frustration with its (in his perception) slow, unfair, and heartless (that is, emotionless) justice system–especially for immigrants like himself.
I’ve written elsewhere about how the Godfather trilogy, in addition to being an amazing family saga, is a story about the Italian-American immigrant experience in the 20th century. But right now I want to focus on those interesting opening words: “I believe in America.” If you insert the name of another, older nation in that sentence, it doesn’t sound right. You can love (for example) England, but you probably wouldn’t say that you believe in it. That’s because America is an experiment, and on the timeline of world history, it’s still a relatively new one. Another family/political drama I enjoy watching, the AMC show Turn: Washington’s Spies (as in George Washington), makes clear just how close this experiment came to never even getting off the ground. So if I say that I believe in America, I’m implying that I’m rooting for the American experiment to turn out okay–and that I’m still waiting to see the outcome.
That’s why it’s possible to be a loyal American and still acknowledge times when the experiment has gone off track (and, at risk of getting slightly political here, I would say that immigration, in general, has been one of those areas where America’s efforts have often been clumsy). In fact, I’d say that it’s imperative to acknowledge those times if you’re a person who truly loves and believes in America and wants what’s best for it. This reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of days ago in which I was trying to explain Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to a friend. I started by saying that it’s not a patriotic song, and I would still say that it’s not, if by “patriotic” you mean uncritically proud of America. But I concluded by saying that it’s also not an anti-American song. For all of its references to the ugly, confusing war in Vietnam and the hardships of growing up in working-class East Coast towns where the factories are closing down, that song really isn’t saying “America is great” or “America is bad.” It’s just saying, “Living in America is hard,” which is the same as saying, “Life is hard.”
Of course, I need to qualify what I just said by adding that there are a lot of countries where life is a lot harder than it is in America. Nobody can deny that our standard of living here (and I’m not just talking about money, though that’s certainly part of it) is much higher than in most of the world, and we’re foolish if we’re not grateful for that. But we should also acknowledge that America is a really big country, so my American experience is not going to be the same as yours. And for some, life here isn’t easy.
So, America–I believe in you, and I’m cheering for you. And I’m thankful that I’m allowed to speak up when I think you’ve made a mistake. But I think you’re doing pretty well, all things considered.