An acquaintance of mine posted a status on Facebook with the famous John F. Kennedy quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He shared this on the 4th of July and framed the quote in context of a rebuke to “progressives” for all the protests and resistance directed toward the current administration. This was before Charlottesville, but later posts suggest his opinion has not changed and that he lays the blame for the violence that took place there as much on concerned citizens (including Black Lives Matter supporters and Antifa members – who showed up to protect the local population and visiting clergy) as he does on the torch-and-weapon-bearing white supremacist terrorists.
I began drafting a response back then, but wanted to let it marinate before posting it here. I have to admit that I almost fell for it. I started questioning myself and my motives: Was I overreacting by feeling that Independence Day, this year, felt more like celebrating a death in the family than a “land of the free and the home of the brave”? Was I being an “ingrate” in pointing out our nation’s negatives and not just focusing on positives? Instead of loud protests, should I be praying privately and posting pleasant news publicly? Was I being “divisive”?
Thankfully, I realized that my approach (like my life) is a work in progress and so is this nation. I want nothing more than to have America be all that Emma Lazarus wrote that it could be. So when I peacefully protest, I do so – without torches and hateful chants – but with banners and love in my heart. Love for my country: for its natives, refugees, immigrants, and children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren/etc. of immigrants (like myself) who call or will someday call America home.
When I ask myself that famous question, I realize “country” must reference the people and the land. When I answer it, I think of the Native Americans whose land we live in (which makes white men whining about not wanting to be replaced especially ironic). I think about African Americans, brought here as slaves to build this country with their blood, sweat, and tears. Both groups enduring trauma (slavery and genocide) followed by years of suppression and racism; fighting our wars then coming home to broken treaties and broken promises (40 acres and a mule, anyone?) and then coming “home” to reservations and “Whites only” signs; to having poisoned water sources and legal lynchings. I think of Flint and Standing Rock and I am reassured that I am the best patriot I can be – an active and invested one.
I want my taxes to be used to fund schools, provide clean water, and yes – single-payer, universal healthcare for all Americans. I want my taxes to be used to fix our very broken legal and illegal immigration systems, not to build more prisons or an ineffective and unnecessary wall to pump up the president’s ego (as he punks both supporters and resisters of his racist agendas). I don’t want my taxes used to plunge us into another oil war (where we drive people from their homelands and then deny them entry to the U.S. as refugees), or to line the pockets of rich individuals and corporations that currently run this country (both Republicans and Democrats).
Demanding that elected officials act on behalf of my fellow countrymen IS what I can do for my country. Pressuring the government to pass universal healthcare and not cut mental and physical health care for Americans IS what I can do for my country. Protesting against legal lynchings of my Black brothers and sisters – especially by those who are supposed to serve and protect them – IS what I can do for my country. Protecting the rights of Americans of all races, religions, sexual orientations, etc IS what I can do for my country. Fighting for the homeless (many of whom are veterans), differently-able, immigrant, indigenous, refugee, etc., etc., populations as well as the preservation of the land and water we all rely upon IS what I can do for my country. I encourage you all – and especially my fellow artists – to join me in doing for the U.S. in this way. #Resist