"I served my country -- and they just want to take from it -- just take, take! Love it or leave it, that's what I think....some days I think I'd give everything I believe in -- everything I got, all my values, just to have my body back again, just to be whole again. But I'm not whole; I never will be, and that's -- that's the way it is, isn't it?" ~ Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) - In Born on the Fourth of July
Our generation, the baby-boomers, were shocked into adulthood on the Vietnam War. We either went, knew someone who went, or were forever affected by the events and turmoil associated with the war. We questioned what our country stood for and tried to have an authentic conversation about it. But no one listened, and then we gave up.
During Vietnam, we tried to express our angst about the legitimacy of the war as measured against the values of Freedom, Fairness and Doing the Right Thing, but we were shot at and shut down.
During Watergate, we bemoaned the state of politics and watched passively as Nixon resigned. During the off-shoring of jobs in the 80s and 90s, we climbed our success ladders and looked the other way. During the genesis of the Great Recession, many baby boomers went along to become perpetrators of the meltdown. And during the years of ever-polarizing politics and incivility, extending to the present, many of us held our noses, bowed our heads and retreated into our individual comfort zones, mingling only with the like-minded.
During our climb to success, reaping the harvest of America, we became indifferent, reminiscent of Rev. Martin Niemoller's comment about the Holocaust:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
Ultimately, what goes around, comes around.
We have become like Ron Kovic, the paralyzed Vietnam War soldier turned author, who returned from Vietnam a wounded warrior, not just with physical wounds, but with cultural wounds that questioned his core identity: trying to reconcile patriotism, love of country, and the killing of innocent women and children; trying to live by principles and then question them; and, in the end, feeling very confused.
Like Ron Kovic, because we didn't speak out, we and our country remain confused and un-whole. It seems as though the more we avoid having that conversation about who we are and what we stand for, the more confused and turmoiled we get. The talk show hosts yell, the extremes refuse to find solutions, and very little progress gets done.
Even in the classroom, as civic education and engaging discussions about America dwindle in favor of "teach to the test," and structured curriculum, we're not allowing our children to understand or appreciate what our country stands for. In the process, we become a nation more focused on being efficient than effective, more consumed with competence than with character.
As long as we don't have that conversation about our national character, there continues to be more questions than answers. Who is an American -- a person who is born one or who acts like one? Is the child of the illegal who has been taught about the land of opportunity or the neighborhood watch sentry who profiles? The preacher who burns the Koran or the homeless student who goes to college? The business person who creates jobs or the mother who works three jobs just to get by? The ardent Republican or the passionate Democrat? Without the conversation, it becomes too easy to blame, assume evil and invalidate the other side.
We don't have the answers because America is more a country of freedom of opinions than of moral absolutes; more of balancing the values that our forefathers established than settling on just a few that serve our own interests. But by honoring conversation over conflict, by having that conversation that we were meant to have 40 years ago, we can give voice to lots of worthwhile insights that can lead us in the right direction.
The 4th of July, as it's practiced, is a lot about living our freedoms: going to the beach; cooking out in safety and security with family and friends; watching a parade; celebrating "the good life." But it also ought to be about re-claiming the values and vision of America. It ought to be an annual re-dedication of the "American Way."
Our generation of boomers -- whose ranks of grandparents increase by the day -- can be the leaders of an annual and ongoing discussion that gives re-birth to an America that measures actions by our values and validates the dignity of each person by how we talk to one another. By taking the lead as America's moral guides -- setting the example first with our families, our children and grandchildren -- we can ensure that the inheritance we pass on to future generations is a country that's rooted in identity, civility, values and common ground.
While in New York recently, one of us asked a street vendor for directions. In broken English he asked, "You American and you not know where you going?" Despite his admonishment, he ultimately offered the directions. On this 4th of July, with uncertainty and incivility littering America's landscape and airwaves, lots of Americans are asking the same thing -- we're American and, yet, we don't know where we're going?
In the spirit of this 4th of July, as we celebrate our independence, our generation can and should offer up the directions. Conversation and civility are vital first steps.
What do you think America stands for? Post your comments on our Facebook Page or go to www.Purpleamerica.us, where you'll see the 12 shared values we found in communities across America.
Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter @ purpleamericaus