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Michael Shammas Headshot

America Is Awesome

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Last Thursday I rolled out of bed, strolled onto my on-campus voting site and drowsily cast my vote for President of the United States. At the time the process seemed rather unremarkable. It was only when I returned to my dorm room and saw a Facebook status complaining about "how unjust and oppressive America is" that I thought of what an incredible thing it is to vote.

I also remembered something else -- something that, on undergraduate campuses at least, is not said often enough: For all its faults, America is awesome.

Few countries exist where I could have done what I did Thursday. Not only did I vote for president; in doing so, I chose between a racial and religious minority. This alone is absolutely unthinkable in the majority of the world's nations.

Indeed, according to The Economist out of approximately 200 countries there are only 82 where a vote actually means anything. Two-thirds of these are flawed democracies, so that in reality only about 30 truly representative democracies exist. Case in point: just two days after our president is elected or re-elected Nov. 6, China's communist party will appoint an entire generation of new leaders with minimal input from its 1.3 billion people. The contrast could not be greater.

For whatever reason, young Americans do not seem to recognize what an incredible privilege it is to vote. Only 36 percent of my fellow Duke students voted in the 2008 election, compared to (a still pitiful) 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29. While millions of people worldwide have died for the right to vote, many Americans would rather guzzle beer and watch football than take a few moments to exercise a basic right.

Partly because this simple right of ours is so desperately desired by millions of our fellow humans, it is somewhat discouraging to hear the vehemence and disenchantment some young Americans use when speaking about their own country. We certainly have problems -- there is no denying that. Yet to magnify them, to label our government oppressive or to be absolutely immobilized by fear because of the relatively remote possibility of a terrorist attack, is absurd. When taken to an extreme, these complaints are rightly met with incredulity by liberal activists in Syria who are being gunned down by a semi-fascist regime or by pro-democracy bloggers in China.

America has problems that should be fixed, but the fact is that in much of the world -- including the war-torn country my parents come from -- people would kill to have our problems.

Let's look at a specific example of what I'm talking about. The struggle for gay marriage is an issue that rightly provokes anger among many young Americans. Just last week I heard someone say, "The world is laughing at us because of how badly we treat homosexuals."

Such a statement simply ignores the facts. The world, unfortunately, is most definitely not laughing at us. The vast majority of African and Middle Eastern countries not only do not allow gay marriage; they criminalize homosexuality, label it "unnatural" and too often deal with it through execution. Virtually no East Asian countries permit gay marriage; the same goes for South America. The only region where a sizeable proportion of countries explicitly recognize gay marriage is Europe, and even there the portion is still, unfortunately, rather small. So the only way the world is "laughing at us about gay marriage" is if by "world," one means Western and Northern Europe.

Again, my point is not that there aren't problems. As a social and economic liberal, I recognize numerous problems. I want women to have reproductive rights, and I want gay couples to have the same rights straight couples have. Rather, my point is that some Americans give us too little credit when comparing America to the outside world. We are not at the top of the social rights totem poll, but we most definitely are not at the bottom either. Thousands of people who are fighting repressive regimes right now would kill for the simple right to vote that so many Americans will shamefully take for granted over the next two weeks. (Don't even get me started on the right for assembly or free speech.)

So please, do complain about America; there is plenty to complain about. But when you complain, don't exaggerate. For there is also plenty to be proud of.

Now, go use your vote to make this country an even better place.