Lit up this week by the patriotic feelings that descend like sparks from an Independence Day skyrocket, I am moved to ask the traditional question: “Is this a great country — or what?”
Not to be an ingrate, but it’s the “or what?” tail of the question that I find interesting. The first part is obvious. Of course, it’s a great country. As the kids say, duh!
But I am also a great person — and you are a great person because you are reading this column — and yet it is possible that, in both our cases, spouses or significant others may have another opinion and suggest ways we might improve our behavior in order to make a more perfect union. That is the spirit in which I write.
As it happens, I have an immigrant’s perspective on this great country, but please don’t start bristling and assume I want amnesty, except, of course, for the odd dangling participle.
I came here legally, so you can resume drinking your holiday margarita even as you denounce those horrible aliens who loved the idea of this country so much they risked everything to come here, which is just the worst crime imaginable, right?
But let us not walk a mile in anyone else’s shoes today, because that would risk discovering a little shared humanity in the desert. Instead, let us consider aspects of American culture that perhaps, as a native-born person, you are too familiar with to have noticed. This is understandable. My own wife does not notice that I am already perfect in every way.
I remember when I came on my first visit to America 32 years ago. I was living in England at the time, having gone there from Australia a few years earlier.
I was thrilled by what I saw. With the fresh eyes of the visitor, my first impression was that America was a land where people jumped into big cars, took a big road and had a big meal when they reached their destination.
Just two days after arriving, I was bundled into a big car, rode down a big road and went as a visitor to a country club on Long Island Sound with the expectation of having a big lunch.
But first I decided to have a dip in the pool. Using the springboard, I dove into the pool and immediately broke my nose on the bottom. Fortunately, I had traveler’s nose insurance.
The nose was duly reconstructed in an operation conducted by a plastic surgeon in a local hospital. Unfortunately, when the bandage came off back in England, I found that my nose sloped to one side, and worse yet, with a strong right-wing bias, so that when I stood in the English rain, it would act as a downspout that threatened to wet anybody standing next to me.
This is how little I knew about American ways: I didn’t sue anyone — not the country club, not the doctor. It didn’t occur to me. Instead, I took the view that it wasn’t because the pool was too shallow or the springboard was too springy that I broke my nose; it was because I was too stupid to do a proper dive. As for the doctor, I was sure he had done the best he could.
As ashamed as I am now of my naivete, I wish that personal responsibility wasn’t such a foreign instinct in my adopted land and, for that matter, that people didn’t run off to the courts every time they lose a pair of $54 million trousers at the dry cleaners.
I also wish that everybody in this country had access to universal health care. I eventually got a new nose courtesy of the National Health Service in Britain, and it is a beauty not to be sneezed at. If you are poor and uninsured here, however, a deviated septum is the least of your problems. It’s amazing to me how such a good and compassionate country can be so unheeding about its most needy citizens — or the immigrants who make its beds and pick its salad.
Still, I am not kidding about how essentially good Americans are — the most courteous people in the world, the most big-hearted. Unfortunately, they are also the most heavily armed, which inevitably leads to its own problems. The inevitable disputes that in England become fistfights are gunfights here. Perhaps that is why I got a better nose repair in England — they are more used to battered noses.
America has changed since I first came, but the cultural traits stay the same, which is mostly good but also bad. Those big meals have made people obese and those big SUVs help enrich nations that coddle the mad mullahs who support terrorism.
Happy Birthday, America, a great country that is only a few “or whats” away from perfection. Hey, guys, we can work on that.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com)