The American ship of state has been sailing through rough seas. We have taken on some water, but the mainstays of our system seem to be holding.
I have seen our country in heavy weather before, but never for one minute have I wanted to be anything other than an American. I know I am not alone in this. There is merit in assessing our shortcomings. But this is the time for gratitude, and the essence of gratitude is focusing on the good.
When I was in grade school in Duluth in the 1950s, we practiced putting our heads under our desks to protect us from, yes, a thermonuclear explosion. In the 1970s when I moved to Washington D.C., I had occasional visions of intercontinental ballistic missiles coming in over the horizon targeted for us at ground zero.
We no longer have to expend much worry on such nightmares. America did that.
And though we have our fears about terrorists and school shooters, we never dread foreign troops crossing our borders or guerrillas sweeping down out of the hills.
I visit parks a lot. And I often breathe a blessing for our civic-minded forbears who set aside much of the best lakeside land, the prettiest river bluffs and the most stirring mountains, forests and beaches for the people. America did that.
Our federal system of national, state and local governments, as inefficient and complex as it is, leaves openings for citizens with enough dedication to turn their dreams into government action at many levels.
I suppose modern equivalents of setting aside parkland are the magnificent public works all around us. Whenever I see a light-rail train or one of our beautiful sports arenas or libraries, I feel a thrill at how many good Americans worked together to make these things happen.
Every month, my wife and I, along with about 60 million other Americans, receive Social Security benefits. Eight million recipients live with disabilities. And the vast majority of our medical expenses are paid by Medicare.
Back in 1935, when the Social Security Act was passed, the plight of older Americans was shameful, and the new program cut in half the number of elderly who had been living on less than 50% of the poverty level. America has made good on an honorable commitment to its elders.
When I turn on my faucet, clean water comes out and when I turn on the lights or the computer, they come to life. I can start my car — which is vastly more fuel efficient, safer and less polluting than the behemoths I started driving in the 1960s — and drive anywhere from coast to coast on smooth, well-marked, relatively safe streets and highways. America did all that — creating the stability, the educated workforce and the collaboration of government and private companies needed to build continent-sized grids.
Some of America’s greatest gifts to us stem from the combination of free thought and free speech fostered by civil liberties, an economic marketplace that rewards innovation and efficiency, and a dense array of levels and agencies of government that often use grants and contracts to partner with some of the best firms.
The only universities outside the United States ranked among the world’s very best are Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Toronto. More than 300,000 patents have been granted annually in the U.S. in recent years, and even more copyrights. We are awash in cutting-edge information and ideas continually being turned into useful applications and products. Apple, Google and Amazon have their warts, but they sure have made my life more interesting. America has created the conditions for that deluge of creativity.
The coronavirus has made us sick and miserable, but we always knew a vaccine would come. A large and diverse country, with an open and inquisitive intellectual climate, a vast network of public and private labs and universities, and multiple sources of public and private funding and international links was always the best hope for producing a vaccine. America did that.
I have always felt comfort knowing that many dedicated nonprofit organizations were guarding the national health and welfare. And some of my most rewarding experiences have come through working with several of them. There are over 1.5 million nonprofits to choose from. America has made it possible for anyone to find meaningful ways to work with other people. And if we can safeguard our 30 million small businesses, there will remain ample opportunities for people who seek companionship and purpose in entrepreneurship rather than volunteering.
Tragically, we know the American flag flew over the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, and the perpetuation of unacceptable racial and economic inequality. In my lifetime, I remember schoolyard jokes about African Americans and “queers,” stereotypes about Jews and dire warnings about a Catholic becoming president.
Yet by the time my daughter was in school in the 1990s, she included kids of diverse races and gender orientations in her social outings and sleepovers without a second thought. America did at least that much.
Is there a common denominator to these accomplishments? Winston Churchill once observed, “The Americans always do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” He was right that our forward progress has not been a straight line. But doing the right thing in the end is not a bad lodestar. Combined with the plain grit and hopefulness shared by all of our varied ancestors, a beautiful and bountiful land, and the energy and creativity liberated by freedom of thought and opportunity, America has been a wellspring of blessings.
We have a lot of work to do to make America truly great. I’ll be trying to do my little bit of it again next week. But this week I am going to say thank you to my country.
Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge and teaches a class on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.