America is the greatest

May 19, 1994|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE United States is the best country in the world.

In America, you are free to become anything you want. The only person who can stop you is you. You can say what you want,

pray as you want, or don't want.

The police will never bother you unless you break the law. So don't break it.

America, if you want to work you can make a living. Only America gives you all these things. God blesses the golden land.

I knew that was all true when I was a small boy. My parents told me so straight out, at home. They compared it with Europe and America won, in every way except maybe the fruit was a little fresher there.

hTC In school, teachers gave us lessons and books that fully backed up what my parents said about America. Mostly they were Irish women presiding over quiet classrooms of little Jews and Italians.

Sometimes the teachers talked about God and how important it was to honor Him and your parents. At Christmastime, teachers put up wreaths. My parents said why not after all, it was their country too, wasn't it?

Now in Tavares, Fla., the school board has passed a regulation that children be taught that American culture and values are inherently superior to other "foreign or historic cultures."

My parents and teachers would have thought the board stupid. My father detested right-wing noseybodies, plus communists and socialists. They all reminded him of the Russia he left. He would have said that if you need a law to teach a child right from wrong you should go back to school yourself.

But he is also saying in my head, right now, that on second thought if those regulators don't know that America is made up of "foreign or historic cultures" maybe they are too ignorant to profit by school.

Mrs. Margaret McCarthy and other teachers for whom we stood up and shut up would have said Tavares should hire teachers and elect board members who understood America before they got near a schoolhouse. Neither parents nor teachers ever used the words "values" or "culture"; the word "America" summed it up nicely for them.

Please note, readers, that my parents and teachers never said America was the perfect country, just the best. Not everybody agreed in those days.

Some thought Nazi Germany was better. They paraded in New York City -- not often after the first time, believe me.

Other Americans thought the Soviet Union was better. Some were young people who believed Stalin was the only bulwark against Hitler. Others were older in tooth and even softer in mind -- such as professors who babbled about the wonders of the Soviet system until it fell to dust. To this day they are not inclined to go into the matter of the gulag.

My parents and teachers did not talk much about tarnish marks on the golden land -- crime, poverty and race.

About crime, I promise not to glaze any more eyes with stories about how we spent summer nights sleeping in the park. (But we did). Now, though, when it comes to crime, we are not the best but among the worst. And there we will stay, as long as we are sentimental about either gun nuts or recidivists.

About poor, that was Our Crowd. What was there to say except someday things will be better, meantime join a union? My father believed that any white man who could not make a living in America was lazy or a fool, or both. That thought lurks in me still.

From my childhood, I remember not a single real discussion about minorities. Our neighborhoods were working-class, mildly liberal, and color-segregated. We did not know any "minorities." As a matter of fact, we thought Jews and Catholics were the minorities.

If I were black maybe I would become smart enough not to fret about ugly people who slighted me for my color. I doubt it. But I know that I would burn day and night at injustices that stood between me and believing everything in the opening paragraph of this column.

What I wind up thinking is this: Because of America's range for economic hope, and its Constitution, this is the best country in the world for all Americans, any shade.

That's not good enough. In school and out, the American prayer should now be that one day the country will soar farther, and make the first paragraph true, every word for every person. It will happen.

A. M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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