My family, on both my mother’s (Germany) and father’s (Russia) side had to literally run for their lives from the bigotry, repression and despots of the “Old World”. They came to the New World with little more than hope and a willingness to work hard. There was enough tolerance, freedom and opportunity for them to quickly experience the American dream. My grandparents never took for granted the liberties they found here.
I hope I will never forget that America allowed my family the proverbial second chance that so many others were and are denied. All differences between Democrats and Republicans vanish into insignificance when compared with what separates America from the oppressive regimes around the world.
Many people in the world today are not free to worship as they choose, not able to pursue their dreams to the end of their talents and skills, and not able to expect that their society will provide the basic necessities of life. America is not perfect, but is it is our national gospel, the perfect goals for which we strive, that define us.
We have not been pure practitioners of our ideals. There should always be an honest debate about how we are now honoring this “gospel.” But to say our ideals are not real or just so much blather because we sometimes fall short of them follows the perverse logic that nothing is worth pursuing if it can not be perfectly obtained.
Many of my professional colleagues have been Muslim. Indeed, as more recent immigrants they can often see more clearly what it means to be an American. They have personally seen less tolerant governments and closed societies. In most cases, questioning an immigrant’s loyalty or love for the principles upon which our way of life is based is absurd. In fact, they have much to teach some of us about why they love America.
There are societies that feel our multi-cultural and religiously pluralistic society is an abomination. I fear it would be unwise to ascribe these beliefs to merely the “radicals” and fanatics. Entire religious/social structures are built to prevent free expression, thought, and behavior. Textbooks teach intolerance, religious leaders preach hate. These groups perceive their interpretation of God’s truth as infallible and believe they have a monopoly on truth.
These, of course, are not the first political or religious groups to act in such a manner. Most religious groups, in their long history, have had periods whereby mainstream orthodoxy was used to enforce salvation, conversion or simply political tyranny.
Many of the American ideals to which I refer are now known collectively as “Western ideals.” While mostly geo-politically accurate, it is corrosive to assume that people elsewhere yearn less fervently or deserve less intensely the rights and freedoms we enjoy. To consign masses of people to chains, both figurative and literal, due to political expedience is, to my eyes, racist. How can anyone doubt the sincerity and universal nature of the wish to be free, after looking at the picture of a single man standing down a column of Chinese Tanks in Tianemann Square in 1989? While this does not necessarily mean immediate open warfare to “free the masses,” it encourages constant understanding and commitment to reverse the true causes of much of the world’s suffering; that is bad government.
True stability came to Europe when freedom came to Europe. Appeasement by the free, safe and comfortable of the totalitarian regimes of the world is not only counter-productive, but goes against my interpretation of our national ideals. Appeasement leads to more suffering. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean armed conflict, but devising social, economic and other strategies to evoke change. If we suffer economic consequences for our stand, this only exemplifies our current complicity in helping to sustain the current systems.
I love America because of what it means for my family and me. I know how fragile our hold is on these “rights” I hope to pass along to my children and grandchildren. I love America because it is humanity’s best last chance to live up to the ideals aspired to and deserved by all people.
William Rifkin, M.D. isÊan Associate Program Director of the Yale Primary Care Residency Program and Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine.