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Editor’s column: Happy birthday, you great country, you

A rainbow provided a backdrop Thursday for the U.S. flag hung on Main Street in Carbondale to mark Independence Day.
Mark Grandbois / Special to the Post Independent |

I’m going to take a bold stand for a small-town editor on July 4: America is a great country.

In fact, this is the greatest country in the world. Our leaders aren’t stupid. Our military isn’t feeble. Opportunity and upward mobility are not foreclosed. We have remarkable freedoms.

Historically, this is a ridiculously simple position for an American editor to take — innumerable columns and editorials have been written in our history about this country’s essential greatness, the opportunities we have for financial success, our freedom to travel, choose our work, speak our minds, bear our arms.



But today, many on both the right and left are quick to tell us how America is going to hell in a handbasket. We are just emerging from a presidential primary season that hammered us with all that is wrong.

To be sure, the country, as has always been the case, has room for improvement, and the world can be a dark room full of sharp objects. This is not new. Let’s not confuse this being a great place with unattainable perfection or with being the biggest bully around.



I am not Pollyanna, but I’m going to make the case that we are no more on the eve of destruction today than we were when Barry McGuire released the song of that name in 1965.

“Can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?” McGuire sang. “If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away. … Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy.”

Or, as Donald Trump put it 50 years later, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them.”

Or, as Bernie Sanders put it, “For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.”

That was the case 50 years ago, I would argue to a greater extent than today for nonwhites, the poor and homosexuals, among others.

Trump’s imagery of nonstop past victories is detached from reality. Yes, 70 years ago we won World War II, critical to humankind, and at great cost. We sort of won the Cold War, but that reordering of world politics was part of a new era of instability that vexes us today. We killed bin Laden (don’t look for Trump to cite that as a win) but didn’t stanch the form of deadly hatred he represented. Outside of the Olympics, international victories are in the eye of the beholder.

Maybe I was visiting a different planet half a lifetime ago, but I recall liberals being criticized for questioning whether America really was the land of opportunity or whether our military adventures were just.

Activists on the left and liberation theologians would decry racism, sexism and oppression of all types, at home and abroad.

“Don’t you love America?” was the rejoinder from the right. “Love it or leave it.”

Now the right can’t tell us enough about how horrible things are.

To those who say the libtards want to take their guns, declare war on Christmas, declare war on coal, force us to drive electric cars and shiver all winter, oppress the white man, emasculate law enforcement and the military, and strangle capitalism with regulation, I have a question.

I have the same question for those who say the country is being ruined by teabaggers who want to arm everyone, shove their religion down our throats, kill us with climate change denial, oppress minorities, create a police state and let business run amok.

Where would all of you rather live?

No country ever has been or ever will be perfect. Further, the world is full of peril. That’s always been the case, but technology has brought myriad dangers ever closer to each of us.

Building a cohesive society and governing it are messy propositions, but essential. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in “The Leviathan” in 1651, without a political community, people would live in a constant condition of war against all. Life would have “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Our 240-year-old American social contract has moved us well beyond Hobbes’ state of nature.

Certainly our problems today are real, some more than others.

Infrastructure is crumbling. Decent housing is unattainable for too many — here in our beautiful mountains and river valleys as well as in urban centers. Obamacare is flawed at best, and we are too polarized to fix it. North Korea is run by a nuclear-armed madman. ISIS and other radical Muslim groups wreak terror and death around the globe. A suitcase nuke is a real risk. Crazy people with guns with increasing frequency make theaters, health clinics and schools into killing fields. Our favorite sport causes irreversible brain damage. The planet is getting hotter, and the same arguments and some of the same people employed to fight regulation of environmental ills and cigarette smoking are telling us everything is fine. Congress is deadlocked, the populace is divided, and it’s either the liberal media or Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s fault. On and on it goes.

It’s so bad that no previous generation has ever felt this way. Not during slavery, the settlement of the West or the Civil War, not during World War I, the Guilded Age, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam or the Cold War, when kids were taught to duck and cover, and fallout shelter signs dotted every community.

I don’t know how, in these dire times, Americans are able to even crawl out of their homes to spend $7 billion a year on Halloween ($310 million of that on pet costumes), $2.3 billion a year on tattoos (plus $66 million on tattoo removal), $11.8 billion on bottled water or $34.6 billion annually on gambling.

Here in western Colorado, we manage to put aside modern horrors to ski, raft, fish, bike, hike, climb, camp, paraglide and revel in the glory of the amazing American West.

These are clearly the acts of an oppressed people in a crumbled society.

So thank goodness Donald Trump and others are here to exploit our angst and fear and make America great again.

BS, folks. This country is great. Trump and his ilk are merely trying scare us so they can glorify and ultimately enrich themselves. They are the snake oil salesmen of this July 4 celebration. Don’t buy their phony elixir; if you want to be scared, buy a creepy Halloween mask for your cat instead.

We all would like some things changed. Most of the changes many of us would like are passionately opposed by others who also live in our open, free, pluralistic nation of immigrants. Our political process is meant to resolve those differences and move us forward, but we are in a sclerotic phase right now.

I believe we can recover.

When Ronald Reagan spoke of America as a shining city on a hill, when Barack Obama speaks of our better angels, they express the optimism essential for real leadership — not the destructive criticism of cynical fearmongering.

So here’s my birthday wish for America: Let’s respect each other. Let’s be decent to newcomers. Let’s celebrate our freedoms and work constructively together to be a beacon to the world.

We already are.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.


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