Joanne Palmer
Joanne Palmer

American values

Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves how good it is to be an American.

For those of us who are word-drunk, like me, it takes just a recitation of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — to induce bleary-eyed joy. (This despite the bothersome use of the word “men” to mean all people, of any gender, which normally is a nails-on-blackboard offense. And it comes with an acknowledgement that the first paragraph, the one that begins “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” is absolutely wonderful too.)

But not everyone is word-drunk, and just like alcohol, any dose of words eventually wears off, and plain unvarnished reality is left.

We are going through a very ugly time in our history right now. Our politics are full of idiocy, braggadocio, and venom; serious discussion of issues seems to have been replaced with insults, infantile name-calling, and an aversion to truth-telling. The lamp that once was lit beside the golden door, welcoming the homeless and tempest-tossed, seems in danger of going out.

A personal anecdote — I was in a coffeehouse in Ridgewood on a recent morning, interviewing someone. We were sitting in a pretty, sunlit room, one of a few such rooms in the big store, drinking seriously good coffee. My companion was expansive and good-tempered, and clearly enjoyed telling his story.

There was a man sitting in the room.There were many empty tables in other rooms, so if he wanted quiet, he could have found it. That man — trim, middle-aged, well-dressed, with fashionable glasses and a balding head that he’d shaved — sat quietly throughout most of the interview, making halfhearted stabs at his laptop, pretending to work, listening to us.

When my companion finished his story, he started talking about politics. He began with an opinion that I shared, and then he moved out into less friendly territory. I did not agree with him, but his point of view was coherent, well-thought-out, and well put. And even if it had not been any of those things, clearly it is his right both to hold that belief and to express it.

It seemed that the other man in the room did not agree.

A few minutes after my companion began talking about politics, the man got up and stalked toward us. “I can’t stand it any more,” he spat. “You are a f••• piece of sh•••.” (Sorry for the inane bullets; we are a family paper.) The man continued cursing, standing still for a few minutes, spouting red-hot rage before he stomped off like a taller Rumpelstiltskin, throwing his feet at the ground as if he wanted to drive them through it.

Yes, that’s just one episode. It’s quite possible that this man, who looked so upstanding, in fact is unhinged. But the pent-up anger, the overt, uncontrollable hostility, the feeling that it’s okay to attack strangers for their beliefs — not to start conversations, not to try to persuade, but to curse and stamp like an overgrown, foul-mouth infant — is new, and it seems to be representative of our political culture right now.

So it is important for us to remember, as the stories of Americans-by-choice that we’re running this week show, how the real values that underlie our democracy, that admittedly are imperfect but always strive toward unreachable perfection, always are there. They might be hard to see sometimes — flying spittle can get in the way — but they’re there. We all are created equal.

We hope that this Fourth of July, the summer it ushers in, and the fall that will follow somehow become a time when we can remember the values that created this country, as we all work together for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We hope that we all can forget about the ugliness and share a glorious Fourth.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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