I’ve often contemplated, and Courtney Vance asked aloud in The Tuskegee Airmen, a very simple and profound question: Why do men and women, whose country has explicitly and implicitly stated that they are not equal continue to serve their nation with all of their strengths, intellect, passion and dedication?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,”
This basic premise, so simply mis-stated by Jefferson two hundred and thirty-four years ago (his language neglected women, specifically), is the difference between our nation, so conceived and so dedicated, and others which do not even purport to strive for it. Yet, we also fall down constantly putting into practice those lofty ideals: black people were enslaved for almost one hundred years, and legislated against for another hundred plus; native American peoples were bargained with only to have those agreements broken at the whim of Anglo citizens and capricious presidential administrations, given false comfort with disease-ridden blankets, and herded into reservations; Chinese immigrants were dangled over cliffs to place dynamite to build the railroads, but legislated against and forced to pay higher taxes than others; Japanese (and German) Americans were robbed of their livelihoods, forced from their homes, incarcerated and segregated out of paranoia and economic selfishness; homosexuals have been beaten, legislated against, told their emotional expression was unnatural, and seen their rights in the new millenium subjectively and exclusively thrown to the whim of the majority; women have been by turn legally disciplined with a branch no thicker than one’s thumb, excluded from the political process, discriminated against economically, and told to wait their turn, only to be physically abused when they stood up for their part of the American Dream. These few examples give one pause, until you realize one thing: every one of these groups has fought physically, politically, economically, socially to serve this nation and participate in its lifeblood.
From segregated units to bomber assembly lines, from suffragettes to lunch counter sit-ins, from taking over Alcatraz to the “No-No Boys”, from Harvey Milk to the Lily Ledbetter Act, all of these people have demanded to be a part of the national conversation, to enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as every American citizen. Regardless of the white hoods which stand like imposing mountains, or the dittoheads screaming into microphones, or “conservative family values” cloaking fear, hatred, disgust and insecurity, all of these minorities have struggled to attain their civil rights, and to put their lives on the line (even though we shouldn’t ask and they shouldn’t tell) to defend OUR country.
President Obama has stated time and again, “I truly believe that there’s nothing more noble than public service,” which he has shown by running for office. And over the course of our two hundred and twenty years of existence as a nation, we have grown in fits and starts, as ordinary citizens find the strength to rage against the machine, to demand their seat at the table, to fight for the simple honor of being allowed to serve.
It seems that for people who actually believe in the ideals espoused by Jefferson in his letter, much as those who follow the Qur’an, there is the opportunity for equality, justice, peace and prosperity for more people. And the battles they fight are not with enemies, but with those living and breathing under the same flag. The notion of service is what will help us domestically and internationally, as we move from the self-inflicted, self-centered application of our values.
President Obama is leading by example, standing before the cameras and the crazies to explain how and why we should act in order to right out ship, to heal our planet, to fix our economy, to deal with international acquaintances and confront our enemies. He has behind him a whole host of supporters and agents, some of whom have themselves been excluded from service because of the color of their skin, or the manner of their worship, or their chromosomes, or their sexual orientation. But these are the true patriots, because they are fighting the revolution with each day that they serve, helping to perfect our union with every step they take.