By Sandy Compton
In the film Night at the Museum II, museum guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and come-back-to-life Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) lead enlivened historical characters in a battle against evil pharaoh Kahmunrah inside the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C.
As Earhart and Daley enter the Aeronautical Museum, she is saluted by ghostly Tuskegee Airmen — black and Caribbean flyers of the 332nd Fighter Group and 447th Bombardment Group during World War II — for helping open the door to flight for them. The camera follows them through a history of American aviation, during which we meet the Wright brothers and Able, a monkey who rode an Atlas rocket in 1959 in a test to see what effect space might have on primates. We also witness the “one small step for man” Neil Armstrong made in July 1969.
During the ’50s and ’60s, the space program was of great interest to an idealistic kid with big ears and a tendency to daydream too much. At a time when “space” and “race” were tied together in reference to our relationship with the big, bad Soviet Union, it kept my attention away from issues like racial equality and the Vietnam War.
Since those bright moments of youth — when I thought the United States could do no wrong, and proudly and blithely saluted the flag each morning along with every school kid in America — I have witnessed a depreciation in the valuation of patriotism, and perhaps rightly so. The term, defined in part as “vigorous support for one’s country” is often used today as an indictment against groups of people who view our country as inviolably correct in all actions just because we are the United States of America.
As I watched that 2009 movie scene Sunday night, sadness overtook me; reflecting the sense of loss I feel as our country wades through the quagmire of 2020. We face COVID-19; violent racial confrontation; continuing arguments over gender identity, women’s rights and the place of guns in society; and a reeling, capricious economy. On top of that, we are aboard a storm-driven, derelict ship of state with a captain who seems dangerously deluded about what’s important and real.
Today, July 2, is two days short the anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Twelve score and four years later, the world watches to see if a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” can last. I wonder myself, given our divisiveness. Scenes in the movie reminded me of Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 paraphrase of Mark 3:25: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
We are certainly divided, and those in power keep us apart by encouraging us to blame each other for problems they create. In the meantime, they sell us down the river.
We participate in the sale by agreeing to the sellers’ terms.
Political and economic power in the U.S. are married — certainly in bed together. The regime of the wealthy is aided unabashedly by politicians. It is the money of the corporate world that perpetuates their power, and we pay for it. Twice. Our taxes are used as subsidies, to protect interests in foreign investments and rescue companies who are “too big to fail.” Then, we buy the products and services of those same companies, often without thinking or blinking, many times to enhance our image in our own eyes.
In his song, “Way Back Then,” John Prine sings, “I am out undoing all the good things I’ve done.” That could be the theme of the U.S. right now. Many of the best ideas and mandates of the past 60 years are being dismantled or ignored. Those who cheer these developments don’t seem to understand — or care — that their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will pay for gains this generation achieves by abandoning environmental and social responsibility; trading a balanced ecology, an equitable economy and true equality for short-term gain and personal aggrandizement.
As I watched the movie, another thought came to me; a supposition, really. Suppose that what we are all angry and divided over is the loss of our collective dreams about the future of our country. Maybe many of us are that kid who thought the U.S. could do no wrong, and are now disillusioned and uncertain of where we are now, how we got here and where to go from here. Whether we admit it or not — and no matter what our personal politics are — how many of us feel increasingly lost, scared and angry?
There is nothing wrong with being a patriot — vigorously supporting our country. But our patriotism can’t be blind. Patriotism is not about waving the flag or our guns or yelling at each other over religion, race or sexual orientation. It is not defined by genomic structure or our personal view of Spirit.
Patriotism is wanting the best for the place in which we live and by extension, all those who live there with us. We cannot quash a segment of society and be patriotic to a nation whose founding document says very clearly, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. ”
Quibble about the word “men” all you want, or the intention of the writers, but my thought is we needn’t second-guess the document. We need to live up to it, which means working together to make this country worthy of our vigorous support.
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