This past winter break, I spent two weeks backpacking in Guatemala. I met a variety of people from a variety of countries, none of whom had many good things to say about America.
“I have no interest in ever going back,” said an elderly German man who last visited America when he was backpacking through the states in the ‘70s. “There’s just too much going on over there, I wouldn’t feel safe.”
He talked about shootings, bigoted politicians and bloodthirsty police officers.
In a class discussion for an International Diplomacy Studies course I am taking this semester, the entire table laughed – albeit sarcastically – about how many times American multinational corporations have taken advantage of countries in Latin America. How many times have we used military force to implement a regime in a country that was better off before? We laugh because we are terrified.
Wake up. People hate us. Travel abroad and you will quickly realize that people look at you differently the second you tell them your nationality. Dumb American. War-monger American. Greedy American. Overweight American. Gun-slinging, trigger happy American.
And honestly, this reputation did not come from any one specific politician. We have been building up this image for a while now. Once a year, we celebrate Christopher Columbus. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.” Unfortunately, “… And slaughtered and enslaved countless indigenous people” is not as catchy. This problem is institutional, engrained in our holidays and customs. This feeling of entitlement and superiority is institutional. Fundamental changes need to be made in order to adapt to the problems of the 21st century. But for some reason, much of our reasoning still comes from a document that was signed in 1787.
Some call it imperialism. Westernization. Democratization. But few call it what it is: American Privilege. Who are we, who have access to clean water, shelter, education and healthcare, to send cheerful missionaries that paint walls and sing Kumbaya? They know what their people need more than we do. You would be better off compiling the money you would spend on plane tickets, Chacos and backpacks from REI and sending it directly to the community in need. We are Americans; we are not superheroes. We are not better than anyone else just because we were born into different circumstances. We have to give the hero complex a rest and pay attention to the reputation we are building for ourselves.
We are not perfect. We are not the envy of every other country in the world. We need to beat the idea that people want to be us out of our heads because it is just not true. Look at Cuba. Cuba, mind you, is not perfect either. But Cuba has a 99.8 percent literacy rate. Free education, free healthcare. Granted, Cuba fails in many other areas of national development. The Castro brothers are responsible for numerous human rights violations and the Cuban economy is in shambles today. But are we, in the United States, faring much better?
Donald Trump frequently assesses America’s problems in his own way. We need to “Make America Great Again.” But was America really great when it invaded Vietnam? When it invaded Iraq (and other major oil producing countries) and completely destabilized the region? Let us start with making America decent again. Let us go back to being caring and welcoming. Let us go back to the days when we could go to a movie theater and not feel eerie paranoia in the back of our minds about the potential for another random shooting.
What does it mean to be an American?
Freedom. Opportunity. Opportunity for change.
Am I un-American? Un-patriotic? No. My expectations for this nation, the nation that we call the “greatest in the world,” are higher than what we are living right now. Right now, when we are considering building a giant wall to keep people from entering our country. A wall to keep people from the same liberties that we are granted every single day.
For many of us college students, this is our first opportunity to vote in an election. While it may sound dreamy to “Make America Great Again,” I implore you to dig deeper into what that means.
What would make you proud to be an American? We need to strive not to be better than everyone else, but better versions of ourselves.
*This article first appeared in the April 2016 issue of the Yard.