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Many things to celebrate; many others to put right

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 3, 2002


Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.


-- Carl Schurz (1829-1906), Civil War general, U.S. senator, secretary of the interior

* * *

You don't see the second half of that quote quite as often as the first half.

It changes the meaning a little, don't you think? It suggests that our patriotic duty as Americans is not merely blind obedience and jingoism, but to try to "put right" our country when we think it needs it.

This will be our first Independence Day -- we should insist on that name over the generic "Fourth of July" -- since the events of last September. We are in a far different place than at our nation's last birthday.

For the first time in the lives of most of us, we suffered a large-scale attack against the soil of the United States by an outside enemy. The skyline of our greatest city burned. So did the headquarters of our national defense. Three thousand people died.

It was a declaration of war.

For my money, we have not answered the blow enough. We did manage to bomb and topple a Stone Age regime in Afghanistan. But now our government's leaders stammer and try to change the subject when anyone asks about Osama bin Laden. Who? Don't you mean that Saddam fellow? Wouldn't it make you feel better if we went over and beat him up next?

The purpose of this week's holiday is to commemorate the Declaration of Independence. It is one of the most beautifully radical, liberal documents ever written.

The Declaration says that every human being has sacred rights that cannot be taken away. Not by a king. Not by a church. Not by a ruling class.

The Declaration says that people have a right to govern themselves -- and to cast off an oppressive ruler.

We were not the first to say this sort of thing, but we were the first to say it so well, and the first to build a nation on it.

You know what?

It worked great.

It allowed us to build the world's greatest and most powerful nation, which in the past century alone won two world wars against evil, rebuilt its vanquished enemies along with the continent of Europe for good measure, and in the end proved superior to a failed Soviet totalitarian regime.

That, as much as anything, was what the Sept. 11 terrorists lashed out against. The idea of a modern, liberal, Western-style individual freedom is inconceivable to them. Other than a handful of petty thugs scattered around the world, they are the last heirs to the idea that humanity must be ruled against its will.

Yet loving the United States and opposing its enemies does not require us to turn ourselves into unquestioning dummies. We can be clear-eyed about making ourselves better.

At this moment, the United States is wracked by a series of scandals involving big business. The president and leaders of Congress pretend to be shocked at the system that they helped create. The executives cash their stock options and bail out; workers and small investors take the losses. But none of that is proof of a fundamental flaw in our system. It is evidence that the pendulum between over-regulation and rapaciousness is swinging back toward a reasonable center.

In the world, even our friends often consider us to be somewhat of the blowhard, trampling over international agreements and clumsily trying to dictate to them whatever notion pops into our head. They think that we think that might makes right. We need to check constantly to make sure we don't.

Dissent and disagreement are part of what makes America great. We tend in our domestic politics to demonize and label each other. More than ever, since Sept. 11, some of us have said that others were not "good Americans" for having a different opinion. But they might be good Americans precisely because they had a different opinion.

Even Carl Schurz, author of the "when wrong, to be put right" quote, later became unpopular for speaking out against U.S. imperialism during the era of the Spanish-American war. He spoke his mind even in the face of a media-driven, flag-waving jingoism. Now, that was patriotic.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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