Steve Cuno: Being born someplace isn’t an accomplishment

I’m not trying to be difficult. I know you want a simple “yes” or “no,” what with the Fourth of July around the corner and all.

It’s just that I reserve words like “pride” and “proud” for accomplishments. I could, for example, be proud that earlier today I walked a whole mile in less than several hours, gave a pittance to a worthy not-for-profit organization and finished reading an acclaimed historical novel that outweighs my refrigerator. But then, not everyone has legs, a spare pittance or eyesight. Even in accomplishment or its lack, self-honesty demands acknowledging a degree of fortune, good or ill.

Which is why I hesitate when asked if I’m proud to be an American. Citizenship by happenstance of birth is hardly an accomplishment. It’s not as if I set my sights on United States citizenship and, against overwhelming odds, worked and connived my way into a qualifying womb.

If anyone could rightly invoke “proud to be an American,” it would be people who became U.S. citizens on purpose. Like, say, my friends Ling, Annabelle, and Shahab, from China, Mexico and Iran, respectively. They left their homelands, made their way here, mastered English, studied U.S. history and government, endured prejudice and jumped through sundry hoops to attain U.S. citizenship. Now, that’s an accomplishment.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what “proud to be an American” even means. I don’t much care for its undeniable “We’re better than everyone else” ring. Try as I may, I am hard-pressed to see what makes American-ness intrinsically better than, say, Liechtensteiner-ness, Canadian-ness, or Basotho-ness. A human is a human, neither inferior nor superior, point of origin notwithstanding.

So perhaps you will permit me to answer, instead, whether I’m grateful to be an American. Much of the time, I am. I’m grateful to live where I can criticize the government and not end up in jail for it, where law enforcement can’t barge into my home without a warrant, and where I can believe or disbelieve any religion without fear of beheading. There are parts of the world where people are not so lucky.

Yet the United States is not unique in the rights it accords. Many nations accord similar ones, some throw in a few more, and some are more vigilant about protecting them. Nor does the United States lead in as many areas as the rabidly patriotic are wont to claim. Business Insider ranks the U.S. 27th in the world for health and education. According to U.S. News & World Report, the U.S. ranks 18th in basic human needs fulfillment, information access, environmental quality and personal rights and freedoms; 43rd in freedom of press; and seventh in terms of “best countries” overall.

And if you’ve been following the news lately, you are surely aware that we have a long way to go before Americans who aren’t white, male, straight, Christian, gainfully employed, or born on American soil can count on equal treatment under the law, much less in day-to-day interactions.

For that matter, with due respect to your high school history textbook, you might be surprised at aspects of our nation’s history, and the machinations behind it, that said textbook’s authors swept under the rug. Every nation, every institution, sanitizes its history and image. Like it or not, the United States is no exception.

More and more, chanting “Proud to be an American,” “We’re Number One,” and “USA! USA!” smacks of hubris. We don’t make progress as a society by waving flags. We make progress by taking stands against inequity and injustice until those we elect, and those they appoint, feel they have no choice but to listen and act.

In moments when we actually pull it off, yes, I am proud to be an American.

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is an advertising writer, a columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, and the “as told to” author of the book “It’s Not About the Sex My Ass: Confessions of an ex-Mormon, ex-polygamist, ex-wife,” by Joanne Hanks. He lives in Sandy.