When we sing the national anthem, we sing its closing lines with enthusiasm and bravura, as though to declare their truth, “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!” But, the line is actually written in the form of a question: “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” And that slight change in inflection alters the essence of that phrase. These are not words to be mindlessly recited from memory, but something upon which to reflect, to constantly ask ourselves: Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave?
As I read the news and as I live life on this college campus, I don’t know how deserving we are of that title, for we have distorted its meaning. I see freedom to damage reputations, to denounce those who don’t conform. I see bravery only in the masses, when the sheer numbers can drown out the voices of the minority. We cling to our ideologies so tightly because we are unbending in our resolves and our opinions, unwilling to discuss and to share and to understand. We are free when we want to harm, we are brave when it is convenient.
Last month, Tom Schweich, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Missouri, committed suicide in the midst of a nasty campaign, filled with cruelty and bigotry. A radio ad, spoken in a menacing Frank Underwood-style voice, announced how the opposition would “squash him like the little bug that he is …” And there are reports of a whisper campaign started to suggest that Schweich, a devout Episcopalian, was Jewish.
Schweich was a loving husband, father of two and a smart and a capable statesman. In 2014, Schweich ran unopposed in his reelection bid for Missouri state auditor because Democrats were so impressed with his work in office. Why would his religion be of any importance? Would it prevent him from carrying out his duties? Is a Jew less moral or capable than a Christian? Is it not enough to judge a person by his merits, his successes, his failures and his character?
The same week Schweich took his life, a Jewish student running for a student government position at the University of California, Los Angeles, was asked by a student government representative if her religion would prevent her from being an impartial representative of the school. The University of California, Berkeley student government just passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism because the AEPi house at the University of California, Davis, was vandalized with swastikas last month. And these are just the anti-Semitic incidents. Would you rather talk about Ferguson? Or perhaps the shooting of Muslim students at the University of North Carolina?
This country, this land of the free and home of the brave, is filled with bigots, racists, sexists, anti-Semites, homophobes — cowards. And we honor and protect the right to be a bigot, a racist, a sexist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a coward. I just never would have thought so many could indulge in such primitive behavior.
This kind of behavior isn’t tolerated in the world of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Every so often, I watch a clip from his film “The American President” to remind myself of what America really is, or rather should be: “America isn’t easy,” states President Andrew Shepherd. “America is advanced citizenship, you’ve got to want it bad.”
I imagine a world according to Sorkin, where people carry themselves with class, ready to retort with a sharp wit; where harsh realities are faced directly; where presidents can stand in front of a camera and say what needs to be said, unfazed by approval ratings; where the news moves past sensationalizing and into delivering grounded, important information to its viewers.
Because in that world, when someone states that homosexuality is an abomination, you recite Exodus 21:7, “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male servants do,” followed by Exodus 35:2, “… Whoever does any work on (the Sabbath) shall be put to death,” and then you kindly ask that bigot to at least be consistent with his doctrines. In that world, when you learn that a female coworker is being harassed, you storm into the harasser’s office, question him about integrity and fire him. In that world, when someone asks, “Why is America the greatest country in the world?” you don’t answer with “freedom and democracy,” but with a rejection of such a simple notion and instead look at the reality of the state of the nation, and then you ask what you can do to make it better. In that world, there are men and women who stand up for character, for values, not because it’s to their benefit, but because someone has to, because it’s right.
And yes, Sorkin’s world is often flawed; it can drag at times, it can moralize too much, its characters, oftentimes women, can be ditzy and poorly written. But eventually, when that world finds its footing, it can deliver something inspiring, something honorable — an idea of how things could be.
We are so far away from that world. Because in our world, we stigmatize those who believe something different from us — we respond with rumors, with vandalism, with hatred. We stick our hands into the filth, wrap them in tape colored red, white and blue and throw boxing gloves over them. We ask our fellow man to step into the ring and take the next beating because he who is not with me is against me.
We choose to look away from the brutality of it all. We elect officials who perpetuate secrecy or ignorance or sheer stupidity because it’s what we know. The cycle continues, and we wonder why things aren’t getting better.
In the film, Andrew Shepherd continues, “You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.” Aaron Sorkin knows that. I believe Tom Schweich knew that.
For so long, we have sung of the land of the free and the home of the brave; now we need to live by those words, even when it hurts, even when the blood boils so hot with rage. Then, we will become what Sorkin, through Josiah Bartlett in “The West Wing,” envisions:
“But every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars.”
I lament that there are no President Shepherds or Bartlets, there are no Will McAvoys or CJ Craigs. Maybe the world is too complicated for men and women like them. Maybe the very idea that I have spent over 1,200 words comparing life to a TV show is childish and naïve. But sometimes we need an ideal to strive toward, to march boldly with our eyes open and our heads high. Because if we can achieve that, Tom Schweich will not have died in vain, Ferguson will not have erupted for nothing, hatred will cease to needlessly perpetuate. This is a call not for change, but for introspection. We need to embrace what we already know to be true, that which is sewn into the very fabric of the American flag: that we are free and we are brave, and we can accomplish so much more.
Jamie Bircoll is an LSA junior and a Daily arts editor.