Editor’s note: This is a special guest op-ed from BernardGoldberg.com Premium Member, Michael G. Frankel.
One of my favorite movies is Sergio Leone’s 1984 epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Ennio Morricone’s score was hauntingly beautiful and one for the ages. The movie portrays an era in America that disappeared long ago. The scenes and characters remind us of an America on the move, and the innocence that was slowly but surely disappearing from our society. My choice of title for this article is in part an homage to Leone and Morricone, but primarily because the phrase has renewed vitality in 2020.
Mr. Leone’s film is graphic and does not sugarcoat its observations about America or Americans during the early decades of the 20th century. Similarly, I want to make clear that my views of contemporary America are not intended to whitewash or otherwise rationalize any negative aspect of our history. Part of our history is not admirable, including the presence of slavery from the inception of the United States through 1865, the continuing racial animus and discrimination even after the Civil War, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, among other things.
As has been written about extensively by others, America is not perfect and there are stains and sins from our past. Acknowledging those transgressions, however, is not the end of the story… unless America is to be evaluated and measured by standards different from (and harsher than) the standards applied to the rest of the world.
I am happy to have those comparisons made because I believe that, on balance (warts and all), we have much to be proud of. Even with the mistakes we’ve made, and the world is a much better place because America exists.
It’s hard to imagine what the world would look like today if there had never been a United States.
We are now in a titanic struggle that may impact — in many ways — what America will look like in the future. My hope is that, as we move forward, we will remember from whence we came and especially why the cornerstones of America are our freedom and liberty, and that we are wise enough not to forsake our heritage.
So let us reflect on the following:
Once upon a time in America, our Constitution was sacrosanct and revered throughout the world, but especially by almost all Americans.
Once upon a time in America, the Bill of Rights was deemed to be inviolable and the rights granted therein to each of us not subject to dilution or repeal.
Once upon a time in America, we all proudly pledged allegiance to our flag.
Once upon a time in America, we were a melting pot with many common values rather than a collection of tribes pursuing their own self interests.
Once upon a time in America, most of us were proud to be called patriots, and the word patriotism was not a dirty word.
Once upon a time in America, we respected the military and honored those who had served in the armed forces.
Once upon a time in America, we respected those in law enforcement, understanding that while certain officers may have abused their power, the overwhelming majority protected us and our communities and put their lives on the line in doing so.
Once upon a time in America, we respected our elders and understood that there was much to be learned from their life experiences and ensuing wisdom.
Once upon a time in America, our teachers taught us about our national history in a positive, proud manner.
Once upon a time in America, teachers were not verbally abused or physically assaulted in our schools.
Once upon a time in America, our public schools were the envy of the world, and our children were among the most proficient in reading and math.
Once upon a time in America, science was an ongoing quest for knowledge and truth, and was neither settled nor infested with politics.
Once upon a time in America, truth was preceded by the word “the” and was not a matter of gender or subjectivity.
Once upon a time in America, civility was the norm, and those who were uncivil were viewed scornfully.
Once upon a time in America, the goal was to judge people by the content of their character.
Once upon a time in America, members of Congress did not trash America, especially on the floor of the Senate or in the House.
Once upon a time in America, there was a saying that while I may not agree with your view, I will defend to the death your right to express it.
Once upon a time in America, journalism was a respected profession, and journalists reported news that may not have been in line with their political beliefs (and such beliefs were not even known in many or even most cases).
Once upon a time in America, our families and our neighborhoods were the bedrocks of our society.
Once upon a time in America, being accountable and personally responsible indicated strong character.
Once upon a time in America, honor and self-discipline were traits to aspire to, not terms that triggered and enraged others.
Once upon a time in America, free expression and free thought were exalted on college campuses.
Once upon a time in America, family relationships and friendships were not shattered by differences in political affiliations or views, and lifelong relationships were not summarily destroyed or abandoned.
Once upon a time in America, people could wear hats, shirts, or pins that expressed their support for a candidate or an issue without fear of physical or mental abuse, or degradation, or other punishment.
And finally, once upon a time in America, belief in God was neither mocked nor derided.
As noted at the outset, America is not perfect. I anticipate that some who read this piece will be quick to point out our failings and transgressions. And I imagine many of those comments will be accurate. That doesn’t change the fact that there is much about America to be proud of.
So, how should we move forward as a nation? I think it comes down to two questions that we should be asking ourselves:
- On balance, how should America be viewed?
- How do we continue to evolve, learn from our mistakes, and strive to be better while preserving the values, traditions and rights that have made America a beacon of hope and freedom for millions of people throughout the world?
Therein lies the answers.