With calls from a certain presidential candidate to “Make America Great Again” dominating the news cycle, Weld decided to ask readers a simple question: What makes a country great?
Respondents touched on a wide range of subjects from universal healthcare to strengthening the military. They quoted people like Allen West and Walt Whitman. Below are their responses in no particular order.
David Barnhart, pastor Saint Junia United Methodist Church: Civic engagement and critical dialogue. I believe if we taught rhetoric and philosophy in high school, we would be less susceptible to manipulation by advertisers and politicians, and more likely to participate in elections and public life.
Jill Self, freelance writer: I believe being adopted to this country — I was picked out from an orphanage in Ecuador, and also unlike most citizens I graced the cover of The Birmingham News holding an American flag in June of 1987 — has played a huge influence on my sense of pride and reverence, but also my sense of duty to my fellow man.
I also think it is the diversity I see when rabble-rousing in other cities and the evolution of what is considered normal. After living out West in Denver gathering experience needed to crank out my thesis and returning home, I can say I firsthand see leaps and bounds in our great city of Birmingham. I think it is the coming together [of ]our like minded countrymen to better an area in which they inhabit.
I think a great country is made of selfless souls who want to help and give blindly, not expecting anything in return. I believe it is freedom to make the decisions you want; whether they are well thought-out or in the moment — we have choices in which other countries are not privy. I believe another quality that is sometimes overlooked is electing leaders who truly want the best for the people and not self-righteous glory.
A country is only as strong as the will of the people and by building each other up daily, whether it be charity in silence, or just opening a door for someone with groceries in their arms, the little things slowly manifest the world into a kinder gentler place.
Ulric Cowley, (Birmingham native) administrator at the Village Council, Kokhanok, Alaska: What makes a country great? I believe above all else a country’s main function is to provide an environment where its citizens can fulfill their functions. I tend to agree with Plato that our function is the pursuit of Truth and, well, Truth is the Good.
What is Good? Well, I believe that the Good is what is Just. I would argue that what makes a country just is when it supplies an environment for a multiplicity of voices to come together for rational dialogue.
A great country is a country that allows everyone up to the table to eat and discuss. It attains to be equal and just and ultimately to further advance the posterity of all humanity. Now more than ever we are aware of the universality of human existence and due to that we should be quick to apprehend our urges to “other” people. We must simultaneously be a community, uplift each other, and allow for the flowering of the individual.
I think one of my favorite poets and one the greatest American poets, Walt Whitman, said it best, “The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty, but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds — where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough — a modest living— and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.”
Camden Spinks, musician: I’m going to steal an analogy from Allen West here: Currently, America is a pride of lions being led by a sheep. We need to be a pride of lions led by a lion. Every time political leaders or political hopefuls speak on television I picture other world leaders laughing their [expletive] off at how dismantled America has become. It’s embarrassing.
So, here’s my short list of necessary ideals to “make America great again” (certainly not endorsing Trump, but how can you not love that slogan?). New leadership. Not just at the head of the table either; Stronger military. That’s one budget that never should’ve been cut. The abolishment of the notion of entitlement. No — you don’t “deserve” my dinner. Bipartisanship. Mostly for international affairs, but Congress could meet in the middle more often. Certainly wouldn’t hurt.
We need media reform. Mainstream media is like mainstream country music: redundant and full of [expletive]. All too often it is the pinnacle of misinformation. Tax reform. The people who have money employ the people who don’t. It’s that simple. So let’s trickle it on down; America needs a win. Nothing unites people better than a victory or reaching a common goal.
John Morse, founder of Bhamwiki: I’d like to try a re-commitment to pursue enlightenment — democratic ideals after 200 years of social and technological progress.
Betsy Ogle, community activist: I’ve been speaking to friends my age, at or near retirement, about this very question. We ask ourselves, “Is it just an age thing to say the nation is not the same as it was and the youth are to blame for the problems? Or is the nation lacking something that was lost, that [made] it better then, than it is today?”
I believe, and have lived and experienced, it’s the latter. Our nation, by not having appropriate institutional conversations about diversity, social change, sexuality, civic engagement, government, climate, seems to have lost sight of a unified national identity. Our growing US political conservatism, for the last 25 years, has contributed to this state of affairs as [have] business and economic communities. While we have grown as a society — demographically, culturally, ethnically, intellectually — we have not fully applied these values to our national institutions to be embraced by the national collective.
Jacob Robertson, student, Washington and Lee School of Law: A nation is great when it doesn’t fear itself. Fear is a natural thing, one of those unassailable facts of life. There will always be something to fear, even for a world power. It may be climate change. It may be other countries. It may be a global economic downturn. But when a nation fears itself, it cannot be called great.
A great nation must view its members as equally important parts of a whole. A great nation must not look upon its citizens and fear their differences, their cultures, their appearances. A great nation must not create a culture of hate or indifference toward its marginal populations. A great nation cannot fear the non-normative. Rather, it must embrace it, and through embracing it, cast aside it’s fear of it. We are not a great nation. We’re a long way from it. But the building blocks are there.
Vincent Gawronski, political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College: When we ask about what qualities people value most in a nation, we need to clarify some concepts. Among international relations scholars the “nation” is something very different from the “government,” the “state,” or the “nation-state.” The nation is an amalgam of people who perceive themselves to be members of the same group because of similar ethnic, linguistic, or cultural affinities, which means the United States is really a nation-state comprised of many nations.
Indeed there are shared values that bring us together as citizens, more or less. We all exhibit some degree of pride or patriotism in the United States just as citizens do in other countries. However, we are all [a] little ethnocentric, and we tend to perceive ourselves much more positively than others might.
More importantly, how do citizens in other countries perceive other nation-states? Which countries have the best reputations? Which foreign travelers are most welcomed and which are despised? Who are the ugly tourists? Which countries’ behaviors and values are most emulated? Which countries do the most good for the rest of the world?
The Good Country Index measures the global contributions of countries (on a per capita basis) in several areas: science and technology, culture, international peace and security, world order, planet and climate, prosperity and equality, and health and well-being. In 2015 the United States ranked 21st. Sweden was number one.
Alanna Weems, studio manager of Storyteller Photography: My answer to a question like this is often emotional, instinctual and idealistic. However these are some of the topics and values that I believe are important for the success of any country. Obviously some of the responses are the result of more recent events/developments in the U.S.
I value things such as shared responsibility, gender equality, race equality, environmental justice, reproductive justice, investment in education, universal health care, criminal justice reform, gun control reform, effective Congress, empathy, love.
Joe Babin, manager of Orbit Salon: I believe the qualities in our country that make it great lie in where our country was founded. Religious freedom is what brought people to this land and I feel that is still what qualifies us as a free land. Tyranny of religion in other countries force[s] everyone to believe, leave or die. In this great country, we are free to develop, culture, evolve and nurture our own respective beliefs, processes and studies.
When a country is not functioning off of dated processes, the progress of the country is allowed, moves forward evolving into the leader of the free world, setting the standard by which other countries can progress. While there are several areas our country can adapt from other progressive states’ laws and mentalities towards its people, our country is forever learning from itself. …Freedom of speech allows a critically thinking person to come to his/her own conclusion according to their mindset. This is an amazing freedom we have that many take for granted. I believe having this freedom allowed us to advance as a nation so quickly and our forefathers would be very proud of the nation we have become.
Scotty Colson, director of Birmingham’s Sister Cities Commission: Rule of law, respect for law, fair justice for all and a right to pursue happiness.
Stuart Oates, director of Oak Hill Cemetery: Greatness, I believe begins with dashing any notion of exceptionalism. Self-respect and respect for others lead to a more enduring and stable community.
What has exceptionalism given the world? Temporary empires, built upon greed and inequality, supported by theft and violence of all manners. Some examples (ancient and modern) that come to mind are the Romans, the Ottomans, the Mongols, the British, Spanish, Dutch, French, Russians, Japanese, Americans, and so on. (We are not exceptional, just wrong-headed, and destined for a painful decline.) Exceptionalism is the antithesis of respect and leads to greed, fear, mistrust, and is ultimately supported by violence, by war, murder, and mayhem.
Respect, on the other hand, leads to living in a balanced society through mutually beneficial agreements. Without respect, any attempt at stability becomes a house of cards. With respect as a foundation, the world is not partitioned into groups of haves and have-nots, because everyone would have what they need, rather than what they thought they deserved. There would be no neo-colonialism. There would not be a need for rapacious political vitriol. Religion would no longer be used as a weapon of mass destruction, and could get back to the business of allowing folks to reconnect (religio in Latin).
Mark DiChiara: A nation is strongest and best in relation to how deeply every citizen feels he is his brother’s keeper. A nation is weaker and worse when people only care about what furthers their individual interest. The country I was born in became enemy occupied territory in 1980 and has been ever since. But I think we may be turning the tide on the greedy pricks. Maybe.