God Bless America. Really.
I get asked a lot whether the title of my new book, God Bless America, is meant ironically. People tend to assume—because I have a history of mouthing off against government officials—that I don’t really like America very much, let alone bless it. But the title is no joke. Whatever I might think about the political discourse of this country at the moment, I feel a deep gratitude for America—both in its freedoms and its plenitude. We are one of the most remarkable experiments in democracy in the history of humankind. Only a fool would deny that.
But patriotism—at least American patriotism—isn’t about blind allegiance to whomever is in charge. It’s about using your freedom as a citizen to make your voice heard.
For me, this means speaking bluntly about the moral decline of the country. The facts aren’t very complicated:
The wealthiest among us are socking away more money than they could ever possibly need, while the middle and working class struggles to pay the bills. Our political leaders are ignoring the scientific evidence that we’re slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. The excesses of late-model capitalism have made greed a more powerful cultural value than generosity. Jesus Christ Himself would have been horrified at the manner in which we have, as a society, turned away from the sick and impoverished, and spent our leisure hours consuming fast food and violence.
But of course my job as a writer isn’t to preach about politics. It’s to try to figure out the dreams and struggles we all have in common. That’s what I’ve hoped to do in God Bless America. Because there really is no one “America.”
That’s just something the politicians say on the TV to advance their petty arguments. Every single American has his or her own version of the country. All I’ve tried to do is to get inside the heads and hearts of a dozen of so of our citizens, to understand how the larger currents of history have shaped their own stories.
In the end, our civic crisis has to do with a lack of empathy. Americans have amassed enough wealth to lock themselves away from their neighbors, to remove themselves from their duties to the less fortunate. We’ve stopped imagining what it might be like to not have enough to eat, or to live in a dangerous part of the world, or to have to sneak into this country just to feed your family. Americans have terrific values in the abstract. We believe in all the right things. We’re just not very good at living up to these values. Literature isn’t intended to make people into angels.
But it does ask people to imagine the lives of others, and to feel more than they did before. I’m proud that I live in a country that allows me to do that sort of work, and to put it into the world. So no, the title God Bless America isn’t meant as a dig at my homeland. It’s something closer to an aspiration, a wish to feel the sort of pride that might even make one sing.