My favorite song from one of my favorite musicals is West Side Story’s “America“.
For a song written in the 1950s, the message has stood the test of time remarkably well. This isn’t entirely a good thing. If you don’t know what I mean, give it a listen. The song’s message balances two realities that aren’t often mentioned together. (1) I like to be in America, and (2) things here are far from perfect.
For starters, I agree with Anita in “America”: I like to be in America. I’ve been lucky enough to travel this world, but luckiest of all was simply having been born into privilege in this country. The world is a beautiful place, and I have an unending drive to go out and see it. At the end of the day, though, I love my home country.
I also find myself agreeing with Bernardo at times — even if I can’t totally relate to the experience of a minority and an immigrant. “America” covers discrimination, a lack of equal opportunity, and the high cost of living. These were problems in the 1950s, and they remain problems today.
America is a wonderful place, but it’s far from perfect. These two realities aren’t often acknowledged — let alone sung about — together. On the one hand, patriotic songs are too often blindly jingoistic. They end up taking on far too much of what could be a good thing (Yes, I know this isn’t real, but all the same: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWVBc5_xuBg.). On the other hand are those who only complain about our country, in song or otherwise. They often fail to recognize the good. “America” balances both sides without falling into either trap.
I have little patience for those who only complain, never work to make things better, or threaten to move away if this party or that is elected. To them I repeat Anita’s words: I know a boat you can get on. Bye! Bye!
I have a similarly small amount of patience for those who won’t tolerate criticism or those who try (and fail) to equate any and all criticism of our country with anti-Americanism. In the words of MLK, “I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.”
The United States is a great place, albeit an imperfect one. It’s only as great as it is because of the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before us. The United States can become a more perfect Union and overcome the problems we’ve faced throughout history, but only if we continue in the tradition of working hard to make things better.