“Proud to be an American.”

“Proud to be an American.”  How easy that comes off the lips.  Of course, we’re proud to be living in the world’s most free, most interesting, most innovating nation.

Are we any different though than the Brit? Or the Russians? Or, heaven forbid, the Cubans?  Or any other nation you can think of.

I’m also proud to be a Wisconsin fan, a Packers fan, a Brewers fan.  Does that make me better than the Northwestern fan who also roots for the hated Bears or the perennial losing Cubs?

All this breast-thumping is OK when you’re rooting for a football, baseball or other sports teams.  Afterwards, you can usually enjoy a beer with a friend who may root for the other guy.

But when it comes to being an American, there’s a tendency for most of us to believe we are No. 1, that we are the BEST there is.  That’s something called “American exceptionalism,” and it causes us to think that we as a nation are omnipotent, that we are the strongest, bravest, finest nation in the world and that we can conquer all and everyone.

Let’s all realize that the United States IS exceptional.  We are the world’s longest lasting democracy, no easy fete in the life of nations.  We have survived some terrible internal conflicts, not the least of which was the Civil War.  We have transferred control of our government to opposing parties peacefully time after time without a military coup.  Our capitalistic system has driven the economies of the world, has led the way in innovations and provided, in the past, an enviable standard of living.

Lest we be too arrogant, let us all realize the United States has many things that bring shame instead of pride.

No, we don’t have the world’s best health care system, as we rank well down the list of nations when considering infant mortality rates, length of life and access to health care.  Of course, for those who can afford it due to health insurance protections (not available to perhaps 50 million citizens), our health care can be the best, as this writer must attest from personal experience recently.  But for so many we fail miserably.

Our income disparity between the very rich and the poor is growing more and more, leaving many families without hope of ever rising out of their decrepit neighborhoods and dysfunctional situations.

As our international affairs go, we must realize, too, that we are NOT omnipotent. Certainly our struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan must tell us that, short of committing millions of our own armed forces, we can never win the total victory many still think is possible.  Vietnam proved that, as did Korea, nearly 60 years ago, as we had to agree to a permanent partition.  The writer is old enough to remember when politicians blamed Presidents Truman and Roosevelt for “losing” China, blaming them for being unable to halt the Communist takeover from the inept and corrupt government of Chang Kai Shek.  It would have taken an allout military crusade then to halt the onslaught of the masses in revolutionary China.

Rooting for the home team is fine.  But as we stand to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the next athletic event or place an American flag on our front lawns, let us realize those actions are but a symbol of our nation.  Real patriotism demands more of us:  It demands that we become informed citizens so that we can require our leaders to make wise decisions, that we look beyond the outright lies and distortions peddled by the charlatans of TV punditry and radio talk shows, and that we campaign to correct the many wrongs and shortcomings of our nation so that we can honestly say:  “I’m proud to be an American.”

Bangladesh garment fire recalls Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy

It’s a mere four months until we hit the 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, the worst industrial accident in that city’s history.  On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the fire, most of them women and many leaping from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors to their death because the exits were locked by management to discourage theft.

More than 20 killed in garment factory fire in Bangladesh.

That tragic fire came immediately to mind when the New York Times reported that more than 20 garment workers died in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh on Tuesday (Dec. 14).

And these workers, too, were on the 9th and 10th floors of this high rise factory building.  The death toll might have been even higher had it not been lunch hour.  Some 5,000 people work in the 10-story factory building.

Also, some authorities are saying that many exits were closed, too.  Again, reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  How ironic!

These workers were likely making pants for retailers like Wal-Mart and H & M.  Some three million people work in Bangladesh garment factories making goods for the markets in the United States.   The government there has set the minimum wage there for about $43 a month, just over a dollar a day.  And many factories still aren’t meeting that level.  Until recently, the minimum was under $30 a month.

As we Americans shop for the low-priced pants at Wal-Mart or other retailers, it’s wise to reflect upon the real price as represented in worker misery and poverty around the world.

It’s time, too, to let our law-makers know of the real need to pass laws to ensure foreign trade is fair and respects the need for manufacturing countries to adhere to fair labor standards and practices.  Then, such laws, as well as those already on the books, need to be enforced. Ken Germanson, Dec. 15, 2010

December 7th Memories

There are dates in history, for those of us who lived through them, we never forget.  Most all Americans over the age of 13 or so can tell you exactly where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field were hit by terrorists.

For most Americans who are older than 55, the date never to be forgotten is Nov. 22, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

But you’ve got to be 75 years of age or older to recall vividly Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  That became clear today as December 7th passed with hardly a mention of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack that put the U. S. squarely into the throes of World War II.  It was a “Day that will live in infamy,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Congress as he requested support for declaring war on Japan, Germany and Italy.

For a 12-year-old boy in 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor was his initiation into the real world.  He soon would live through the bleak times of the first winter of the war when the Japanese took the Philippines, and our captured soldiers were forced into the cruel Bataan Death March.  He would see the real fear that the U.S. was indeed vulnerable to attacks, even as far inland as his home in Milwaukee.

He would be shocked at the destruction of London and other English cities in the Battle of Britain; he would be in awe of the damage U.S. “Blockbuster” bombs on Germany and then totally unbelieving at the destruction on Aug. 6, 1945 on Hiroshima with the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb.

The 12-year-old boy, growing into young adulthood through these years, looked ahead, seeing the war becoming interminable, with the prospect that he also would follow the uncle who helped raise him into the Armed Services.  He soon saw the stupidity and tragedies of war and would soon wonder: why must humans engage in such behavior?

Yes, December 7th is a date neither he nor any others of his age will ever forget.  He’ll never forget his mother yelling down to the basement where the boy and his brothers and their father were setting up the family’s train set to say: “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor,” and his father saying, “Oh Lord, that means war.”

At first the boy and his brother, then 11, jumped for joy, picturing how much fun it would be to “play solider” for real, only to be reprimanded by their father for insensitive behavior.  How soon the boy would learn how tragic war is!

It’s a date the boy will never forget; soon, however, his generation will be gone, along with their memories of this “Day that will live in infamy.”  Dec. 7, 2010.

Brief book give stirring account of black teen life

A Review:

“Time & Place ‘In the life of B and K,’” by Khalil Coleman. Publisher: Changing Lives Through Literature, PO Box 76169, Milwaukee WI 53216, $13.00. 40 pages.

Still in his early 20s, Khalil Coleman is determined to change the fortunes of young male African-Americans, and he’s turning to literature to help make it happen.

This short book takes a fictional heartfelt journey about the life of ‘B,’ a teenager, who looks about the ghetto in which he lives and still sees hope and a chance for change for the better. He is joined by his best friend, ‘K,’ in a bus trip out of their seedy, dissipated environment into the peaceful surroundings to visit more affluent friends.

There he sees hope for a change, and returns to face the challenges of his neighborhood and its people, regardless of their fretful situations, who are reluctant to make the change.

He finds that he is seriously misunderstood by young people he had considered his friends, particularly after his friend falls prey to an unfortunate fate.

What is a boy to do? That is for the reader to discover in reading this book.

Coleman has an eye and ear for the “hood,” and what it feels like to be of the ‘hood.’ His descriptions of his neighbors, of their lives and of their own unknowing despair is so real, you share in his feelings, a rare gift for such a young writer.

His book reminds of a book, more than 60 years old, “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison, (published 1947 by Random House), in which an idealistic young black man tries to make his way in the white man’s world.

Coleman’s writing has a poetic quality; hence, the brevity of this book makes sense. His meaning flows out in his words, even though this reviewer wishes he had cut down the length of his paragraphs, many of which run on and on and make reading a bit difficult.

It’s a shame, too, since Coleman intends this book to be read by teens … maybe even shared in groups.

Those of us who don’t live in the hood may find why it’s so hard for young black men to find success in this still racist society. – Kenneth A. Germanson, Nov. 30, 2010