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I am a scholar and a patriot. My fellow academics often criticize me for this. I cannot be “objective” about the United States. As a child (and grandchild) of poor immigrants, I am acutely aware of how this society offered me opportunities that would be unthinkable almost anywhere else. Every new year, including this one, I am grateful for my opportunities as an American citizen. I am grateful to live, work, and raise a family in such a wealthy, stable, and democratic society.

This new year, however, my patriotism is accompanied by a profound sense of shame. I am ashamed at how American citizens (national figures, local leaders, and ordinary citizens) have behaved in 2012. Repeatedly, we have given-in to our base instincts and shown the worst of who we are. This is not entirely new, but it seems so much more extreme in the experience of the last year. We had many opportunities to pull together and remind ourselves of why we love our country. Instead, we chose recrimination, selfishness, and willful stupidity. We are all to blame in varying degrees.

2012 is ending with abundant evidence for this self-criticism. Congressional representatives from both political parties have abandoned negotiations to address the huge holes in our national budget. Instead, they are fighting like spoiled children over the details of a temporary tax measure that when reached, close to the midnight deadline, will only push the pain back until the next budget fight a month later.

The reelected president (whom I voted for) has remained aloof from all of this. He compounded his lack of leadership by giving a narcissistic speech at midday calling for a deal while condemning the Republicans whom he insists must compromise. He then told Congress to solve the problem and returned to hiding.

Why is our president giving empty speeches rather than placing himself at the center of the very negotiations he demands? Why has he left the negotiations to others while he pontificates? My kids are following all of this with me and they easily recognize the childishness of the behavior in Congress and the White House.

The discussion of guns in the last few weeks has been even worse. The senseless shooting of twenty small children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut touched every citizen. We all have young children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who attend school. If they cannot be safe in school, where can they be safe? How can we educate our children to live in peace and freedom if they require armed guards, as well as coloring books, in their classrooms?

Instead of opening a difficult but crucial discussion about childhood, education, safety, and freedom our society has fallen immediately into very stale debates about gun ownership. Do guns kill people or protect them? What does the Second Amendment mean? These are important questions, but they are diversions from the real issues.

We are afraid to ask ourselves the tough questions that take us out of our comfortable partisan positions. The issue is not gun ownership or gun control. The fundamental question is how we want to invest in our future, and the children who will determine our future. What kinds of schools? What kinds of measures to assure safety and freedom at schools? A forward-looking society asks these questions, as Americans did a generation ago. A selfish, frightened, and stupid society talks about gun rights when the subject is children.

I am ashamed of America because I am a patriot who knows our society is capable of so much more. I am a historian who has seen the evidence of our nation’s capacity for humanity, self-improvement, and leadership. I am a citizen who has benefited from these extraordinary American capacities.

My resolution this new year is to do everything I can to confront my shame, and remind myself and others that we must do better. For all the structural problems with our gerrymandered districts and moneyed elections, we can still demand better behavior from our elected leaders. For all the incentives to consume and destroy, we can still live more selfless and sustainable lives. For all the ubiquitous examples of pettiness, cowardice, and short-term gratification in Congress and on Main Street, we can make ourselves examples of thoughtful, humane, and forward-looking lives. Leadership begins by looking in the mirror and demanding better of ourselves, each and every one of us.

Only in America could a Hindu-Jewish child of immigrants, like myself, internalize the central insight of the Puritans: We are all sinners. Salvation comes from turning sin into self-improvement. There is no better time to start than with our first acts of a new year.

 

This blog originally appeared at http://globalbrief.ca

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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