Proud to be a contemporary American



As the long Independence Day holiday draws to a close, I feel compelled to share my own patriotic thoughts about our great nation. I am not being facetious. I have merely been inspired by the words of House Republican leader John Boehner.

Waxing nostalgic last week, Boehner said in an interview that Barack Obama and the Democrats "are snuffing out the America that I grew up in" - thereby suggesting, of course, that the America he knew as a child, the America he clearly pines for, was a far better America than the one that exists today. I beg to differ.

Boehner was born in 1949. In the America he grew up in, southern blacks got arrested or beaten if they tried to share a luncheonette counter with whites. If they tried to eat at Lester Maddox's restaurant in Atlanta, he brandished an axe handle and chased them into the street. Up in New York City, jazz great Miles Davis was beaten on the street with a blackjack by a city cop who saw him escorting a white woman to a taxicab. I am proud that America today is a place where such human rights abuses would be unthinkable.

In the America that Boehner grew up in, it was routine for factories to dump their pollutants into the nearest bodies of water. In the America that Boehner grew up in, the Cayahoga River in Cleveland literally caught fire (Time magazine, 1969: "Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows"). But thanks to the Clean Water Act, rivers and lakes are cleaner today; thanks to the Clean Air Act, and (among other things) the advent of unleaded gasoline, the air is cleaner today. Recycling, which barely existed in the America that Boehner grew up in, is settled policy today. I am proud that America is now a country where "green" consciousness is a given.

In the America that Boehner grew up in, it was commonplace to assail gay people as sick and twisted deviants. Millions of closeted citizens were essentially forced to maintain two identities in order to function in society. Military psychiatrists circulated memos asserting that gays were saddled with "psychopathic personality disorders," and Washington politicians believed that gays by definition were security risks who would deliver us to the communists; in the words of one '50s federal report, "One homosexual can pollute a government office." I am proud that America today is far more tolerant and rational.

In the America that Boehner grew up in, Jews were routinely barred from buying houses in desirable towns and suburbs (including some in the Philadelphia region), thanks to the prevalence of "restrictive covenants" - private agreements between homeowners prohibiting the sale of real estate to unwanted ethnic or religious groups. I am proud to live in a country today that no longer permits such practices.

In the America that Boehner grew up in, Madison Avenue routinely treated women like pond scum. In one popular magazine ad for Mr. Leggs slacks, a woman is depicted as a tiger skin rug (or, more precisely, a tiger skin with a woman's head); a guy in cool slacks is standing on the rug, toting a rifle. The ad copy reads: "Though she was a tiger lady, our hero didn't have to fire a shot to floor her. After one look at his Mr. Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her." An ad for the Pitney Bowes postage meter asked, "Is It Always Illegal to Kill A Woman?" An ad for Tiplaets (cigarettes with a plastic tip) depicted a handsome guy blowing his smoke into a pretty woman's face as she eyes him with adoration; the ad copy read, "Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere." I am proud to live in a country that no longer abides such infantile sexism.

In the America that Boehner grew up in, kids like Boehner routinely inhaled second-hand carcinogens while eating in restaurants. Women smoked while pregnant, heightening their risk of miscarriage. Camel sponsored a popular magazine ad which depicted a smiling white male authority figure in doctor's garb hoisting a cigarette; the ad copy declared, "According to repeated national surveys, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!" Roughly 45 percent of the adult population smoked back then; the percentage today is roughly 20, and the notion of breathing somebody else's smoke while eating a restaurant meal is virtually inconceivable. I am proud to live in an America that is far more enlightened about these health dangers than was the America that Boehner grew up in.

All told, I am proud that America has changed for the better in so many ways, that so much intolerance and ignorance has been "snuffed out" since the 1950s. I just wish the House Republican leader felt as patriotic as I do on this federal holiday.