Happy birthday America: Ask not ‘What’s in it for me?’

I grew up in northern New England, going to St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School from Kindergarten through fifth grade. Despite the fact that he’d been dead for years, pictures of President John F. Kennedy graced every classroom. As a young, dynamic Boston Irish Catholic, Kennedy had captured the heart and soul of the majority of the working class Irish. It wasn’t uncommon to see his image on display in private homes as well. 

How often do you see Joe Biden’s picture (or any other recent president for that matter) on display in a private home in 2021? It was a different era. Perhaps people were more patriotic. Perhaps their love of country and understanding of the advantages provided by having hit nature’s lottery and being born in the United States was greater than it is now. Maybe it was just that Irish Catholics felt Kennedy was one of them, a martyr in a long history of Irish suffering. Either way John F. Kennedy was bigger than life for much of New England, even a decade after his assassination. 

Kennedy was widely considered a gifted orator. He was someone who could deliver a message and most Americans could relate and understand. Perhaps his best remembered line is “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was a message for the ages. It’s a message that seems to have been completely forgotten today. 

United States Olympic Hammer thrower Gwen Berry turned her back to the American flag as the national anthem was being played at the U.S. Olympic Trials last weekend. Let me reframe that for you. The national anthem of the country she seeks to represent in the Olympics was played while she stood on the podium, compliments of her third place finish in her event. Her reaction? Turn away. Intentionally and publicly demonstrate disrespect for the flag of her own country. Near the end of the song, she put a black T-shirt with the words “Activist Athlete” on her head.

Her comments after the incident revealed a person who clearly has no interest in Kennedy’s suggestion. Gwen Berry is all about Gwen Berry, not about her country. “They did it on purpose” she cried. “It felt like a set up. I was pissed to be honest. The anthem doesn’t speak for me. It never has.”

She was angry that the anthem of the nation she wants to represent was played. Pissed was her classy description. It’s all about her. The anthem doesn’t speak for her? Perhaps she doesn’t need to represent the country then. 

Ms. Berry is not the first representative of the United States to disrespect the flag and our nation of course. The United States women’s national soccer team appeared at World Cup events kneeling and protesting the very nation that lets them earn a couple hundred thousand dollars a year salary, plus health care and other benefits, plus millions in endorsement deals, all for playing a game. Appreciate that nation? No. They chose instead to use their global soapbox to badmouth America. 

Women haven’t cornered the market on hating America either. During the Colin Kaepernick-inspired nonsense in the NFL, most players on nearly every team decided to kneel or show some other sort of protest. None was more offensive and more poorly thought out than when the Jacksonville Jaguars, representing America and American football in London, England, decided to kneel for the American anthem but to stand for God Save the Queen. This from players in a league where the minimum salary is $610,000 per year and the average salary is somewhere north of $3 million. One can certainly understand how those players would feel oppressed and need to broadcast their unhappiness to all of Europe. 

Ask not what you can do for your country. What’s in it for me?

Much of this dissatisfaction came from the seeds sown by President Barack Obama. The former president used to love to talk about the challenge of being a guy with a funny name. That funny name didn’t stop him from becoming the most powerful person on the planet. Neither did the fact he was a minority, grew up in a single-parent home, and experimented regularly with drugs in his youth. Despite all that, the greatest country on earth gave him the best opportunity one can imagine. 

But ask not … because America is fundamentally and systemically racist, despite choosing Mr. Obama as its leader twice. 

Don’t try to tell Mr. Obama’s wife it’s the greatest country on earth either. Former first lady Michelle Obama, you may recall, made a point of saying she was never proud of this country until Barack was elected. Michelle Obama is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She worked for law firms, worked as the associate dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center. After spending eight years as first lady she and Barack sold their stories to a book publisher for more than $40 million. Yet somehow, she isn’t quite sure life is fair in the United States. 

Some prominent citizens of this great land have lost track of the opportunity it provides each of us lucky enough to be born here. None of us is owed wealth or fame or success. We are, however, provided the opportunity to pursue each of those things if we so desire. Much of the world knows no such opportunity. 

Those who complain about systemic racism should spend a year or two in South Africa. Those who whine about oppression in the United States should visit Iran (and I wish you well scheduling your return trip). Those who aren’t sure about our standard of living should visit China, Russia and, frankly, nearly any country on the planet.

Americans have it amazingly good. It isn’t a question of whether we can do better. Of course we can. We are not perfect. To the best of my knowledge no rational person has ever made that claim. Racists exist. Poverty exists. Holes in the health care system exist. Most importantly however, opportunity exists. 

As we reflect and celebrate our nation’s independence on July 4, Americans should recognize the opportunities, celebrate the victories and work together, as opposed to pointing fingers at each other, to solve those issues that challenge us. 

America is a great place. We the people make it that way. Don’t be Gwen Berry asking what is in it for me. Instead, recognize the national team we all are lucky enough to be part of and think of Kennedy’s words. 

What can you do for your country? The answer isn’t to tear it down. The answer is work together to build toward that ideal that the red white and blue has always stood for. 

Happy Birthday America. 

• Tim Constantine is a columnist for The Washington Times and hosts “The Capitol Hill Show” podcast every week from Washington, D.C.

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