Ask not what your country can do for you

My sister and I first traveled to China in 1983. We went from an America of light, noise, vibrancy and life to a China of gray, quiet people, streets and buildings.

There were few stores and those that existed belonged to the government. There were no neon lights flashing to attract shoppers. Most people still wore Mao pajamas and caps. Everyone rode bikes except for the few military and government vehicles in lanes in the middle of the street. Buildings were bland, uninviting hulks.

We went back to China a little over ten years later and again landed in Beijing. If I hadn’t seen China in 1983 with my own eyes, I would never have believed that it could have been so transformed in such a short period of time.

There were cars everywhere. Bikes were crammed into a few small lanes on the sides of each street. Neon lights advertised consumer goods from clothing to household appliances. Restaurants vied for our business. Each day we could see our guide negotiating with some local entrepreneur to bring our business to his establishment. People wore bright clothes, horns honked in the street and the whole city seemed to have awakened from a long dream.

New life seemed to be invigorating a country that only ten years before had seemed moribund. People worked hard because their government had seen the value of letting people earn a reward for their hard work. Unlike communism, under which workers were paid whether they did anything or simply sat around and passed gas, in the new China ambition and hard work earned you more money and more prestige.  Most of the profit still went to the government that owned the business, but the person running it could keep all profits above a certain point. People accepted that they had to work hard to reach that point and they did.

America used to be like that but we seemed to have forgotten that we have to work hard to remain great.

There was a time when there was palpable excitement in the air in our country. I grew up in an America that believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was the greatest country on earth and that anything we set our mind to doing we could achieve. Put a man on the moon in a decade? Sure. No problem. And in our spare time we invented silly putty.

What seemed to get lost in translation from my parents’ generation to mine was that achieving America’s dream took hard work. It was not an entitlement. America’s promise was not that it owed us a damn thing. America’s promise was that if you worked hard and did your part for your country, your country would give you the chance to have a great life.

We still like to tout how extraordinary our country is and, by extension, we are. But America can only be as amazing as we make it. Right now, we’re not doing that real well. We fight two wars for which we neither want to be conscripted nor taxed. We want benefits but don’t want to pay for them. We want to be great because of who we are and not what we do or what we produce.

America comes with no guarantee that it will remain the most powerful nation on earth. That will happen only if we can shake our thinking up enough to once again say, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”, and mean it.

You want to know who really understands that concept in America right now? Gay men and women, that’s who. They love their country so much that they are willing to risk life and limb to protect it despite the fact that they must do so under cover of a lie. I don’t know about you, but that just blows me away.

Maybe we should all be trying a little harder to accept the sacrifices we need to make to keep America great. If we try hard enough, we can live up to the high standards set by gay military members who truly know what it means to ask what they can do for their country, no matter what their country does to them.