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The willingness to give: in an age of pessimism, we need to be reminded that America is still largely free and good--and is still a shining city on a hill, a light to all nations.

It seems as if the world has been turned upside down, that modern societies are competing to see who can jettison thousands of years of civilization the quickest. Using evolutionary theory for comparison, it seems as if culture, in America and around the world, is in a race to the bottom that sees humans transmogrifying from rational, civil, faithful beings into animals eager to obey only the basest instincts.

For pessimists, the retail shopping rampage known as Black Friday--the day after Thanksgiving when most retailers try to lure shoppers to stores with special bargains--is a case in point. What really should be a day of fun and of joy in selecting gifts to give to friends and loved ones at Christmas has become a selfish free-for-all that reminds one more of a hungry pack of dogs fighting over a few scraps of food than of the civilized behavior of moral and rational beings.

Consider this most recent Black Friday. According to the New York Times, this year 15,000 eager shoppers lined up outside a shopping mall in Utah waiting for the doors to open at midnight. When they finally got in, it was a stampede. "Once inside," the Times reported, "shoppers ransacked stores, overturning piles of clothes as they looked for bargains. A retailer's dream--too many customers!--quickly turned into a nightmare, forcing store clerks to shut their doors, and only let people in after others left. The mall even briefly closed its outside doors to avoid a fire hazard. 'It's like a mosh pit,' said Lexie Dewegel, 19. 'You get pushed everywhere.'"

What to make of this? For years--decades even--conservative-minded Americans have opposed the secular, multicultural, relativist, left-wing attack on traditional values and have lamented the depredations that have been the result of that attack. That attack, and the inroads it has made, accounts for much dismay and pessimism, but it is compounded by the habits of the news media. "Bad news sells" is a truism that hardly needs elaboration--but the propensity for the papers and TV news to carry stories of crime, war, theft, and rapine necessarily reinforces the idea that the end of civilization is near.

The news is history in embryonic form, and the great historians Will and Ariel Durant remind us "that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting--because it is exceptional." So too does the news only report the exceptional, the strange, and the unusual. Only those events that rise above the background noise of normalcy receive notice. Evil is done in the world, and problems abound, but our perception as to the prevalence of evil and of cultural rot and decay is skewed out of proportion, magnified by our fascination with the morbid and the extreme.

Clearly there is evil, but the perception of a superabundance of evil obscures the truth about America: that there are millions upon millions of people living "normal" lives in which they, quite heroically, devote themselves to their families, work hard, give freely to charity, go to church or synagogue, and live at peace with their neighbors. And too, it obscures the uplifting fact that in America, unique among nations, the natural, God-given rights and dignities of all citizens are as of yet largely respected and protected. Consequently, the United States rose to become the most prosperous, energetic, and advanced nation, technologically and culturally, the world has ever seen.

Everyday Heroes

When committed fanatics attacked America on 9/11, they left behind carnage on a scale not witnessed in a post-World War II urban center. Thousands died and two of the world's tallest buildings, testaments both to American engineering genius and commercial might, lay broken in ruins on the streets of Manhattan. Yet among the indelible images of that day are those of the heroes, the individual New York policemen and firefighters chief among them, who rushed to the scene (and even up into the buildings shortly before their collapse) in a valiant effort to save as many people as possible. They knew it was probably going to be a one-way trip, and almost without a doubt, they feared for their own safety and worried about the loved ones they left behind at home. But they pressed on, to their deaths in many cases, grimly determined to do their best to save the victims of that horrible day because duty and honor demanded no less.

Cynics may question whether America still deserves to be called the "home of the brave," but the actions of the heroes of 9/11 stand as immortal testaments that courage abounds here.

The great martyrs of 9/11 proved that America is a nation of heroes, that they are all around us at all times, and that when they are needed they will appear.

Such is the story of Wisconsin State Patrol officer Les Boldt. July 19, 2004 was a picture-perfect summer day in Green Bay, Wisconsin, when Boldt got the word to be on the lookout for a woman who was suffering from depression and who, her family thought, might be prone to hurt herself. Boldt spotted the woman in her car and pursued her in a chase that reached more than 100 miles per hour. Finally, the woman stopped her car on the city's tall Leo Frigo bridge, got out, walked to the side of the bridge, and threw herself over the guardrail to certain death 200 feet below. But just as she disappeared over the side, as dramatically recorded on his squad car's video camera, officer Boldt lunged over the side of the bridge and caught the woman's arm, saving her from plunging to her death in the waters of the Fox River far below. He clung to her until help arrived, even as the distraught woman struggled to get away.

In an interview on CNN, Boldt, who is a hero, protested that he is just an ordinary guy: "There's a lot of other law enforcement officers and other people out there that do the same thing I do. I get it on tape, which you know then it gets in the limelight. So, it's--other people do the same type of things. It just doesn't always get into the limelight." Boldt was right: there are other people who do the work he does, and they too deserve recognition for their exemplary service. It just goes to prove that heroes are everywhere in America.

They are also of all ages. When enraged gunman Charles Carl Roberts took over the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania on October 2 and threatened to kill the 10 girls he held hostage, two girls offered their lives up first in the hope that the others might escape death as a result. According to the few who survived, the defenseless children bravely asked the gunman why he was attacking them. "They just asked him why he's doing this. He said he's angry with God," Amish dairy farmer Leroy Zook, the father of the school's teacher, recalled. When Roberts made it plain he meant to kill the children, 13-year-old hero Marian Fisher asked to be shot first. "Shoot me and leave the other ones loose," Marian bravely told the gunman. According to some accounts, Marian's younger sister, Barbie, asked the gunman to shoot her next. In the midst of the incredible carnage, the unspeakable evil unleashed by Roberts was overshadowed by the amazing, selfless courage of two innocent girls who, Christ-like, offered their lives to ransom those of others.

After the shootings, the stricken community amazed the world when they publicly forgave Roberts for stealing the precious lives of their children. Even as the survivors returned to the stricken schoolhouse immediately after the shootings, one grandfather counseled forgiveness. "As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was making a point, just saying to the family, 'We must not think evil of this man,'" Rev. Robert Schenck told CNN. And, in fact, the members of the Amish community did forgive the troubled Roberts, who killed himself after taking the lives of the children. "If you have Jesus in your heart and He has forgiven you ... [how] can you not forgive other people?" asked Rhita Rhoads, a midwife who had been present at the births of two of the slain girls.

A Giving Nation

Dramatic, life-threatening situations, thankfully, are rare, but Americans have other ways of demonstrating their heroism, day in and day out. It has been well known, for a long time, that Americans are the most generous people on Earth, in terms of giving their time and money to charitable causes. The charitable nature of most Americans is evident especially at Christmas, when volunteers for the Salvation Army can be seen across the country working to collect donations for the organization's famous Red Kettle campaign. In 2005, Americans gave a staggering $105 million to this campaign alone.

But this is just a drop in the bucket. In a recent story on the subject of charitable giving in America, the Christian Science Monitor reported some of the incredible facts about charity in America:

* Americans give a staggering $260 billion annually.

* Poorer Americans (specifically the working poor, who often earn less than people who rely on welfare) give more, as a percentage of their income, than the rich. According to Monitor: "Those making $20,000 or less a year give away more, as a share of their income, than do higher income groups."

* It's not just about monetary donations: volunteers give the equivalent of $150 billion of their time each year.

* Conservatives give more than liberals, according to Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks, author of the book Who Really Cares, and reiterated by John Stossel on a November 29 20/20 program "Cheap in America."

The last point is particularly telling. As conservatives know, freedom works. When people are free to dispose of their property as they see fit, unfettered by government interference, their ingenuity and hard work drives economic development and wealth creation. In a free environment much of this wealth is channeled to charitable causes, often by people with strong religious backgrounds. While big government has made serious inroads on the rights of property, Americans nevertheless continue to enjoy a substantial degree of economic freedom. And that's a big part of the reason why Americans are the most generous people in the world.

How generous are Americans in comparison to the rest of the world? According to Professor Brooks, individual Americans give seven times more to charity than do Germans and 14 times more than Italians. And this charity benefits the whole world. After the tsunami that devastated parts of Asia two years, ago individual Americans gave an impressive sum of money. According to journalist and commentator John Stossel, "The U.S. government pledged $900 million to tsunami relief. American individuals donated $2 billion--three times what government gave--in food, clothing, and cash. Private charities could barely keep up with the donations."

Making a Difference

Americans feel strongly about making a difference in their communities and in the nation as a whole, and charitable giving is one of the ways people work to make that difference. But it is not the only way individual Americans work to make the country a better place. Concerned Americans working together to stop dangerous trends or to fight inroads made by those who would overturn cherished and important traditions continue to have an impressive impact.

Consider Christmas. For years leftist organizations like the ACLU and others have worked to expunge the mention of Christmas from public venues. Their activities originally focused on Christmas displays located on government-owned property. Gradually, Christmas nativity displays that had been fixtures in public parks across the country began to disappear amid controversy, and Christmas trees in public places around the nation were renamed "holiday trees" or "peace trees" by left-wing bureaucrats.

The leftist efforts eventually began to have a spillover effect on the private sector and big retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, to name just two, removed the word "Christmas" from advertising and from in-store displays. This was done, supposedly, so as not to insult non-Christians, but little thought was given by these firms to the insult the action represented to the many Christians who still make up a majority in the country. Target even went so far as to ban the Salvation Army's Kettle campaign from its stores, ostensibly because the retail giant has a policy against solicitors on its properties and because it didn't want shoppers bothered by requests for donations.

The country would be in dire trouble indeed if this campaign against Christmas would have been allowed to succeed without meeting any resistance. But Americans have resisted and a number of those Grinches who tried to steal Christmas have been pushed back.

The city of Milwaukee, for instance, began referring to its Christmas tree as a "holiday tree" in 1995. This year, though, the tree is again called by its rightful name after efforts by Milwaukee aldermen Jim Bohl and Terry Witkowski resulted in having the name change approved by the city's common council. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Bohl said he knew some would consider the measure a symbolic gesture, but he said it was still important to many Milwaukeeans." For Bohl, the effort to get the tree recognized once again as a Christmas symbol had much to do with honesty in government. "If we don't have the fortitude to call the city's Christmas tree what it is, then what do we have the fortitude to address as far as city issues?" Bohl wondered.

Similar efforts to forestall the loss of Christian meaning from Christmas resulted in retailers Wal-Mart and Target reconsidering their hostile stance against using references to Christmas. In 2004, the National Clergy Council initiated a boycott of Target stores for that company's eviction of the Salvation Army from its premises. To date, bell ringers are still not welcome at Target, but perhaps shamed by the outrage expressed by millions and chagrined by lost revenue, the store has this year launched a rapprochement of sorts with the Salvation Army. On November 14, Target and the Salvation Army announced that the retailer would make a $1 million donation to the organization and participate in other activities aimed at helping the Salvation Army raise funds.

After a hiatus, Target is back to acknowledging Christmas in its stores as well. "Almost every spot except for one will be tagged with Merry Christmas this year," said Target spokeswoman Brie Heath. Meanwhile, at Wal-Mart, according to the Denver Rocky Mountain News, there will be a 60 percent increase in products referencing Christmas on their packaging, the stores will play Christmas carols, and the old "Holiday Shop" will be renamed the "Christmas Shop." Other retailers like Kohl's and Macy's will also be promoting Christmas. While none of this is indicative of any real reform in beliefs at the major retailers, the acknowledgement of Christmas at these stores does underscore the effect that good people can have when they work together to arrest otherwise discouraging developments.

Great and Good

There is an old adage, often attributed, erroneously it seems, to Alexis de Tocqueville that maintains: "America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great." That goodness is manifested in so many ways: in the American people themselves; in the founding ideals of the nation; and in the wise and judicious Constitution drafted by those great men, the Founding Fathers. Through those ideals, which recognize and teach that all people are created by God as equals in their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property, and through the Constitution that restrains the power of government from infringing on those rights, the American people have been left free to exercise their goodness.

The result has been miraculous. The United States has climbed to the pinnacle of achievement in all fields, including technology, industry, commerce, art, science, agriculture, philanthropy, higher education, and scholarship, remaining the envy and hope of the world. When World War II raged in Europe and Asia, subject peoples there looked to Americans for liberation. When communism captured half the world or more, the oppressed found hope in the idea that America still stood for freedom. It has ever been thus. In 1630, John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, observed in his famous shipboard sermon:
 For wee must Consider that wee shall
 be as a Citty upon a Hill the eies of
 all people are uppon us; soe that if
 wee shall deale falsely with our god
 in this worke wee have undertaken
 and soe cause him to withdrawe his
 present help from us, wee shall be
 made a story and a byword through
 the world.

As Winthrop knew it must be, America has ever been the light of goodness, and of liberty, shining out boldly in a world of darkness and tyranny. Though today the challenges are legion and the threats to the nation perhaps unprecedented in their scope and severity, America is still largely free and good. As long as that remains true, she cannot but remain anything other than great.
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Title Annotation:AMERICA
Author:Behreandt, Dennis
Publication:The New American
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Dec 25, 2006
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