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Stranger in a Strange Land

America the Ugly

There were two icons on the near wall of the bedroom my brother and I shared. One was a plaque showing Jesus knocking at the door; the other was a photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Both were dear to me as a boy. Years later, when I first heard Bach's cello suites, I thought of that picture of Jesus: the dark browns of the painting and the almost unbearably beautiful notes seemed to blend, expressing Jesus' sadness and love. MacArthur I admired for his heroism, his patriotism, and his stubborn integrity. "Admired" isn't the right word, though, insofar as it suggests a disinterested connoisseurship. I was a boy without a father (except the cold one whose weekly, then monthly visits I dreaded). MacArthur was one image of the ideal Man, the father I would have wished for. He was, I knew, a devout Christian. I loved the flinty set of his jaw; maybe also a certain cockiness in his look. The way I heard the story, he had been betrayed by President Truman, a perfidious Democrat, who prevented MacArthur from winning the Korean War.

That was a theme that came up often in the informal history lessons I received from my mother and grandmother. I was taught to love America—a lesson that came easily, and that I haven't forgotten—but to recognize that those in power were often not to be trusted. (Consider the arch-fiend Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had done his best to bring the nation to ruin!) Received opinion in general, in fact, whether in textbooks or in newspapers or on the tv news, was to be regarded with a healthy skepticism. And there were many old hymns, subversive of any conflation of God and country: "This world is not my home."

Those early lessons were good. They prepared me to acknowledge the complexity and tragedy of American history, past and present, in ways that sometimes conflicted with the verities of my childhood. (MacArthur, for instance, wasn't an unambiguous hero, and I can recover my boyish sense of him—embarrassing now—only ...

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