The title may be misleading, but I do not miss the “Great America” that Donald Trump promised in his political campaign motto “Make America Great Again.” I miss the truly great America I used to know and admired in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when I lived in the US.
I miss the great America that heartily pursued and generously embraced cultural and ethnic diversity. I miss the great America that was warmhearted and friendly to foreigners and immigrants. I miss the great America that actively played the role of a defender of freedom and a peacemaker in international conflicts. I miss the great America that was not divided by extreme political ideologies and enmities.
Regrettably, those good old days seem to be over now, and America seems to have lost some of her greatness these days. One example is the disturbing frequency of gun violence. In the past, gun violence was scarce in America, and thus people felt safe wherever they went and did not need to worry about being a victim of gun violence. Today, however, shooting sprees are so rampant in America that people jokingly say that you never know when and where you might be shot. Indeed, innocent bystanders can be shot to death at a supermarket, fast-food restaurant or in the streets of America.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 49,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2021 alone. Children are not safe either, as gun violence is rampant at schools, too. Many immigrants want to come to America for a better life or a better education for their children. But if the streets and schools are not safe from gun violence, why would they want to come to America? Recently, famed British heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne, who had long lived in Los Angeles, announced that he would return to the UK in order to escape the perennial possibility of being shot in the US.
The myth of the great America is unraveling in other areas, too. According to recent newspaper reports, an airline in America put a customer who called to change his flight schedule on hold for four hours, and the frustrated customer had to drive for two hours to the airport to straighten it out. By contrast, recently one of my Korean friends in Seoul called Korean Air in order to change her scheduled flight. She was connected immediately and was very much impressed by the courtesy and friendliness of the customer service representative.
In America these days, when you call a company, you customarily wait for a long time before you can finally talk to a customer service representative. Meanwhile, you would repeatedly hear the inhuman automated voice, “If you want to ... press one,” or “Currently, all representatives are busy, please stay on the line.” Thus, people switch to a speakerphone and do other things until they can speak to a customer service representative.
Lately, one of my American friends called his garbage collection company to request a replacement for the garbage bin that had a broken connection part to the lid. After enduring the usual torture of “If you want to ... press one,” for a long time, he was lucky to have a chance to speak to a customer service representative. She said that the company would replace the broken bin in about a week, so the broken bin must be placed in front of the house. The bin sat there for a week, but nothing happened.
He called the company again and succeeded in talking to a representative after a long period of being on hold. The customer service representative said that the company would take care of the matter the following Monday. Again, nothing happened on Monday. Thus, the broken bin has been standing in front of his house for two weeks and will probably have to keep standing there forever.
America was not like this in the past. A few decades ago, American society valued credibility, reliability and keeping promises. Of course, America is still a great country in many respects. Nevertheless, it seems to have lost its greatness in some spheres. The above incidents may be trivial things that only happen in some parts of the country.
Nevertheless, it could be a signal that something is declining in the “great” country. I miss the America before the attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. I miss the America before politicians told lies and accused others’ criticism of being “fake news.” I also miss the America before it became a bipolar society sharply divided by mutually antagonizing political ideologies.
People often compare America to ancient Rome. Edward Gibbon wrote that the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire was “internal decline and the gradual loss of the civic virtue of its citizens.” I hope and believe America is different from Rome and will remain and prosper as a great country for years to come.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.