Reflections on the 4th of July and America: What a Country!

What an Activist Athlete’s Protest Tells Us About the Greatness of America

7/2/21 – – Ukrainian-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff, contrasting his life in the United States with the life he left in the Soviet Union, structures his stand-up routines around the phrase, “America: What a Country!” (He observes that in America, you can always find a party . . . in the Soviet Union, the party could always find you!)  

Celebrating this year’s 4th of July, I share Yakov’s positive amazement and respect for our country.

I’ve always been proud of America, but Yakov’s sentiment really struck me this year while reading the reactions of North Korean defector and human rights advocate Yeonmi Park to the protest by Team USA hammer thrower Gwen Berry at last weekend’s Olympic track and field trials. Berry earned a spot on our team that will compete later this month at the Olympic games in Tokyo, but turned her back on our flag during the playing of the national anthem.

Here’s how Park, describing the US as the “most tolerant“ country in the world, reacted:

“If she did the exact same thing at this very moment, if she was North Korean, not only herself will be executed, eight generations of her family can be sent to political prison camp and execution.”

Berry, who is black, told the Black News Channel, “I never said that I hated the country,” explaining that her actions expressed her discomfort with the Star-Spangled Banner. “If you know your history, you know the full song of the national anthem, the third paragraph speaks to slaves in America, our blood being slain, all over the floor.”

There have been calls for Berry to be cut from the team, but most Americans – even those who see Berry’s actions as unpatriotic at best – are defending her right to express her views, even as a member of the US Olympic Team. Park, who escaped slavery in communist North Korea and China, has an interesting point of view:

“There are people dying to come to America at this very moment . . . The fact that she’s complaining about oppression and systemic racism she does not understand that she’s so privileged.”

Yes, Yakov Smirnoff said it best: “America: What a country!”

Here you can turn away from our flag and still represent our country on the Olympic Team.

Here you have the freedom to criticize our government and not end up in jail.

Here you can ignore the relative levels of intolerance and oppression around the globe and still express your concerns about our shortcomings – even the lyrics of our national anthem.

So, as you enjoy the holiday weekend ahead, I hope you can find a party and take time to reflect on the wisdom of Yakov Smirnoff, who reminds us of how much is right about America.  

“America: What a country!”

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