My recent book club gathering, moving along at its usual witty pace, turned suddenly combative after the telling of a simple tale. As it happened, that evening all the white American and white European members of the club were absent, leaving a medley of Indians, Nigerians, and other African nationalities. I was the only US citizen present. We had a mix of new and veteran members. One of the veterans was recounting the story of a previous author and guest of the book club. The author had written about his struggle to find a kidney donor after his first transplant failed. In desperate need, he turned to his colleagues for help and received it. A fellow journalist was a match and she volunteered to donate her kidney to save his life. The added twist – he is black, she is white.
Instantly the room burst into furious incredulity – Well obviously someone has the facts wrong. It can’t be! Was she paid handsomely? Was there corruption or persuasion that we didn’t know about? An illicit affair, surely? A hidden love child? This would never happen in Nigeria/India/Insert Country of Choice!
We who had met both journalists insisted that nothing nefarious was afoot. No, she volunteered, of her own free will, without compensation. And they definitely were not having an affair. We’d never seen two people with less chemistry. The idea of an affair between them was actually uncomfortable even to imagine. The group grew louder still, until I realized that I had the answer that would silence the mob.
If not sexual or familial love, what kind of love leads a white woman to risk her life to save a black man?
“White People!” I shouted. Silence. Pause. Eureka! Of course only a white, American woman would have the absurd idea of undergoing major surgery for a colleague, no matter the sincere claim to lasting friendship. Oh the land of charity and oneness, and the land of naivety and schmaltz, some surely thought. But schmaltz alone does not compel someone to go through weeks of tests, waiting, surgery, and painful, slow recovery. There was something more to this white American kindness. If not sexual or familial love, what kind of love leads a white woman to risk her life to save a black man? I think it is love of country.
Country First – this is not a nod to any political persuasion, though John McCain did use the phrase as a campaign slogan. Country First speaks directly to the gracious sacrificing of a woman’s kidney, and to it’s darker opposite. Country First is also the reason for war and state-sanctioned aggression. But Country First is intertwined with the failed state of the American family.
Family Second – The American family, such as it is, is a thing of shock and awe for most immigrants, especially those arriving from poorer, warmer, non-Western corners of the Earth. The repetitive chorus of dastardly deeds recounted at immigrant dinner tables begins with, “Today a lady passed away and in her will she left everything to her dog! This after a lifetime of cleaning up the dog’s poop. And nothing was left to her three children! Bloody Americans. What kind of country is this?”
The American soul is solitary, not continually burdened by the heavy weight of family loyalty and duty to one’s kin.
Stories involving love of dog over child are commonplace, and then peppered with statistics about divorce rates, teen pregnancy and drug usage, kicking children out at 18, then later asking them to pay rent to live at home, and the alarming acceptance of nursing homes as a place to dump off elders to die isolated deaths under the unforgiving din of fluorescent lighting.
While much of the above is said with an excess of hyperbolic fury, there are crunchy granules of truth amidst the exaggeration. American independence has cost her families dearly. Raised in a sprawling Indian clan, I can never wrap my mind around the quiet of most homes and the need to call ahead before visiting. Nursing homes are not a place to die with dignity. The ability to turn one’s back on those who gave life and one’s progeny is definitely a sign of Family Second. The American soul is solitary, not continually burdened by the heavy weight of family loyalty and duty to one’s kin. Of course the US is filled with loving parents, grateful children, cared-for elders and daily sacrifice in order to honor the bonds of family life. The evidence of it’s existence is not in question, but rather how such bonds fare in the hierarchy of American ideals. And here is where Country wins.
America is an idea. Furthermore, her citizens are bonded by ideas, not as a race or people. Everything about this country centers around the desire to participate in the noblest of experiments – declaring the dangerously independent truth that all men are created equal. From this truth, all the other experiments are funded. Such an idea, even while inked by the blood of slaves, expands the possibility for brotherhood to each and every citizen. But the idea of equality also begins to dismember the insular ties of clan membership. When all men are equal, and are allowed equal share in the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness (and property), the need for a family unit is diminished.
In most of the world, family is a unit of such sacred composition that civic duty fails to inspire the love that burns bright in American hearts.
If we think upon other nations, whether India or Italy or any in between, such abstract bonds superseding family and religious loyalty are truly unimaginable. Italy has had over 50 governments since WW II, most lasting less than one year. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh security guards because she violated the sanctity of their holiest shrine – The Golden Temple of Amritsar. And yet these two countries have family ties that function so strongly that they are similar to governments. Elders are cared for through a joint family system as a form of social security and pension planning. If a doctor is in the family, her living room is the free clinic for an entire block. Children are raised by La Mamma, yes, but also by la nonna, and anyone else in the village who feels like having a say that day. Indian neighbors routinely yell at and slap and feed all children around them. Some of this behavior would land them in jail in America.
Ideas are guiding forces, even when not called up to serve as the thought of the moment.
In most of the world, family is a unit of such sacred composition that civic duty fails to inspire the love that burns bright in American hearts. Country First would be an insult, partly because leaders around the world inspire little desire for emulation. But also because, long before the Westphalian system of nation-states, people gathered around to protect and govern their own, not in service to an idea, but to blood. Yes, much of the world is now committed to constitutions and treaties and charters and currencies, but blood is still thicker than the ink used to write all those legal documents.
And blood brings us back to our kidney donor. I have no doubt that she was surrounded by her family moments before the surgery and I seriously doubt she was reciting the Declaration of Independence during those moments to explain her decision. But ideas are guiding forces, even when not called up to serve as the thought of the moment. Whatever the other reasons she surely had, whether religious devotion, lifelong friendship, or even a pinch of unconscious white guilt over race, she decisively put Country First that day.
Before we sing our final anthem to blood and ideas, let’s turn to a scene that sheds light on what I’ve left opaque. The final minutes of The Godfather II. It’s the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941, and Don Corleone’s birthday. The eldest brother Sonny declares that the 30,000 men who enlisted that day are saps, ‘because they risk their lives for strangers.’ Michael Corleone counters, ‘That’s Pop talking… They risk their lives for their country.’ In that moment he says it all – strangers have become one. They have become Country and worth the shedding of blood, even against the wishes of one’s own blood. He then drops one last bomb on the family by quitting college and enlisting in the Marines.
This too is the idea that drives America. For without risk, can there truly be love of country? And without risk, can there be a Godfather and a family that he loves and protects? I leave you all with two sides to one question:
Is there greater nobility in donating a kidney to a friend or stranger than a family member? Or is the nobility dependent on an idea outside of the sacrifice itself?
In the three part Godfather series, Michael Corleone sheds blood in the name of his father and his country. Is there nobility in either act, or neither, or just one?
However you respond, I hope that we can all agree that love without risk is not love at all.