American Exceptionalism

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American Exceptionalism

by. W. Timothy Sutton

For the past year and a half the headlines have been full of promises to make America great again. There have been three responses to this. The first is a full throated endorsement of the need to make America great again. The second is to claim that America was never great in the first place. The third is to say that America was not only great before but still is. The first is the claim of the Republican nominee for president and his acolytes, the second is position of hard core leftists, and the third the position of a great number of people in the middle.

Of course, four and eight years ago the dynamic was different. It was the great number of people in the middle who said we needed to make America great again. Hard core leftists were still claiming that America was never great while the right was proclaiming the greatness of the past and present of the nation. President Obama was of course elected on a platform of hope and change. Four years ago a program started airing on HBO called the Newsroom. The explicit premise of the show presented by the opening monologue in the premiere episode embedded at the top of this post was that America was not the greatest country in the world anymore. And the thing is, they are all right.

America is not the power it was in the years after World War Two or even the booming ‘90s. The 1950’s and 1990’s presented unique features of world politics that will not be repeated. In the ‘50’s the rest of the world had been destroyed by the war. London, Tokyo, and much of continental Europe lay in ruins. The Soviets had overrun Eastern Europe and threatened the west. Mao had overrun China again taking it into isolation. America was the only game in town for the non-communist allies. The full power of American manufacturing had been deployed in making P-51s and could be converted into making Chevrolets. American domestic policy making was at the height of the liberal consensus. Even with the threat of the red menace optimism was warranted and the greatest economic progress in the history of the world was taking place. Of course this wasn’t true for everyone. Obviously, black Americans were not enjoying the same prosperity or opportunity as whites. They were cheated out of government programs designed to exclude them like social security and the GI Bill. They were segregated and red lined in an apartheid system that stretched across the land and not just the south. And the thing is, America was also not great for scores of millions of white people in this time. They were poor, starving, homeless, jobless, etcetera people of all races at the time. There has been some sort of national amnesia where everyone who lived in this time period lived next door to Ward Cleaver. So the truth is obviously more complicated than the rhetoric.

There is some talk about the ‘90s and the greatness of the country then. After all, many of the people espousing the view that we need to make America great again were not even alive in the ‘50s. Many came of age in the ‘90s era of prosperity.  Of course for gays and blacks in America the ‘90s were not that great. And there was of course still a lack of prosperity for whole swaths of the nation. But the Cold War was over. We won. We were again the biggest, baddest nation on the planet and anything was possible.  Then an impeachment, a divisive election, and 9/11 happened. The country has been in a funk since then. The aura of invincibility is gone. Forever now. That is really what people are talking about when they say we need to make America great again. We need to restore that aura of invincibility. That aura of righteousness. It may have been fake. Mass produced on a Hollywood soundstage just like the depictions of the American west. But people believed it and that made it real.

There is a somewhat valid argument that America was never great. Slavery and Jim Crow being the easy start to it. How can a nation based on the premise that all men are created equal allow some people to be chattel? Hell, how can a nation based on the premise that all men are created equal treat the women of the country as afterthoughts. How could it allow child labor? How could it slaughter millions of American Indians? How could it launch wars of expansion in Florida, Mexico, & the Caribbean? A nation whose very first amendment to its Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and the press within ten years of that amendment passing created laws outlawing certain kinds of speech. A nation that, when faced with an international adversary put all of the people in the country that looked like that adversary in camps and when challenged had its highest court uphold such action? Are these the actions of a great nation? Clearly not. But, the principles of the nation are great even if every moment was not. The ideals to strive for are worth fighting and dying for. King called the Constitution and Declaration of Independence a promissory note. A promise that all men, black and white, would be guaranteed the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are great ideals and ones that have only been accomplished a few times in our nation’s history. But it is the struggle for the ideals that made this nation great.

There may have been only five days in the history of the nation that it was truly great. You do not need to be a historian to know what happened on those days simply by reference to the date. One of course was August 3, 1963. The day King so succinctly summarized why the nation was and could be great. One was January 1, 1863. A date alluded to by King in his speech on the Mall. It gave hope to millions of oppressed that they were now free. It had attempted to atone for the original sin of the nation and set the stage for the ideals of Reconstruction that would ultimately be wasted by a desire for continuing power and an intransigent court. The third day was July 20, 1969. That was the day the nation took a giant leap for mankind and restored, albeit briefly, a sense of optimism after a decade of tumult. The fourth day that the nation was truly great was June 6, 1944.  As a nation, we faced down fascism. We faced down genocide. We literally stormed beaches knowing full well that there was no guarantee of return, let alone victory. And it truly was a national effort. Millions of men and women worked at home to make that day possible. The hundreds of thousands that went into the void were just the most obvious contributors. The fifth day that our nation was truly great, and the only day in my lifetime that was, was September 12, 2001. The nation fully came together that day. There was no strife. No division. Just grief and determination. For the past fifteen years we have been losing that resolve and unity. Sometimes slowly and gradually, others in sharp drops.

Now, if our nation has only truly been great for five days since 1789 does that mean the far left is right when they say it was never great or not the greatest on Earth? Of course not. Most other nations have been just as intolerable but without even the unfulfilled ideals of greatness. The English in the Sudan, South Africa, & Indian subcontinent committed much greater atrocities than ever perpetuated by America. The French in Paris in 1870, and Algeria and South Asia consistently. The Belgians in the Congo. The Germans in Belgium in 1914 and of course the rest of Europe 25 years later. Russian/Soviet atrocities against Serfs, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and the rest. Mao starving millions. Turks slaughtering Armenians. The history of the human race, and particularly the modern human race, has been a history of slaughter. It has been a history of death and destruction with only periodic moments of advancement. But America has stood as an idea for more than two centuries. It has stood for the most part not for the advancement of one individual or family, but for its people. Even if it has not always lived up to the standards of the magnificent words of its founders, the standards have been there. Americans did not do things for the glory of the king, the Kaiser, or the führer. There was a sense of a larger purpose; that was what made America great.

Many of the great achievements of the nation only occurred by great sacrifice. Defeating the Nazis and Japanese obviously cost more than 200,000 American lives. Men died building the Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, and Empire State Building. Astronauts perished on the launchpad before Neil Armstrong could step foot on the moon. There was peril and risk at every step. We did these things as Kennedy said, not because they were easy but because they were hard. We have lost that vision, that unity of purpose, that determination to do the necessary hard things. We no longer dare to fly with the eagles because we are afraid we will get too close to the sun. We, as a nation, are complacent. And the thing is, Trump and his supporters are not willing to work to fix it. They, like a good many liberals, want it handed to them on a silver platter. They want results tomorrow. They are impatient.

The fact of the matter is, we cannot as a society do many of the things we did in the past. We have many more people to consider. We value individuals more. When Robert Moses was reshaping New York City, he displaced over five hundred thousand people. Bridges, tunnels, and roads were built but at what cost? The human cost was not a factor at all in these decisions. As a society we cannot do much of the building we could do in the past. The impacts are too great, our society too timid. We look and see the great buildings in China and the UAE but do not see the death and slavery that is helping this construction. We do not see the environmental impact and human toll of these edifices. The Earth is warming and the seas rising. We are connected as never before. We can instantly see images of those affected by our actions. They have a larger voice and we have taken much greater pains to listen. While we may not unilaterally and instantaneously be able to effect great change that does not mean that great change cannot be affected.

The entire genesis of this post happened at the Renaissance Festival. I was there and wanted a sword. Then I thought about it for a second. What the hell good is it going to do me to spend fifty dollars on a sword? I could give that money to charity and help someone. Halloween was the other day. Americans spend almost four billion dollars on Halloween. How much help for the homeless or our veterans or our homeless veterans could that buy? How much benefit to the country could occur if half of the multilevel marketing on Facebook was dedicated to collecting funds for infrastructure projects? What if instead of the presidential campaigns spending billions of dollars that money went to water pipes or metro trains? What if the time spend on Madden, Fifa, Skyrim, Candy Crush, or Pokemon Go was spent cleaning trash or building playgrounds? What if the money spent on lattes and brunches and birthday parties was directed to helping others and great endeavors.

While we cannot do as many things as before, that does not mean we cannot achieve greatness. We are still the most powerful nation on Earth. We still attract the greatest minds from the world. We still have the ability. We need a purpose. This is not an original thought. Hell, it’s the basis for Alan Moore’s Watchmen. But it does not to be reemphasized.

What the country needs is a mass mobilization. It needs leaders unafraid of telling hard truths. And the mobilization has to be voluntary. The people need to wake up to the abilities that they have as a collective. Forced participation, forced taxation will only lead to resentment. The secularization and liberation of cultural mores has led to additional, not necessarily selfishness, but isolation. Communities are further apart. People interact with their neighbors less. The movement to suburbs also allows for this isolation. Driving from the garage in your house to the garage at your office does not give much time for human interaction or the development of empathy. All of this must be reversed so that the country can reach its potential and fulfill its sacred obligation as set forth in our founding documents. It is only as a nationwide community engaged in singular purpose that we can achieve greatness and once that greatness is achieved we must move on to another goal.

We cannot allow ourselves to become complacent in our situations. Americans are among the most bored people on Earth. For the most part we no longer worry about where our food will come from. We no longer worry if we will be warm at night. The poorest citizens today would make the middle class of one hundred years ago look like paupers. We no longer travel searching for jobs. There are no Joad families moving from town to town looking for work. There must be a coordinated and not necessarily governmental effort to find a purpose. Whether that purpose is housing, health care, veterans, innocent civilians in Syria or the refugees thereof it needs to be done. I see many people on Facebook complaining about taking in refugees while our veterans are starving in the streets and I must ask, what the hell are you doing about it? We have become content to simply bitch about something or question why the government is not doing something. Instead of buying that sword I donated to my favorite housing charity today. You can donate your time to a worthwhile charity. I am making a promise today. My promise today is that I will attempt to fulfill the promise of this nation. I am going to organize others to fulfill the promise of the nation. It is all we can do. It is all we must do. If not me who? If not know when? We must lead. And we must lead constructively. We must fulfill our promise. It is only then that we will make America truly greater.America is great, but we can make it greater. We must always be trying to make it greater.

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