Tuesday, October 25, 2016

America is already great

One of the genuinely bizarre aspects of this election cycle is the slogan that's central to the campaign of Donald J. Trump, emblazoned in plain script on a baseball cap:


I have spent much of the last year pondering what that slogan is intended to convey.  It implies that America was once great, but that it no longer is, and that some change needs to be made to make it great again.  I will admit to being deeply ambivalent about this slogan.

It would be easy to write off Mr. Trump's supporters as mostly white, mostly male dim bulbs whose principal lament is that they are living during a time of the ascendancy of the minority.  These people view prestige and prosperity as a zero-sum game; they believe that the body of straight American white men, of which I am one, must lose something in order for a black person, or a woman, or an immigrant, or a homosexual to gain something.  It's a better time today to be a person of color, or a woman, or gay, or transgender, than at virtually any other time in our history, so it must be a worse time to be a straight white man. 

And maybe there's something to that.  It's hard to tell someone who has very little that the little they have came as a result of some privilege they didn't realize existed.  Perhaps on some level, they recognize that competing without the advantage of the cultural weights placed on minorities might result in them losing some fights they now win.

It's no wonder they're angry.  And it's no wonder they would get behind someone who tickles their emotions in all the right ways.

In the opening scene of the Aaron Sorkin-led HBO series The Newsroom, Jeff Daniels, playing newsman Will McAvoy, is giving a panel seminar at a university, and he is asked what it is that makes America the greatest nation on earth.  After seeking three times to demur, the host pushes him for a "human answer."  McAvoy shocks the audience, then, by saying that it's not, then proceeds, in a classic Sorkin monologue, to explain why we used to be great and why, having lost so much of that, we're not.  And there is some justification for the position.

The truth is that we have never quite lived up to our promise.  Slavery is a deep and permanent stain, not only on our history, but on our Constitution, which enabled it and allowed its exploitation.  We have never done right by our First Nations peoples.  We have exploited immigrants from Ireland, from China, from Mexico.  Despite the almost unimaginable wealth of resources we have, millions of Americans live in crippling poverty.  We have oppressed women, sexual minorities, racial minorities, religious minorities.  We have burned up far more than our share of the world's energy reserves, and contributed massively to at least three global environmental crises in my lifetime:  global warming and climate change, the thinning of the ozone layer, and the pollution of the world's oceans and resulting damage to food fish stocks.  We have interfered in democratic governments around the world, often contrary to our own principles.  We have started wars and led coups d'etat.  We remain the only nation to use nuclear weapons in combat.

The debit side of our ledger is full of misdeeds, so full, in fact, that it would not be difficult to imagine an objective observer concluding that, on the whole, the American Experiment has been a disaster for the world.

And yet...I take a different view.

In spite of all of these terrible things, we are still great.

In fact, you might even say that we are great now because of all of these things, and because of what we have done to correct them.

After all, it is my belief that whether you are great or not depends not so much on whether you commit wrongs, but on what you do to right them.

This is as true for nations as it is for individuals. No one is perfect.  We all do things that we shouldn't.  We all do damage to others.  It's inescapable.  So there must be some other way to judge whether a person or a nation is great.  I choose to believe that greatness resides in the impulse to right wrongs.  And no one is better at that, as a nation, than we are.

I can remember being about 8 or 9 years old, and reading about a famine in Africa, in Ethiopia specifically, and seeing pictures of young children with bellies distended from malnutrition, and of impossibly thin people, quite literally starving to death.  There were famous appeals--Band Aid and USA for Africa, among others--centered on raising money to send food aid to Ethiopia.

At that time I was also becoming politically aware, not just in terms of politics in this country, but of the geopolitical events that shaped the 1980s.  We learned about glasnost and perestroika, Russian words meaning "openness" and "restructuring" that defined the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union, and that caused me to think about what, precisely, they were "restructuring."

The significance of these things in my own consciousness and self-image cannot be understated.  They were important to developing my concept of what it means to be an American, what our place is in the world, and why we do the things that we do.  Perhaps most importantly of all, I began to recognize what a stroke of luck it was for me to be born here.

I believe, despite all of our many faults, that this country is great, that it has been great since its founding, and that, all things considered, on balance, it is indeed not only the greatest nation on earth, but also the greatest nation that has ever existed.

Yet Trump and his followers disagree.

My first instinct, with confronted with personal conflict, is introspection.  Where is the error in my own thinking? I ask.  If Donald J. Trump, or any other political figure, or my next-door neighbor or closest friend implies rather strongly that America is not great, what are the factors that lead them to a vastly different conclusion than I have drawn?

I've watched them, the Trumpites, very carefully, to learn the answer.  And they have spoken their answer loudly and clearly.  They believe that America is not great, that it has lost its way, precisely because of all of the reasons why I believe this country is great.  They resent the broadening of civil rights.  They resent the equality of women, of racial minorities, of sexual minorities.  They hate marriage equality and they would dearly love to turn back the clock to the 1950s, or, sadly, the 1850s.

See, all those reasons that I cited above, about how we've fallen short of our promise from time to time--for the average Trump voter, those are good things.  When Trump says he wants to make America great again, he's talking about rolling back the progress we've made--depending on your perspective--over the last 50-150 years.

This is not the kind of "greatness" to which we should aspire.  We're better than that.

In short, to quote Mr. Trump's opponent, America is already great, and we are great because we are good.  We are great because we want to get better.  We want more people to live in freedom and to prosper.  We want to lend a hand to those in need.  We want to cure disease and end wars and protect the innocent and to stop the crimes of the guilty.  We know that our strength is only as good as what we do with it, and we know that we are stronger when we work together to do good things, rather than when we emphasize our divisions and work to exclude others from the American Dream.
We have come too far, fought too hard, shed too much blood and sweat, and suffered too much heartache to return to the "bad old days."  

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