America is under attack and is being marginalized by those whose history on human rights is a violation of human decency. “America is the Great Satan,” claim Muslim extremists, as they disingenuously justify the terrorist actions they perpetrate on the West in general and Christian churches in particular. They care not who they wantonly kill. From China last week came a statement issued by their official press agency, Xinhua: In a “befuddled” world, it is time to start considering the building of a “de-Americanized world;” so that “the international community could permanently stay away from the spillover of the intensifying domestic turmoil in the United States.”
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that pundits and op-eds declare America is in decline. Our President went to Cairo in 2009, where he welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood and apologized for America. Our foreign policy, if not in shambles is under duress. American exceptionalism is increasingly questioned by many, including Americans.
While man stopped being a hunter and became a gatherer about 9000 years ago, he killed more of his own in the last century than in any previous hundred year period. The intervening thousands of years saw villages and towns gradually take shape. Language and religious beliefs developed. Territories were staked out. Boundaries were drawn. Economic specialization and social stratification followed. Man was becoming “civilized.” Nevertheless, fighting was constant. They fought over everything, from competing chiefs to religion, from land and property to concepts of freedom and government. In that he is dependent upon others, man is social; but he is also territorial and nationalistic. He associates with specific groups, even when randomly assigned. Studies have shown that when school children are divided into two teams, they become very aggressive in defense of their own and antagonistic toward the other. Hate and love are two sides of the same coin, but hatred can last longer.
While armed insurrection has been absent in the United States for 150 years, we see some of this divisiveness and allegiance in the battles in Washington. Neither side seems capable of expressing empathy for, or understanding of the other. Amidst this infighting we sometimes forget who we are and that America has been a fortunate nation. Western expansion was an option for Americans, but not for Europeans. We fought a revolution to become free, to pray as we chose, speak as we saw fit and to govern ourselves. We are willing to pay taxes, but only with representation. A few decades after the Revolution, we fought a civil war, to maintain the union and to ensure that the concept of freedom was universally prescribed. Some of the latent animosities that led to that war are still with us. The rise of the Tea Party and the counter-cultural Occupy Wall Street represent two movements with little in common, other than what is most important – both are American.
Since the end of World War II, the western world has generally lived in peace. For Europe and Japan, the horrors, deaths and costs from the thirty-one years between 1914 and 1945 were so great that war was no longer an option. In securing that peace in 1945, the United States played a key role. We provided a large part of the armaments used by the Allies in the Second World War, and then we financed the reconstruction of Europe and Japan. We did it not only out of concern for the well-being of the millions of displaced people; we did it to rebuild their economies, so that they would become trading partners, which they have. The consequence has been a world grown richer and freer.
But the world is not safe today. As a nation of free men and women we are a threat to those who would enslave women and keep their subjects in ignorance. Freedom to pray is an anathema to Muslim zealots. And moderate Muslims seem incapable of subduing their more violent and intolerant brethren. Without our guidance the Middle East appears devolving into chaos. Perhaps the UN can assume the role the U.S. has played, but their history doesn’t provide much confidence. It seems that the world is marching blindly toward a conflagration, with Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and others lined up against the West and her democratic ways. Israel stands increasingly isolated. Africa is an area rich in natural resources, but also in violence – violence which stems from those same resources, religion, anti-colonialism, territory and tribalism. An absence of global leadership does not help the situation. North Korea is also a threat, but as a client-state of China they are on a tighter rein than rogue nations in Africa and the Middle East. Where is America when the world needs her?
As a singular – if not exceptional – nation, that has become unequaled in a military sense, and the world’s largest economy and richest nation, it is not surprising that we have been singled out for hatred. Freedom and financial success are an anathema to those who would keep their people enslaved. When we apologize for our successes, it is unsurprising we are treated with disdain. But what we should keep in mind and never forget is that the United States has generally been a force for good in the world. We have not been perfect. There is much in our past for which we should deservedly feel shame, but when one compares our history to that of any other nation, we stand alone.
A review in Monday’s Wall Street Journal of a family memoir by David Laskin, The Family, tells the story of five generations of a Russian Jewish family. It is heart-rending to read of those people, knowing that those who decided to stay in their homeland, or in Europe, were virtually all killed – exterminated in Hitler’s gas chambers; whereas those who emigrated to the United States survived and, in fact, thrived. Edward Kosner, the reviewer, ends his report: “The survival of the Jews has hinged in some sense on the establishment of the state of Israel. Yet it is the U.S. that has given the Jewish people the secure homeland they have sought since the destruction of the Temple, where Mr. Laskin’s ancestors may well have been inking in Torah passages in days lost to memory.”
That the United States has been a beacon for those yearning to be free is obvious to anyone who has the briefest knowledge of our country. It was also the subject of Bret Stephen’s op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. He discusses the Nobel prizes and in which countries the recipients live. Apart from Israel, which with 0.2% of the world’s population has received 20% of the awards, no one comes close to the United States. “The secret of America’s Nobel sauce isn’t hard to understand,” Mr. Stephen’s wrote: “an immigration culture that welcomed everyone from Ronald Coase (from the UK) to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (from India) to Martin Kaplus (from Nazi-era Austria) to Elizabeth Blackburn (from Australia).” Immigration is an issue that generates strong feelings on both sides. In my opinion, we should err on the side of being more generous in terms of offering asylum and in terms of encouraging those who want to come here, especially those who come here to attend our colleges and universities. It sounds hackneyed, but the United States was built by immigrants. More than anything else, their presence makes us different from and more welcoming than other nations. They provide energy to our workforce and intellectual ability to our accomplishments.
We should never stop learning and we should never stop trying to improve our condition and that of those around us. We should do so humbly and with civility. We should be modest as to our past achievements and view optimistically the future. But there is no need to apologize for our nation, especially to those who continue to violate human rights. At the same time, there is every reason to remain alert and prepared against those who would do us harm. And we should never forget that the world has been made far safer and much wealthier because of our presence. If the word “exceptional” is bothersome, we are at least “singular.” There is no other country like ours. I was mortified and disgusted in recently watching a segment on MSNBC, when a group of five or six people sat around discussing America’s exceptionalism. The best they could come up with, amidst their giggles, were French fries, fast food and music. There was no mention of our history, or of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. There was no mention of the immigrants we had welcomed, nor of the wars we had fought on behalf of others. There was no mention of the Marshall Plan, nor the Four Freedoms President Roosevelt immortalized in his address to Congress in early 1941. Instead, they appeared to hang their heads in shame for being Americans and to laugh at the silliness of those who care.
Patriotism, untethered, can morph into a dangerous form of nationalism. But a little patriotism is good. Throughout its history and on balance, America has been a force for good, something that should fill us with pride, not shame.
“The thought of the day” by Sydney Williams