Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Was America always great? Was America ever great?

The topic seems to be a question much in the news lately, thanks to comments made both by New York Governor Cuomo and at the funeral of John McCain, of unhappy memory.*

*And by the way, since when did funerals become occasions of settling scores? I always thought the purpose of a funeral was to pray for the soul of the deceased, rather than to speak out against people you didn’t like or agree with. Silly me.

Let’s first start with the proposition that America was always great, and didn’t need to be made great again, and do our own little fact check. (Personal opinion as always, of course.) After some reflection, it would seem to this writer that the following statements can be accepted as more or less true:

America was always great, except when the early settlers passed laws repressing Catholics.

America was always great, except when government officials reneged on treaties signed with American Indian tribes.

America was always great, except when blacks were legally deemed to be property and owned as slaves in the South.

America was always great, except when its laborers were treated brutishly and inhumanely, exploited by businessmen and denied the dignity that is inherent in work.

America was always great, except when rights of free speech were taken away from opponents of World War I.

America was always great, except when half the population—females—were denied the right to vote, as well as other rights, in many states.

America was always great, except when blacks had to fight for common civil rights, from voting to home ownership, and Jews were frequently the target of discrimination.

America was always great, except when politicians sent young soldiers off to fight wars without giving them clear direction on what they were fighting for.

America was always great, except when it sanctioned the murder of unborn children in the womb, and the sick and elderly based on their quality of life.

America was always great, except when it persecutes those citizens who desire freedom to pursue their religious beliefs regarding fundamental precepts on things such as marriage and abortion, through a combination of legal oppression and social approbation.

I could go on, I suppose, but I think you get the point.

Let’s look at the opposite viewpoint, though, the idea that America was never great. How does that stand up? These statements would seem obvious:

America was never great, except when it fought overseas to free people from tyranny and oppression.

America was never great, except when it contributed billions of dollars in financial aid and massive numbers of volunteers to help nations stricken by natural disasters.

America was never great, except when it provided ordinary people with the means to improve their lives without being held prisoner of a class system.

America was never great, except when it served as the crucible of innovation for doctors, scientists, innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs who improved the quality of live for people around the world.

America was never great, except when it mounted efforts such as the Berlin Airlift to support people fighting for their freedom.

America was never great, except when it accomplished the unthinkable and landed men on the moon.

America was never great, except when it became the source of hope and inspiration, for people whose greatest dream was to come here (legally) and become, in every way, Americans.

Again, you get the point here.

From these lists, I think one can be allowed to draw a conclusion, or perhaps an observation, which might provide us with an answer to this question.

The greatness of America often is the result of intangibles—freedom to act, a spirit of creation—that in turn provides the means to accomplish great things. The lack of greatness, on the other hand, often manifests itself in specific acts, either sanctioned by the government (formally or informally) or as the result of what could be called evil in the hearts of its citizens.

The logical conclusion, therefore, is that America is mostly a great nation, but not always a good one; that its titanic accomplishments can be offset by the darkness in the hearts of its citizens; that we are torn between our better angels and the demons that seek to posses us. The eradication of disease is a great accomplishment; the promotion of eugenics is an evil one.

Greatness and goodness can both be lost. A nation that oppresses its citizens or doesn’t allow them to succeed is no longer great. A nation that legally sanctions immorality or pursues immoral ends is no longer good. We needn’t see this as unique; it’s a contradiction that exists in all nations, because it exists in all humans. It’s why, for all our kvetching, things never seem to change—because people never change. It’s why we can’t achieve perfection in this life; if we could, we would have had no need for a Savior.

There has been, perhaps, a tendency for Americans to conflate greatness with goodness, perhaps more often than people from other countries. They do have one thing in common, though, which is that the pinnacle for each is something unattainable: perfection. We can, and must, always strive for it, with the knowledge that we will never achieve it but every step in that direction is a good thing.

But make no mistake—there is a difference between goodness and greatness. And sometimes a lack of one can make for a lack of the other.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Remember: Think Before Commenting.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...