Who has the best lights in town? Vote now for your favorite in our holiday lights contest.
Thursday, July 4, 2013
A reader contacted me recently who works with foreign students from across the globe. She was concerned that these immigrants, who were obviously excited by the economic opportunities in the U.S., thought very little of their new home otherwise. It seems that many had been fed a steady diet of only what was wrong with our country; a rehearsed litany of the crimes and injustices which are undeniable, but only part of our story.
Did I, she asked, have any columns she could give them that would present a more favorable view of America? Not to whitewash our deficiencies, but to show some of the overlooked positives alongside the negatives? I found a couple of old pieces that I thought she could use, but none really fit the bill. Truthfully, I’d never written anything specifically on why this is the greatest nation on Earth.
So for these new arrivals, and for you, here is my paean to America on her birthday.
Dear recent arrival: Welcome to the U.S. You came here, I assume, for the educational and economic opportunities of the world’s financial engine, but you ought to realize that you also came to a place that is unique and uniquely endowed with advantages. It’s a nation with an incomparable history and a character worth appreciating. Some don’t think it’s so, and it seems you’ve already heard from them. But you ought to hear my side of the story as well.
I’m a historian, so I always look to the past. Our nation was founded almost a quarter of a millennium ago on some pretty revolutionary principles. They assert that rights are self-evident and derived from God, not some mere government. Hence they are unalienable. These rights — freedoms of speech, faith, assembly, property — are guaranteed not because the government chooses to respect them, but because the government has no intrinsic authority to deny them.
Then, because tyranny is always an enemy to these individual rights, we believe that government should be limited and power diffused to keep oppression at bay. Further, we argue that power flows from the people upward, not from the ruler downward. Taken together, this American political culture is pretty potent stuff, able to remake a world.
These principles (admittedly borrowed from English common law traditions, but adapted by an American society uniquely devoid of hereditary nobility) became powerful stimulants for a free people to do amazing things. So we did them.
We invented, or at least perfected, baseball, the airplane, barbecue, Windows, the domestic water heater and jazz. We lead the world in Olympic gold medals and Nobel prizes and lifesaving medical technologies. Our average standard of living sets the standard for the planet. Our nation, in short, works. And works wonders.
Have we been perfect? Of course not. Look back (or look around), and you’ll find injustice, greed, racism, crime, corruption, government trying to overstep its appointed limits. We’re a population of people, after all, and people can be scoundrels — all the more reason to limit government, incidentally. But if you dwell solely on these offenses (ignoring remarkable improvement we’ve seen in these areas in recent decades), you miss so much more. An immigrant coming here in 1913 may have lived in squalor, worked in drudgery and faced discrimination. But a century later, his descendants are probably in the middle — maybe upper — class.
And he and his neighbors became Americans. This culture, so derided by snooty intellectuals, absorbed him into the great “melting pot” and became better for it.
Had I space, I could also wax poetic about America’s military risking precious lives not to conquer but to bring freedom to the oppressed.
When our Constitution was established in 1787, Britain and France were ruled by powerful kings. Much of the rest of Europe was controlled by a holy Roman emperor; most of South America by the crown of Spain. An emperor ruled China, a shogun Japan, an Ottoman sultan much of the Islamic world. But a group of upstart, backwoods squirrel chasers proclaimed that they would be ruled only by We the People. Two centuries later, the kings, emperors, shoguns and sultans are all gone (or powerless), but We the People still are sovereign here. And the ideas of limited government, the rule of law, unalienable rights have spread to many other places. Freedom, historically, is rare. But the United States has helped make it the rule over much of the Earth’s surface.
This is why I love this nation. Join me.
Long, a Roanoke Times columnist, is director of the Salem Museum.
Weather JournalMix on Sat AM; coming blog changes