USA * USA – We Could Have Been Greater
Let’s not minimize what the United States accomplished. We jettisoned feudalism, extended unprecedented freedoms to many, advanced representative government, produced a remarkably large middle class, gave greater scope to individual endeavor than had ever before prevailed, enshrined religious freedom and attracted millions of people from around the world. We expanded across a vast continent, created impressive levels of national wealth, and, notwithstanding a ghastly Civil War, enjoyed a remarkable level of stability, thanks to a political system able to respond to discontent and neutralize potentially destabilizing threats.
But let’s acknowledge that America could have been much better. Given its potential, it could have been really great. We possessed vast resources and an energetic, productive population. We could boast of our freedoms, individualism, social mobility and unending opportunities to succeed. Not bound to the past we seemed open to a future unlimited. We were a nation physically secure, unthreatened by neighbors, distant from potential rivals and enemies. Never had a major nation ever had it this good, so much in command of its own destiny, free to compose its own script?
But we’ve fallen well short of our potential. Why did that happen? Well the common man and the common woman in America, often creative, courageous, selfless, generous, community-minded and kindly, were like other human beings, also flawed creatures – selfish, envious, prejudiced, ignorant, aggressive, power hungry, parochial, fearful, petty, avaricious, self-absorbed and self-satisfied. Add to this catalog of human frailty and shortcoming two ineradicable crimes of which America was guilty – African slavery and genocide involving the indigenous population, the latter events seeming forgotten, the former a permanent scar whose enduring consequences cast long fearsome shadows over our history.
As the story of America unfolded decade by decade, the ideas we accepted, circumstances we faced, and the decisions reached and actions taken, had real world consequences, sometimes leading to social progress and overall advancement, other times narrowing our vision, closing off possibilities, offsetting our natural advantages and our potential as a people. To better understand the mixed picture that our past presents, consider the following foundational beliefs as they blended into and shaped the historical record.
• There was no place for Native Americans. They were primitive, savage, heathen, migratory, preternaturally cruel redskins. They were in the way – served no purpose.
• The United States was proclaimed a white man’s country. Regrettably, blacks were here but really didn’t belong and didn’t measure up. They might prove vengeful, were prone to violence, criminality and social disintegration. With over 150 years after slavery to prove themselves, gains had nevertheless been limited.
• As a God-fearing Christian (Protestant) nation we took religion seriously, which often compromised our commitment to the separation of church and state, placed non—Protestants in some jeopardy and thrust non-believers to the margins of society. Religious crusades (revivals) of one sort or another repeatedly convulsed society, sometimes in behalf of social progress or justice, or more commonly by fueling restrictive campaigns against Sabbath openings, saloons, alcohol, vice, pornography, sexuality, godless Communism, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, gay marriage, the teaching of evolution, bans on school prayer or advancing secularism. People of faith have consistently been a vocal and contentious part of the American conversation.
• We are, we’re proud to announce, a “nation of immigrants,” but we’ve generally been troubled by the immigrants themselves. Throughout our past they’ve been accused of keeping to themselves, forming criminal gangs, depressing wages, consuming scarce community resources, producing slums and “excessive” numbers of children.
• We must not waver in our support of capitalism, free enterprise and private property, for together they are responsible for America’s ascendancy. They cannot be placed in jeopardy. The pursuit of monetary gain sparks creativity; the profits from commercial enterprise produce national prosperity. The entrepreneur and capitalist businessman must be free to accumulate wealth and to enjoy the material benefits it confers. Significant impediments, viz. labor unions, government ownership, intrusive government regulation, excessive taxation, socialist ideology, unfair foreign competition, and threats to private property rights must be identified and strictly limited.
• A powerful central government can jeopardize all that’s been achieved in America. It can, if unchecked, “interfere” and undermine liberty, threaten “states’ rights” and local traditions of self-government. Moreover central planning and direct entry into the economy, can lead to wealth redistribution and increase the risk level and freedom of action of business enterprises. The Federal Government should provide national security, essential services, and underwrite economic growth, but extreme vigilance is necessary to prevent undue “meddling,” bureaucratic drag and anti-business policies.
• In a nation as wealthy as the United States, and abounding in opportunities, there should be few who are poor, but alas they are quite numerous, often extending from one generation into the next. Some surely are innocent victims of misfortune, but perhaps more are clearly deficient in a number of ways – undisciplined, unmotivated, immoral, lazy, ignorant, addicted, and without roots in community. Charity may be extended to them, but the state should only provide limited support, certainly not allow them to become comfortable, but rather to move them, if possible, into the workplace and toward self-sufficiency and self-respect.
• White male Anglo-Saxon Protestants have been dominant on the American scene from the beginning, and to this day they remain disproportionately influential and powerful. Everyone else has had to wait in line, accept a “subordinate” status, a lesser position and await acceptance. Male dominance (across the society) has placed a premium on manliness and mastery, kept women subordinate and subject to abuse and exploitation.
• Around 1900 the United States entered upon the world scene and by the middle of the century became the dominant power around the globe. Challenged at various times by Japan, Germany and Russia, it has fought wars (hot and cold) to defeat them. That led in time to a huge expansion of its military industrial complex; the construction of military bases around the world, enormous expenditures in support of interventions in one nation after another to halt communist expansion, protect allies, vital national interests and the overseas investments of American globe-spanning corporations. While self-interest motivates America’s world leadership, it has brought about a measure of global stability, and cultural dominance but also resentment.
In sum, we can say that never before had a nation enjoyed so many advantages as earlier outlined. And given these enviable conditions and indisputable achievements, the US must be rated a success. But despite such favorable circumstance, why didn’t it turn out better, its bounty broadly shared, its people less stratified, less troubled and fearful, more informed, more hopeful, the nation a welcome model for the world? Having now opened such a discussion should help us become more clear-eyed about our nation’s past, also better equipped to consider how we can yet realize its potential.