Though it may be harder to see what’s good about America through today’s pervasive skepticism and entrenched political divisions, on this July 4th it’s still possible to perceive the transcendent creed by which we all abide: the shared patriotic values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
What other people engage in such a constant and impassioned national discourse on the nature of liberty and democracy, where all are equally entitled and enabled to say their piece without fear of governmental repercussion? Americans are addicted to self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-realization. Our threshold of resignation remains exceedingly low; we may say you can’t fight city hall, but we refuse to stop trying. Peace demonstrators, gun-rights activists, Bible thumpers, civil libertarians — all of them push causes with pride and purpose.
While freedom of expression sometimes engenders heated debate about largely symbolic controversies — like whether professional football players should have to stand for the national anthem or how burning the flag is both abhorrent and constitutionally-protected — such arguments also resonate the chords of our collective conscience. They cut through clichéd perceptions of American apathy and arrogance and go to the heart of our ethos.
We like to think, but cannot be certain, that fundamental American ideals will be able to survive the excesses of contemporary political correctness, such as the misguided (and ultimately failed) campaigns to whitewash history by removing monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners, to rename the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton because of Wilson’s segregationist views or, most recently, the shameful harassment of restaurant patrons because of their political affiliations with President Donald Trump. Such mindless crusades of intolerance should be vociferously disparaged.
For all the cynicism about our cultural misdeeds, though, American exceptionalism is not a myth. What makes us different is that both noisy naysayers and the more silent majority are at bottom compatriots. Much has been written about our national character — outgoing, competitive, sincere, straightforward. We are dreamers, many of whom have goals other than the accumulation of money and social status (college courses in business ethics are growing in popularity). Americans contribute more to charity than any other people in the world.
And no other country has ever been faced so directly with, and literally torn itself apart in accepting, the goal of racial and social parity. Part of the cause for this purpose — and much of the cure — is that we have the world’s largest immigrant population, people of all colors and all faiths from all over the globe, and the kind of social mobility that allows them quickly to become mainstream.
Through it all our sense of humor — raucous, slapstick, satirical and irreverent — is little different now than it was for Mark Twain over a century ago: “All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; all the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.”
Will Rogers put it this way: “That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.”
The constantly shifting political landscape does not change the fact that, whether you support or disdain Donald Trump, we’ve weathered similar storms before. Consider the crude and hot-tempered Andrew Jackson; or Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who caused the country to be dragged through divisive impeachment trials in 1868 and 1998; or Warren Harding, who engaged in well-documented extra-marital dalliances both before and after entering the Oval Office in 1921; or Richard Nixon, who in 1974 was forced to resign in disgrace.
It is easy to look at our weaknesses and failures and see nothing but vulgar impulses and growing patterns of turmoil and strife. Our streets are filled with violence and crime. We are in the midst of a drug-abuse epidemic. The environment is under assault. These ills are real and urgent, and cannot be ignored simply as signs of the times.
But each of the challenges can be addressed by what’s most right with America — our capacity for recognizing, and meeting head-on, what’s wrong. Truman saw a country “built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” Lincoln dreamed “of a place and time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.”
So enjoy the barbecues and fireworks and juleps, but remember the virtues endure upon which the nation was founded. And understand that America is not only a place of eternal paradox, but also of perpetual promise.
Kenneth Lasson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of Law at the University of Baltimore.