In its prime, the Roman Empire spanned most of the known western world. Its perimeter encompassed countless races and ethnicities. Rome’s strength and solidity derived partly from her ability to assimilate these polyglot peoples, while impressing upon them the sense that — whether they liked it or not — they were integral parts of the whole.
Notwithstanding her greatness, Rome eventually declined and fell due to systemic rot from within. The jury’s still out on whether the American empire has passed its prime, but we do know that our modern colossus has historically harbored a threat to its longevity and health: pervasive bigotry.
Sure, we were hobbled from the start — before we even formed ourselves into a nation — by an agrarian economic model that necessitated the importation and enslavement of a particular race of people. That aside, one might hope that successive waves of immigration from all corners of the globe would create a societal amalgam similar to Rome’s.
America’s national character is based upon a philosophical premise. One of our cherished tenets is that we revere the rights of the individual over the prerogatives of the state. A side effect of this core principle is that, lacking universal linguistic, ethnic or religious bonds, we are more likely than citizens of many other nations to arrange ourselves into hyphenated groups.
At its best, this tendency can act as a wellspring of national vitality. Human nature being what it is, though, there’s always a downside. In any society, there will be alienated individuals or groups — those who, for one reason or another, are reduced to acquiring self-respect and dignity through the elevation of their own group over their neighbors. As if this primal urge isn’t motivation enough, there are interests in our country that cynically nurture and exploit it for political and financial gain.
As Lyndon Johnson said in 1960, “If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.”
If we feel at times that intolerance in all its forms will remain America’s sad harvest for generations to come, that concern should spur us to continue the fight to root it out from our midst. Though we may disagree with the methodology, one thing we do agree upon is that we all seek to continue perfecting our nation. It is this abiding desire that can unite us and ensure that America does not follow Rome on the path to oblivion.
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