No one has greater respect for the work of the founding fathers and the Constitution than I do. That's why I’ve written books for children about them. That's why I speak at schools, libraries, bookstores and book fairs about the Constitution. That's why I'm planning to teach citizenship courses to immigrants studying for their citizenship exams. I think the founders created an extraordinarily balanced and intelligent system of government that reduces the possibility of despotism and provides maximum opportunities for self-government across a geographically and culturally diverse nation.
But whenever someone says “we live in the best country in the world,” I have to qualify it and say “I think we live in the best country in the world — for us.” Because the more I’ve traveled to different parts of the world, the more I’ve learned that there are many great cultures and countries and that there isn’t necessarily a “best.” Every country has different histories, different peoples, different cultures and religions, different ethnicities, and different traditions. The goal of government is, or should be, to be the best form of government to reflect and serve the interests of the people who live there.
When I had the privilege of representing the U.S. government in judicial improvement projects in Bosnia and Hercegovina and in Serbia, I learned that people in each area are as proud of their countries and their cultures as we are of ours. I also learned how off-putting our in-your-face “American exceptionalism” is to people of more mature cultures than ours.
One night at the home of a Bosnian judge in a small Serbian town outside of Sarajevo, she said to me:
Here’s the problem with you Americans. You think you know everything. You think the rest of us are ignorant peasants and you need to tell us what to do, as if you invented everything. But we’ve been around for a thousand years. We had great universities in our country, music, literature, art, science, while you were living in log cabins. You think you will last forever. So did we. So we just listen to you, take your money, smile, and then when you leave, we go back to doing it our way. Because we've been around a lot longer than you, and we'll probably still be here when you’re not.
We are a still a young country, a relative teen-ager compared to many other countries. And while we have established a model for self-government that other countries follow, and while we have an economy that many countries envy, and while we offer opportunities and freedoms that lead people to leave their homelands to come to ours, like most teenagers, we don’t have all the answers, or even most of them.
Other countries are ahead of us in areas of technology and innovation, and in educating their people, and in providing wider and safer health care, and in respecting and protecting the environment, and in race relations, and in preventing poverty and crime.
Like I say, I have great respect for the founding fathers. They fought the strongest empire in the world at the time, and won. They united 13 fractious independent states, and people who mistrusted and disliked each other into one country. They had great insight into human nature and built a government of checks and balances and separation of powers that has survived 230 years with only 27 amendments. But I don’t think we dishonor their work or their legacy by realizing that there are many great countries and cultures, and that we can learn as much from them as they can from us.
Syl Sobel is an attorney and the author of children's books on U.S. history and government, including "Presidential Elections & Other Cool Facts" and "The U.S. Constitution and You." His website is www.sylsobel.com.