We Americans...Must Be Americans
As Memorial Day passes, pause with me to celebrate what We Americans have in common. There is a certain hypocrisy, if I may say so, enveloping us. You can see it in the most recent resuscitation of class warfare, adversarial race relations and visible efforts to turn Americans, one and all, against each other. I have had my fill of this hypocrisy.
Interestingly, until liberals of all stripes began chastising America for being insufficiently sensitive toward each other, most Americans felt that we were imperfect, but a generally positive, hopeful, historically idealistic and upwardly mobile society, a group of rather unrepentant dreamers who wanted to make good things happen. Oh yes, and we had an improving sense of perspective on each other, one in which differences of race, creed, age and station were secondary to being American, a defining quality.
That is, we were doing a reasonably good job -- imperfect and subject to individual cases of utter failure -- but a reasonably good job all the same, of giving each other the benefit of the doubt, forgiving errors in judgment, accepting that achievement was hard work, hard work produced results, and wealth, or what we used to call “getting ahead” or “improving our lot,” was a good thing.
It was a good thing for us, and for everyone. Indeed, we wished it upon each other and accepted with joy the notion that others, by working and making something of themselves, offered us ways to follow suit. Although we slipped, we collectively had the humility to see, in examples great and small, that “there by the Grace of God go I.”
We also had determination. We asked questions like, “If I can dream it, why not do it?” That is why, as a People -- not as a Government, but as a Sovereign People -- we grew stronger and faster than any Nation ever has in history. We invented more, trusted the individual, tried to limit our government, assumed personal risks, and gambled our lives for the sake of others more than any other People in world history. We did so without fear or self-consciousness. Our Constitution was, as we all know, the first of its kind in the world. Our Wright Brothers first to fly, Lindbergh first across the Atlantic, Americans first on the beaches of Normandy, and our footprints first and only on the Moon.
We Americans, and please remind the next generation, are not an accident. We Americans were -- and still are -- the combination of unswerving human intent, uncontainable heart, and inexplicable Providence. We have aspired to do more, reach higher, and have a greater positive impact as individuals and as a Nation -- than most of humanity, living and dead. True, we have not always succeeded, but we have never gone at a mission half-heartedly. By and large, we have been blessed in our quests. “Seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you,” that is what Saint Mathew says; we did and it has.
On race, as on class, we were neither ashamed of who we were nor ignorant of how we came to be, as one Nation. We knew the history of the Civil War, as well as the Revolutionary War, and every other war. We were believers in truth, versed in the country’s history, good and bad, the permutations and perambulations that brought us, again by an historical miracle, to this day -- to each day. That is how we got up, and that is how we went to sleep, feeling lucky to be Americans. We knew that America’s progress -- and leadership of Mankind from the US Constitution to innate mutual respect -- were special, understood the world over, and marveled at.
We liked that. Whether understood by others or not, our identity was dear to us. We appreciated what went before us, but also let go what was not useful to the soul, learned how to refocus on what was. We were a Nation of doers not stewers. That, too, was part of what made us Americans -- we had perspective, resilience and pluck.
To a one, we had little interest in highlighting things that pulled us apart, no pride in victimhood. Instead we used our different personal stories to educate each other, and as a basis for proving the veracity of something else, a miracle in history -- the chance for an individual to improve his lot from one generation to the next, what we called “The American Dream.” We knew that here alone, if nowhere else in the world, we were safe. We were all the same because we were all different. And we knew that, if we set our sails right, read the wind right, worked the tiller, the far horizon was ours. We had pride in this miraculous place, America.
Indeed, while we took strength from our individual stories, all different, some tortuous, we instinctively knew we had more in common than ever could separate us. Wound we had, but they were nursed together. Common wisdom -- and it was both wisdom and common -- was that America was proud of who She was; we were all proud of who we were. We were always aspiring, even if not yet a perfect “melting pot.”
Not long ago, you could ask Americans anywhere what they felt that phrase meant, and you would have heard something along the lines of hope, opportunity, respect for one another -- and not just for our good behavior and our skin colors, cultural legacies and different beliefs, but for our tolerance of each other’s gaffs and mistakes, lifetime disagreements and unchanging opinions. There was respect for the art of showing respect, for the ability to keep each other’s foibles in perspective, laughing at absurdities without defaulting to anger.
Americans were proud of how they listened, not just what they said. They were proud of showing patience with those who did not yet see the light, might never see it. They were proud of empathy for ignorance, proud of tolerance for opinions eclectic, idiotic, odd and strident. In other words, you would have recognized in the words of all Americans an understanding that societies are never -- ever -- politically correct, unless overtaken by fear, which trades freedom to speak for the false promise of perfect speech and perfect harmony.
That sort of harmony is the dark cloak of tyranny, an abuse of power so great that by suppressing individual opinions, it suppresses individuality. Nothing could be more un-American.
When honest and impassioned disagreements on issues from governance and economics to pride and prejudice, sexuality to personal faith, medical ethics to marriage are no longer germane in America’s public square, when the right to open disagreement is gone, freedom is in full retreat. Any society so scarred is destined for what Churchill said would be “a thousand years of darkness.” A society intolerant of the freedom to speak from the heart betrays the Founders, and all who follow. As an aside, it also does not prosper.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founders wrote us about this; just read their letters. Not long ago, all Americans knew this. That is why we sighed, bellowed, traded gritty arguments and tasteless jokes, always without taking much offense. We tolerated outlandish speech, correcting it, laughing at it, responding to it, educating by reference to it, but not outlawing it. Only “time, place and manner” limits were imposed, and those lightly, for example to bar “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater.”
We knew we were all different by degrees, by talents and shapes, race and means, character and motivations, strength and lineage, health and heritage -- but we were all individuals, bound by pride in America’s promise that we could be individuals.
That was not so long ago. Tolerance of error and recourse to the remedy, corrective speech, were part of America’s paradoxical and permanent -- so we thought -- magic. Without error, the chance for correction never comes -- and that correction, once made, never gets the chance to stick. Not long ago, we learned from, with, about and for each other, and ourselves, through unbridled public speech.
Rather than the hypocrisy now afoot and the resurgence of this “political correctness” or government coerced conformity of thought, we had a very different way of getting at the truth, which the Founders thought worth preserving. Deep differences of opinion were understood to elicit further thought, compelling logic and restorative understandings, to lubricate civic dialogue, to teach us patience and how to understand each other better.
Often, we disagreed about right and wrong, sometimes without resolution. But we were not afraid to be guided by our consciences and faiths. We had a sense of obligation to higher truths, as we saw them -- even if we saw them differently. We thought most people learned through candid conversation, not by government mandate. Even the most righteous government, if there was such a thing, could not replace this obligation, an obligation to listen and speak frankly while pursuing truth. Americans could genuinely “agree to disagree,” because we were at last all Americans.
Such simple understandings defined Americans, one and all. We learned through error and correction; the price of liberty was patience. Darned if it didn’t work, too! We saw humanity in each other, and corrected ourselves, no government needed. A free society nurtured humility, not judgment. Miracle of miracles, we tried to be better Americans, in this became better individuals. That was America. One American to another, we shared pride in the struggle, what De Tocqueville called Americans’ ability to embrace “the uncomfortable face to face” -- not always coming away friends, but always closer. As a Frenchman, he thought Americans exceptional. What about that? He thought we spoke with unvarnished candor, were sincere, purposeful and earnest in our associations, even when disagreeing. He wrote a book about it, actually two.
Back then, and even more recently, we expected ourselves to speak civilly to our detractors, to labor with honor to bring them around, or at least to take comfort in trying. We strived for patience and tried to model it for our kids, peers and personal enemies. No loss of face in tolerance of that kind, listening to those who disdained us or had widely divergent opinions; in this way -- perhaps counter-intuitively -- we all got stronger. We discovered how to take a pass on pointless anger and soul-destroying resentment. No one -- not a single American -- would have admired a political “leader” who pushed the opposite behavior.
And that brings us to today. Today, we find leaders not leading, often neither candid nor honest, not accountable or concerned about the hypocrisy they are modeling. What do I mean? I mean they are not seeking, as Ronald Reagan and many others did, to draw us to our moral height, to inspire us to be our best selves. They are not teaching honesty, good will, patience and cooperation from an open heart, not asking us to find and to follow our better angels. Instead, they are encouraging us to see one another as predatory or mean spirited. They are pointing out the failings and foibles in each other, and then making much of them. Such “leaders” are unworthy of their title or office. They emphasize, at fundraisers and press conferences, how different we are from each another, We Americans, all of us. They drive wedges -- or try -- between us. They pitch the idea of taking up swords or placards, of trying to stake claims to resentment and victimhood, to grabbing a share of mythical entitlements -- all against each other, at the expense of each other, at the expense of America’s past, at the expense of … ourselves. Here is the candid truth: This way is not America.
We hear these “leaders” calling us “a house divided,” urging us to see ourselves as more different than the same. But that, we know, is not true. We are different, but more the same as Americans than ever were different. And no American becomes happier by falling for this ploy, embracing resentment and anger. Not one. Happiness is not to be found in jealousy, envy, retribution and punishment, nor a push for more money and wider condemnation, more effigies, apologies and agonists. Nor are we being true to our legacy by accepting conformity and dependency on the State. None of this is America, American or good for the soul. Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan -- and even the Bible -- tell us that “A House Divided shall not stand.” It never has. We cannot let ours be divided by new promoters of division.
In this political season, listen to the radio, read papers or blogs. This is what you hear -- more than any time in decades, a bizarre and misplaced “call to arms” for economic and racial warfare, a blur of recrimination, a call for condemning some other group of Americans with righteous indignation, as if our history somehow permitted that. It does not. This is all for political effect, all an effort to sew dissention that makes us to forget who we really are and what we come from. This is an attempt to distract us from the Nation’s unity, as well as our higher calling and common values. This is a bold attempt to divide Americans from each other by placing them in static, make-believe economic castes, separating us publicly by cultural background, profession, educational level, race, age, geographies or biographies. Do not fall for this political tactic. We are still “one Nation under God,” and that is -- the truth once again -- how we got here.
After all, what can mutual recrimination, pointing of fingers and seeking of advantages at each other’s expense do for us? Nothing. It is a trick, a foil to inflame, a tactic as old as “divide and conquer.” This is no more than a new set of “promises” to be broken, false hope, the notion that we should fight for a mythical society that perfectly mirrors our self-image, and is perfectly intolerant of everything else, except what we are. That is a flawed and manipulated vision, a political slight-of-hand. That world is a string of paper dolls, viral duplicates in one’s own self-image, not America. We should not want to become that mythical place and we should condemn those who, with knowing hypocrisy, encourage us to lower ourselves to it. We are one, with all our warts and differences.
In the end, there is only this -- and we should be proud of it. We are imperfect, but we are Americans, and that trumps all this class cataloguing, race pitching, societal division nonsense. We are the world’s “land of opportunity.” It is time we took stock of the fact, and pride in it. Why do you think the world flocks to our shores? As Americans we have a right to say and do what we want. Accordingly, with hundreds of millions of Americans behind me in time, I am going to say something -- loud and clear. This sort of anti-American hypocrisy has no place in our common American culture. This kind of intentional sowing of division has no place in political office, the political lexicon or our political leadership. This was, is and will be a country built on hope and sacrifice, courage and idealism, generosity and -- yes, common patience.
Yep, we are pretty damn imperfect, one and all. But we are also Americans with heart, one and all. That binds most if not all wounds. That unity has more than once saved us and saved all the world. So, take a moment to feel the pride -- from whatever background or opinion set you hail. And do not forget it. Do not let the children forget it. Let’s get back to being Americans, We Americans, shall we. Together, we should begin again to celebrate our common ideals, as well as our natural differences, particularly on days like Memorial Day. Together, we can and should laugh, cry, love, live and die as proud, equally flawed and equally free … Americans. And that is good enough, at least for me.
Robert B. Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, lawyer who has written widely on constitutional, legislative and policy issues and former adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. He currently leads a consulting firm in Washington DC.