AMERICA IS GREAT — BUT WHY?
by Jim Cleveland (www.jimclevelandauthor.com)
When a friend from Finland told me that America had never been a great country, I could have knee-jerked my reply. It certainly is. I know it. But then I began to question myself as to why my inherent truth is indeed true. It is assuredly not from the jagged and turbulent events of our history.
No one can doubt that the various tribes of the Indian nation lived here and claimed it for home. No one can argue that they have all been displaced and many subsist on government reservations today. They hold little wealth. Many thousands were slaughtered in the Indian Wars which stood in the way of our self-proclaimed ‘Manifest Destiny’ to take most of the continent for our own. Is this chapter in our history a reason to call ourselves great? I think not.
This proclaimed white destiny brushed aside Mexico and its vast land claims in the west. We simply invalidated them, challenged the Mexicans with force in the Texas territory and overwhelmed their ragged army. Does the fact that we established roots on the continent and eventually took it all by force and connected it with a national railroad make us a great nation? Given that vast numbers of poverty-ridden immigrants died building the railroad for rich people gives one pause in their admiration.
From the beginning, we grew up as quarreling brothers. In the South, slaves were imported, reproduced profusely and expanded the owners’ ‘property’ holdings. Great wealth came to the planters in that region from their lucrative cotton farming and the slaves that produced it for them. In the North, immigrants were pouring in and looking for jobs, finding too few and with subsistence pay. Workers had few if any rights in the workplace.
As the nation expanded, there were the visions of the western territories as slaveholding cotton land in the Southwest and an enormous space to bring in beef cattle to feed the people in the east. Kill off the free-roaming native buffalo and replace them with docile, fenced-in cattle, just meat on the hoof.
In the North, there was a great need for jobs, and the west looked like the land of opportunity. But would slave labor compete with a working man’s job? This all became a volatile political issue. We fought the civil war, underwent years of corrupt Southern reconstruction, a wave of white power ‘’redeemers” in the region, the battles over segregated schools, the sovereign rights of states and the enforcement of civil rights legislation and voting laws, lynchings in the South, race riots in the north, churches splitting apart into white-only factions, private church-supported white academies flocking to replace public school attendance across Dixie, hateful school integration bussing in the north, so many conflicts all through the years.
Our racial animosity problems have never ended; they have recently emerged strongest in decaying urban areas awash in drug dealers and the gangs that commercialize them, who have to get guns to protect themselves from an occupying force of police officers and peer rivals. Keeping these drugs illegal continues to enable the black market and instigate violence between the law and the outlaws it has created.
None of this conflict makes us a great nation. The drug war has been a massive black mark against us, an outrageous criminalization of a medicinal herb — a blatant violation of human rights. At the same time, pharmaceutical drugs kill many thousands of people, a serious problem that rarely engages the human mind.
Of course, a country that had no better sense than to go to war against itself has other blots as well. Women had to struggle hard to get the right to vote, and break out of the old- fashioned wife-domination male society that was fueled by liquor.
In response, and supported by women, there came an era of bible-thumping radical attacks on bars and the liquor business. So it was made illegal so that criminals could get better organized and networked in the country with a big new cash cow. It seeded a wave of enhanced corruption within the police, the courts and the government, all financed by illegal liquor profits.
Such amazing stupidity is hard to imagine in a country that is supposed to separate church and state. Why try to ban a convivial social drink that huge numbers of people want? Address the misuse, not the product itself. From where comes the audacity to think that authority can stamp out something with high market demand, and when the authorities most often appreciate the product and use it. Did the religionists and the women crusaders get prohibition done, or did corrupt Republican interests usefully assist their efforts in order to get the woman vote and establish a bootlegging empire?
Working people in America have also been obligated to fight for real or perceived rights — for a decent living wage and safe working conditions, a 40-hour week. As the civil war era faded, violent battles erupted across the north. Companies counter-attacked unionizing efforts with hired goons and militias, and many died.
Many have indeed died fighting for rights in the United States — blacks, women, factory workers. Some just die of violence because of their sexual orientation, even when they try not to display it. Intolerance is a hallmark of civilization, I suppose.
Perhaps we are considered great as a country because of our military power, our record of service in the world to promote freedom and democracy, as we say. I don’t believe the development of a superior fighting force designed to kill and destroy better than any other is a mark of greatness. It would be a great thing to promote and even instigate peace and love between all nations, all people, instead, bring community to the world, share all resources, and eliminate all war, which is senseless and destructive.
But when true enemies emerge, it also seems that a country can achieve greatness by mobilizing together and defeating that enemy. We do have a string of wars to investigate, including the aforementioned Mexican War and the Indian Wars which were essentially designed to take territory. This is the classic reason for war though the announced reason will likely be something else.
So our history is pocked with corruption and violence, racial and class animosities, and a wide open thoroughfare whereby special interests can buy the allegiance or political officeholders. The opportunity is completely open, and will stay that way since politicians will never vote to cut off their money supply.
But despite pervading corruption, which takes on many changing and ever-more subtle and nuanced faces for greed, the United States is still a great nation. All nations have their black marks and most of them are enormous. And much of our greatness derives from our own sins that we have overcome and tried to make right. Why are we great? What have we done to make us great?
✦ We abolished slavery and went through a devastating war to do it.
✦ We gave women the right to vote.
✦ We have given a lot of rights to blacks over the years and fought to eliminate segregation and bias.
✦ Social Security is excellent legislation that provides an economic floor of salvation for people.
✦ Worker rights, for safe working conditions, a living wage, a prescribed and not excessive work week.
✦ Indian rights came as part of the New Deal, wherein we encouraged these Native Americans to recover their heritage and become self-governing and economically sufficient with their own federal land allotments.
✦ Freedom of speech remains inviolate in the U.S. We doggedly support it, even in the toleration of vulgar pornography and hateful rhetoric. It has not broken down as it has in many countries when the governing body stamps it out to destroy their rivals. In Russia, Putin’s forces use a myriad of methods, from trumped-up charges to poison or shootings. Political rivals are dealt with one way or another, and all business interests that want to operate in the country must cut his regime a piece of the pie or face the consequences.
✦ Checks and balances between the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court has held together through many challenges and remains viable.
✦ Democracy remains an ideal and government officials are elected. Losers don’t go to war to sabotage the government, until recently. This has subsequently been exposed and is in ill repute.
✦ Environment issues have always had a place at the table and we appreciate clean water, air and earth and are concerned about deleterious climate change caused by pollution. These concerns haven’t been submerged from view here.
✦ Health care is a national concern and has led to medical assistance for the poor.
✦ American agricultural productivity is unparalleled. We have greatly increased yields with pesticides, plant breeding, machinery and improved practices.
✦ In military technology and power, we are unsurpassed in the world.
✦ Free education from grades 1–12 and kindergarten support. We have a school system and an outstanding array of universities.
✦ Science, engineering, computer technology, media products are all areas where we excel.
✦ Free media of all kinds are available for us to consider.
✦ We reluctantly got into World War I and contributed greatly to an allied victory.
✦ We reluctantly entered World War II and conducted successful invasions to take Italy, Europe and Germany.
✦ We have stood up to a belligerent and aggressive Soviet Union and survived its dissolution.
✦ We fulfilled Southeast Asia Treaty Organization mandates and defended South Korea against North Korea. We fought on behalf of South Viet Nam and sacrificed many lives in a vain effort to overcome communist factions who eventually unified the country.
✦ As a people, many of us are concerned about issues of justice, freedom, human rights, environment and politics. We remain a country that holds up high values and tries to live up to them in large measure.
So we are no doubt a great country despite all of our warts of history and modern life. We have plenty of scars. We may not be able to live up to our high values but it is important that we never take them down. We may not be what we aspire to be, but the aspirations are still ideals for which we strive.
It is counter-productive to wallow in our sins of the past, especially since we’ve worked hard to rectify them as best we can. We don’t have to be in a world where we are guilty as charged and feel bad about it. We can abide in a constant reality that has us strongly assert American ideals of justice and fair play and carry them like light into dark corners where we have failed before — and feel good about what we’re doing.
Those we have deemed savages and killed are the people who killed their rival tribes. Those who fell into slavery were from those people who committed atrocities of their own. We can’t load up the horrors of history onto anyone in particular.
Genocides have been part of the situation here for thousands of years. Should those without guilt cast the first stone? The stones, alas, have been a continuing scourge of so-called holy wars in which those with no guilt at all attack groups to which it has been assigned.
There has been enough sin to go around, often disguised as righteousness. It still is. But one good thing about history is that it’s in the past.
Sins become forgiven when we forgive them ourselves. We do that by making amends in our minds and hearts. And when we do, it will feel good — like loving service. When you give loving service to your fellows, using the talents with which you are blessed, you carry on the work of Jesus and emulate his supreme Empathy for humankind.