One week ago, on July 4th, I posted the message below as my Facebook status. With all the things that have happened in this tumultuous, tragic week, it seems even more relevant, date notwithstanding.
I tell my students that the United States was an idealistic project created by flawed and imperfect people, and that American history is the story of subsequent generations building on that project, trying through movements from the ground up to refine and perfect that original vision. RFK said that, while others see the world as it is and ask why, he saw the world as it never was and asked why not; or, as the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” put it: “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.” To me, that is the essence of true patriotism… to love your country and work to make it better. There are failures along the way, and you don’t have to be a professional historian to call them to mind; America’s is not a triumphalist story in which every bend in the road leads inexorably to progress and perfection (although many students come to my class trained by society to say that very thing, in their own words, in the concluding paragraph of every essay.) MLK said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice… I believe that, but oh how long the bending.
The ideals of the United States of America were born in struggle, perpetuated in struggle, and are refined in struggle. But I believe in those ideals, and I believe in the value of the struggle. Like RFK, I believe in those ideals as they should be, with full recognition that they have not always been expressed with the purity they could have been, should have been. Our challenge is to never forget our history- to rise above the low points, to strive to emulate the high points –and to do our part to continue the project. This is what motivated Lincoln, the realization that the “noble experiment” of the Revolutionary generation rested in the hands of his generation to either uphold or destroy.
And what is that experiment? A nation founded, not on shared ethnicity or religion or tribe, but on a philosophy, the shared ideal of liberty. A nation such as that envisioned by Thomas Paine, that would provide inspiration for those living under oppression. As Paine described it, the existence of such a nation would prove to the downtrodden of the world that they, too, could effect change, and if they could not triumph in their corner of the globe, why, they could come to ours and join in our great venture. It turns out that much of that was easier said than done, and 240 years later we are still wrestling with it. But it is the ideal that sparked our nation, and one that I regard as sacred.
In the 21st century there are many countries around the world that can boast of a fine legacy of freedom, and their legacies, too, have usually been hard-fought and not cheaply won. Their citizens are proud, and justifiably so. Many of them surpass the United States in various categories, and there are always circumstances in which, by comparison, they have the moral high ground. We cannot, and should not, antagonize the world by constantly proclaiming our self-professed superiority. But nonetheless, there is no place quite like the U.S. And we did, 240 years ago, embark on something new that others were inspired to achieve as well.
If we as Americans truly love our country, if we truly believe in the revolutionary spirit, and in the Constitution, we will refuse to passively descend into tribalism and oligarchy. We will reflect that generation’s vision of liberty and inclusion, and work to expand it in ways that their eighteenth century minds could not even have imagined. Let us be yoked to their dreams without being yoked to their prejudices. Let’s love our country, and keep working hard throughout our years to “mend her every flaw.”
Happy Independence Day.