Having lived abroad for over a decade, served in the United States Air Force for more than 20 years, and traveled throughout the United States and much of the world during my sixty plus years of life, one thing has become clear to me more than anything else – our country is an amalgamation of cultures, both domestic and international. And it is that amalgamation that makes this country truly great.
I could find many examples of why this is true. Instead, I’ll focus on one that I once drove past daily. In the Tempelhof district of Berlin, Germany, near the central airport that was once a shining symbol of Nazi superiority, there is a truly gigantic round solid concrete structure that appears to have no apparent purpose. In fact, it was a test support pillar for a giant arch of triumph, three times the size of the one in Paris, that Hitler planned to build as part of the capital of his new thousand year Reich. Only seventy years later, that giant concrete monolith is still sinking slowly into the moist sandy soil there. Not surprisingly, the thousand year Reich sank just as inexorably. That is because Hitler’s gigantic monolithic structures were direct reflections of the monolithic and racially pure society he envisioned, both of whose foundations lacked resilience. The United States, on the other hand, is akin to a cable composed of many different strands, each of which lends not only its own strength to the cable but adds to its resilience as well. The Founders recognized this. They didn’t just believe in the greatness of America. They believed in the greatness of Americans first of all.
The United States was founded as and remains a country of many different faiths, beliefs, ideologies, and political alliances. We hear so much about how the United States is the great melting pot of the world. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We all carry our individual cultures within us as the core part of who we are, what we believe, and how we see the world. We fought a civil war because of those cultural differences. We have experienced religious and other strife over the years as well and continue to see it in the current political discourse. Anyone who is honest will admit that those differences still exist today. Yet the world continues to beat a path to our door as a place that offers opportunity and equality, even knowing they may undergo prejudice before finding some way to fit into our society. Still, I would propose that this is evidence for, and not against, the greatness of the United States.
I chafe at the term “American Exceptionalism,” words that somehow indicate we are inherently superior to any other nation in the world as a mere matter of fact. It trivializes over two centuries of the greatest and most difficult experiment in modern history and boils it down to a catch phrase. National greatness, as opposed to exceptionalism, isn’t defined in relation to anything external. It is defined in relation to our founding ideals, our charity towards others less fortunate, and our respect for our fellow citizens, regardless of their heritage or religion. In short, greatness is a measure of our societal integrity and evidenced by a bias toward inclusion versus exclusion.
Gandhi stated, “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” The United States, for all of its problems and sometimes troubling history, in my opinion has come closest to achieving this ideal than any nation to date. It was founded with the genuine belief it would become a great nation. And I believe, in most respects, it has constantly moved toward the Founders’ ideals. It remains each citizen’s responsibility to see that the march continues in the right direction.