It was my mother who first taught me to be wary of people who spent too much time boasting of their greatness. She would pity their insecurity and wonder what weaknesses they were making such an obvious effort to mask with self-praise.
I am often reminded of her lesson when I hear politicians, especially in an election year, indulging in rhetorical excess about the greatness of America. America is, we are told, the exceptional nation: the greatest democracy, the greatest producer of wealth, the model nation that is envied by the world, a people destined to lead the world. In the language of those on the right, America becomes an idol, infused by the Creator with blessings and qualities so self-evident, that to question this article of faith is akin to heresy.
I wonder why we are so insecure that we need to engage in endless self-praise. And I can’t help but wonder what the rest of the world thinks of all this in the face of policies and behaviors that make such a wildly different statement.
Aspects of American history and even our present reality paint a not so pretty picture. We were born with the twin original sins: genocide against the indigenous people whose land we settled and slavery. It took decades to end slavery. And it took decades more to grant equal rights to women; and still many more to abolish the racist legal system that perpetuated discrimination against people of color.
We fought aggressive wars of conquest against native Americans and our neighbor to the south. We are the only country to have used nuclear weapons. And, in recent years, we have shamed ourselves with the moral blindness of our policies across the Middle East.
It is both embarrassing and aggravating that our boasting ignores and/or tries to forget this history. It is also flat out wrong. More importantly, it also misses the point, because America does have a good story to tell. It is the one that Barack Obama would often speak of during the 2008 campaign. It is the story of our labor movement that inspired workers world-wide and fought for and helped pass progressive legislation that improved the quality of life for millions. It is our women’s movement that led the way, not only for the right to vote, but for gender equality. It is the story of our civil rights movement, that put an end to de jure segregation; our peace movement, that ended a war; our consumer and environmental movements that have given us cleaner water, purer air, safer food and medicines and legal protections against profiteers. And it is the story of immigrants who came here with nothing but their hopes and dreams, fought hardship and discrimination, built a better life for their children and are today the leaders of an extraordinarily diverse country. It is the efforts of these groups combined that tell the story of the country that is America.
My family, like so many other American families, has lived this story. I recall being asked to deliver one of the speeches nominating Jesse Jackson for President at the 1984 Democratic Convention. As I stood at the podium looking out at the sea of delegates who filled the hall. I thought of my father who had come to America at the age of 25, an illegal immigrant. He spent years in fear of deportation, until he received amnesty in the 1930’s. And there I stood 50 years later, the son of an illegal immigrant about to nominate the great-grandson of a slave for President! It was a uniquely American story.
The American story is not one about a country that was born great. It is the story of a country that is struggling to become better. And this is the story that is worth telling. It is one infused with humility, a recognition of our failings and our continuing efforts to correct injustice and make change. This may not be the story-line favored by some politicians, but it is one that can inspire.
It has always been intriguing to me that when we poll Americans and ask why they think people in other countries don’t like us, many say "because they envy us" or "because they hate our values of freedom and democracy." However, when we poll in the rest of the world, we find that people, in fact, like our values, but wonder why we don’t apply our stated values to our policies.
We need to get over our insecurity, stop the hollow boasting, take a long hard look at our flaws and change. When I hear politicians end their speeches with "God bless America", I say, "Amen" — not because we deserve to be blessed because we are so good, but because we need all the help we can get to become better.