Toward a more perfect union
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Category: Opinion > Columns
Our country has always had a dual personality. All the while proclaiming freedom, many of our founders had slaves, denying a large portion of society that same freedom that the earliest Americans fought and died for during the Revolutionary War.
As I see it, this has been the story of America: a constant push towards progress while simultaneously fighting against traditionalist ideologies that relish the status quo. We are always struggling to establish that more perfect union though we understand the parameters of our search. Establishing a "more perfect union," does not mean the perfect union. It is a call that we do what we can to move toward the ideal, all the while recognizing that ideal as an abstract concept, intangible but worthy of our efforts nonetheless.
Slavery was defeated, but civil rights were anything but a given in its aftermath. Instead we got Jim Crow and segregation. But eventually we conquered those abominations too, and now we have the first black president.
Winston Churchill said, "The Americans will always do the right thing after they have exhausted all the alternatives." I think about this in the context of our nation's history: slavery, emancipation; racial discrimination, desegregation; depression, economic superpower. We have by no means always made the right decisions, but we have come a long way.
Certainly our society still has injustices - gay marriage comes to mind - but this is something that can and will change. The year 2008 was not the death of equality, just a setback. While we celebrated the promise of America as represented by president-elect Obama, we also realized the fight for minority rights continues, and like so many other minority-rights issues, gay marriage will end up at the Supreme Court.
But social injustice is not our only problem. No matter how you look at it, the United States is stretched too thin.
We are going broke all the while continuing to fight two wars (three if you count Libya, which probably will not even be a question in a matter of months). Our public education system is constantly under threat by austerity measures and our infrastructure is eroding. I see protests around the nation that seem to say, "We demand to have our cake, and we demand to eat it, too."
Regardless of political affiliation, most people would agree that something has to be done. But if history has taught us anything, it's that we cannot expect that change to take the form of a politician.
Our leaders are never the causes of change - they are the products of it.
The civil rights era was not lead by or a product of John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson. These men were lead by the efforts of brave citizens: by a woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus, by a group of students in search of an equal education and by a preacher who dared to dream that character, not race, could ultimately define a person. Certainly these presidents, particularly JFK, gave the country the opportunity to embrace change, but they did not create the atmosphere or the pressure to generate that change. That was done on the streets of American cities.
So we are again at a crossroads. America has seemingly exhausted most, if not all, of its alternatives. Be it our long-term financial mess or our endless commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq and apparently now Libya, we have some difficult choices to make.
That means we have to let our leaders know where we stand on issues, which actually means paying attention. The greatest threat to our country is not terrorism or even debt - it's apathy.
We owe it to the generations that came before us, starting with the average people that first took up the cause of freedom during the Revolutionary War, to the greatest generation that grew up during the depression, fought in World War II and rebuilt America into the superpower it is today. We owe it to Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine and to Martin Luther King Jr.
Our generation has to be the generation - if we don't do our part to end our countless military commitments overseas, to live within our means, both personally and federally, then our posterity will study the historical riches of America rather than experience them.
Yeah, it sucks that these problems, none of which we created, are falling on us to fix, but it's also an enormous opportunity. We can save America, but it has to start with our rejection of complacency.
This opportunity for greatness rests with our generation's rejection of entitlement, that feeling that greatness is inherently ours and ours alone. How far we progress depends on how far we are willing to separate ourselves from the status quo, that original sin that tethers us to where we are without ambition to move forward.
We can argue over who's to blame for these wars or this financial crisis, but then we will be yet another wasted generation.
The choices we have to make are difficult, like raising taxes, raising the retirement age or cutting social programs, but history will reward us for it, and I think that is a much more beautiful aspiration than merely maintaining the status quo. The choice is ours: apathy or ambition?
Contact Andrew Davis at [email protected]
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