America’s Legacy And 7 Things That Make Her Exceptional
The night was dark and seemingly peaceful, until we heard … explosion! screams!
I was a five-year-old boy at home in Montenegro and I had no idea what was happening. My siblings and I ran seeking a hug and safety from our grandmas, without even realizing the extent of fear they were feeling, not knowing what to do themselves nor how to protect us.
It was one of the many nights that threatened our safety during the civil wars in the Former Yugoslavia. This memory is now over 25 years old, but it was the moment that sparked the first desire to seek a better life.
A life I have discovered in America.
Independence Day is a day to celebrate the birth of a nation. It's a time we gather with friends and family over barbecues and indulge in exceptional fireworks. It's a time to wave those stars and stripes, and rejoice in the quintessential "Americanness."
But it is more than that.
A lot more.
You see, Independence Day is also a reminder that 242 years ago, a group of visionaries came together with a desire to give a birth to a new nation—a new way of being and living.
Their guiding principle: "All are created equal."
Their desire was backed up by the commitment to lay it all down for this dream, and this commitment was followed with massive action.
And then, "the last best chance of human kind" was born.
They knew it was a vision rather than a reality, but trusted in their own posterity (us!) to advance the cause they envisioned.
Imperfect as it were—as it still is—America has been the beacon of light for millions.
America has also been very unfair at times. Even cruel.
And yet, each time, the unwavering optimism of her people and the capacity for reinvention kept her moving forward, making it more just, more perfect.
In graduate school, I worked on a project about American Exceptionalism. What exactly makes America so different?
It's a confluence of characteristics backed up by the basic ethos of change for the purpose of improvement. In my estimation, these include...
Innovation and Discovery. From a new system of government through electricity and cars to the United Nations, Civil Rights, the Moon landing, and the internet, America has been at the forefront, always pushing the limits of human ingenuity and pursuing new frontiers.
Diversity. I walk the streets of Chicago and often marvel at the sights, sounds, and smells. We forget that it is this ingredient that has made America remarkable and a leader; it's not her weapons or military might, but the convergence of people with distinct origins and one thing in common: mutual prosperity and justice for all. It's not the detention of children that advances America or a rejection of the best and brightest who yearn for an opportunity; it's the opposite. Just recall how happy you are when someone welcomes you into their home, into their fold, or gives you an opportunity to thrive. Why wouldn't we do the same?
Freedom of and from religion. It's not a popular thing to say today, but the Founding Fathers and Mothers were by and large Deists; it is for this reason that they speak of Providence and a Creator, not Jesus or Muhammad. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson wrote his own Bible, citing the words of Jesus of Nazareth (the man), and this was the Bible all members of Congress would receive? Government of the people means all people, not people within a particular category. A religious belief, or no belief, is a function of private consideration not a public law.
Opportunity. When Lady Liberty exclaimed, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." she did so knowing that the desire and the perseverance of those coming to these shores, freely, would make America great, and prosperous. (Google, for example, was founded by a pair of first-generation immigrants!)
Philanthropy. Being charitable has always been a high moral of the clergy and the wealthy; however, it was in America—starting with the likes of Andrew Carnegie—up to this day where "giving back" at any level, through time and treasure, that entire generations have grown up feeling a duty and a need to give. How remarkable!
Due Process of Law: What has made America exceptional is that no one is above the law. Even when social or cultural conscience wouldn't advance the cause of those marganilized, the law was on their side. Imperfect, sure; but alive. These days, it seems, select few are working hard to be above the law, but the truth is—the country was designed to protect against it. Of course, these protections can withhold only so long before, like a dam, they start cracking. It's our job to prevent that. We cannot sit still as the very building blocks of the American political system—freedom of the press, judicial system, and the due process are challenged, corrupted, and unscrupulously attacked.
Justice. It'd be foolish to forget that many injustices were done by scared, selfish, small people on behalf of America, both within her borders and beyond. The institution of slavery and the still alive and active racism. The horrific mistreatment of the Native Americans—the only "real" Americans. The profiling of Italians, Irish, and other "aliens." Subjugation of women. The Japanese Internment camps. The treatment of the LGBTQ community. Religious profiling. Even just recently, the stranded children at her southern border. The list goes on. The history of America is checkered with deep valleys of darkness. But, one thing that has always been true of America, in Dr. King's words: “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.”
As we gather and chant "America," lest not forget that the responsibility for our future and that of our children is ours. The people in Washington D.C. are a reflection of us, of our apathy, our fears, and certainly our forgetfulness of the spirit of this country.
It's not polite, I am told, to discuss politics or religion. Why not? What happens when we don't respectfully engage in these topics? Apathy—the antithesis to the American ethos of action.
History teaches us that even the mighty fall, especially when those responsible—the people—forget their own humble origins and their responsibility—our responsibility—to uphold these norms for they have, indeed, made us better.
You see, to an immigrant who saw firsthand what a group of selfish politicians can do to a beautiful place, and who once broke the ocean because he believed that these shores would offer a much desired measure of freedom, happiness, and love, the responsibility of protecting the legacy and advancing the cause of this unique place is a great one.
I hope you, too, will think about your own responsibility at this critical time in America's history.
What kind of place do you want to leave behind? One that honors its legacy and advances its vision, or one that is scared, closed-off, and divided? Will you tell the story of a beautiful land full of diverse voices and ingenuity that was torn apart by apathy of its people, corruption of its institutions, fear-mongering leaders, lack of honesty and proper education, or will will celebrate America for another century?
I am not naive to not recognize the very real challenges, but I am also bullish on the future of this country that I have called home for a long time, and I know that it is in our hands to decide how we want our future to look like.
It's always been about "We The People..." Let’s remember, we are those people!