We had us a pretty good country here in the U.S., good while it lasted, anyway. Oh sure, it was far from perfect, but as countries go, it had a lot going for it, most especially those founding principles about freedom, equality, justice for all, and a government constructed out of the idea of checks and balances to prevent the kind of tyranny immigrants to these shores knew all too well from back where they'd come from.
And we were all immigrants except those Native Americans we needed to push aside to make room for us. Let's not forget that those Native peoples had been busily pushing one another aside for centuries before we arrived, and they were far from the noble "savages" and pioneering ecologists so many guilty white folks who now dwell on land that was once theirs want to make 'em out to be. No, they were human beings and, consistent with that fact, they could be downright mean, nasty, misogynistic, superstitious, hateful, and indifferent to the mess they created.
Graciously, however, we allowed them to become citizens once we'd decimated them and shoved them off onto marginal lands that were often not far removed from where they'd once lived before we showed up. Like those Apaches from the arid Southwest who got transported to Florida, or those Creeks and Cherokees who were marched from the Southeast to what would later become Oklahoma. Close enough.
Some habits die very hard and, for us, slavery was a very bad habit that died very hard.
So our national history surely wasn't perfect in that regard, nor was our long commitment to enslaving fellow human beings. We didn't get off that practice until much later than some other countries, of course, but we did turn our backs on slavery at long last, a change in attitude that required the deaths of about three-quarters of a million of us during the murderous dispute we had to have over whether it was cool to own our fellow human beings. Some habits die very hard and, for us, slavery was a very bad habit that died very hard.
And we had our periodic bouts with out-of-control corruption, shabby treatment of foreigners of nearly every stripe, color, and kind. We were particularly bad toward our southern neighbors in Mexico, vacationing in their country where we often behaved like drunken swine, then treating Mexicans who came here to pick our produce in the blazing sun as though they were "criminals" and "rapists." We didn't always send Mexico "our best," but they welcomed us, anyway, as tourists and as retirees who, ironically, often were living in that neighboring land illegally.
To our great shame, we also were known to support some pretty "bad dudes" who headed up regimes in countries that oppressed and tortured their own people. We also often suppressed unions and working people in our own country, allowed banks to charge usurious interest rates to the poor, and operated a two-tiered system that protected privilege for the rich while denying opportunities to those who weren't. We were sick with racism and prejudice, burdened by untaxed religious charlatans who assuaged the poor with promises of pie in the sky in the sweet by and by if they only sent in money they couldn't afford to the well-coiffed and bejeweled preachers who swindled them from generation to generation.
There were other ways we fell short of perfection, lots of them, in fact, because we were, after all, human beings, flawed, frightened, fucked up, and easily fooled.
But we had bragging rights that come with money and power, the right to think of ourselves as "exceptional," even when thinking so impeded our desires to be better than we actually were. Beginning with the eloquence of our founding documents, those shining aspirations produced by the period in history known as "The Enlightenment," we gave exceptional expression to some of the nobler virtues our species has thus far come up with. Not only did we express those aspirations, but we tried to put them into practice. Sort of.
Oh sure, we were a little confused about the definition of "men" in that high-falutin' phrase about all men being created equal, but we gradually came around, first declaring black men to be 3/5ths of a human being before stumbling toward the notion that not only black men, but even women of any color were 100% human beings and thus entitled to all the "blessings of liberty."
Giving people a tiny voice in their own destinies was a pretty exceptional idea, and though it didn't catch on everywhere in the world, or even with a lot of movers and shakers in our own country, it had a lot going for it. As Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. So we started working toward universal suffrage, away from the founder's limited view of who should get to vote, their restrictions on voting that confined the right to landed gentry like themselves. Voter suppression, however, has persisted since those long ago days, and it is exceptionally popular with Republicans in our own times.
Even allowing for our checkered past, however, we really did produce some pretty stellar examples of our kind, men and women of uncommon courage and decency who, in every generation, fought against those who would befoul or purloin those ideals upon which the nation was founded. Even Jefferson, the slave owner, rapist, and hypocrite had more nobility and better values than the general run of homo sapiens. He was a man of his time, and despite his failings and contradictions, he left the world a rich legacy, and left his nation soaring rhetoric which it remains our duty to foster, enact, preserve, and protect.
Lincoln, too, and the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin D., and the boyish enthusiasm of John Kennedy. and the often grounded wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower. There was the profound decency and humanity of Jimmy Carter, the pragmatic but sometimes misguided ambitions and keen intelligence of Bill Clinton, and the intelligence and maturity of Barack Obama, who never once sank to the level of those who so viciously and consistently attacked him.
There were others, too, lots of them. James Garfield was struck down by an assassin, but though he is largely forgotten, he was as good a man as ever lived. John Adams stands tall in that company, too, as does Washington, our first president, though he, too, was a slave owner. He was also, it should be recalled, a man who didn't succumb to the calls from a devoted citizenry to make him our first king.
We had a range of politicians with courage and integrity, Senators and Congresspeople who stood up for principle. And we had the scoundrels, the thieves, the crooked and corrupt who outnumbered those truly honorable men and women because courage, integrity, and honor aren't common qualities, not in politics, or most other realms of human endeavor.
A nation that produces a Joe Hill, a Woody Guthrie, a Eugene V. Debs, a Frederick Douglass, a Jeanette Rankin, an Elizabeth Cady Staton, or an Eleanor Roosevelt ain't to be sneezed at.
But a nation that produces a Joe Hill, a Woody Guthrie, a Eugene V. Debs, a Frederick Douglass, a Jeanette Rankin, an Elizabeth Cady Staton, or an Eleanor Roosevelt ain't to be sneezed at. A country that offers to the world people like Upton Sinclair, Bernie Sanders, Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, or Eugene McCarthy has a claim to being exceptional.
But there is no doubt that we're also exceptional in giving power to some exceptionally "bad dudes," to use the phrase our current Bad-Dude-in-Chief used to describe other people he considered to be in a category apart from the way he sees himself. There were those Tea Pot Dome bad dudes, and the Tammany Hall bunch, and constantly renewed rogues gallery of weasels and snakes, war profiteers, parasitic politicians and evangelists, Klansmen and white supremacists, crooked government contractors, influence peddlers, profiteers willing to pollute and destroy so long as the damage they did enriched themselves and allowed them to live well beyond sight and smell of the devastation they created.
Always, however, there were those who resisted, who pushed back, who fought the "bad dudes" on the streets, in the courts, and in the pages of the newspapers once so much more numerous and influential than they are now.
In these times, when cynicism can beckon, when hopelessness and despair weighs on us with each new revelation of the trouble we now know, the insanity that has transformed our nation, it is important that we reclaim true American exceptionalism as our own, that we wrest that notion away from the right wingers who have, for so long, claimed patriotism as their own. We also must deny those "Christians" the right to define Christianity in such ugly ways, much like the Muslims who have defiled their faith and enlisted their God to sanction their evil deeds.
We must not succumb to Trump and Company. We must speak out every day, in every way possible, and we must push the more reluctant among us to put aside narrow self-interest, or the misperception of self-interest, to do what is right. Because what is happening now is as perilous as it gets, as threatening to the great hope and dream this country once represented, and must be made to represent once again.
Are we up to it? Will the better angels of our natures prevail? Too soon to know. We're coming in on a wing and prayer, and our current pilot has no idea how to fly the plane, or how to find level ground on which to land. To make America great, therefore, we're going to have to begin by getting him out of the cockpit.