Nicholson: America will be great if America is good (column)
“America is great because America is good.” One of the more misattributed quotes concerning our country is most often thought of as being the observation of Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher who visited the then 55-year-old American experiment in representative government and published his observations in 1834, when there were still veterans living who had served in our war for independence.
Actually, he never said anything of the kind. Nor is the quote found in his seminal work, “Democracy in America.” But it didn’t stop presidents and authors from saying he did. The quote’s origin, however, can be traced to a pair of socially liberal Congregational ministers visiting from England about three years after de Tocqueville’s tour of America. In the second volume of their book, “A Narrative of Their Visit to the American Churches” by the Deputation of the Congregational Union of England and Wales” (1836), the Revs. Andrew Reed and James Matheson wrote the following:
“Universal suffrage, whatever may be its abstract merits or demerits, is neither desirable nor possible, except the people are the subjects of universal education and universal piety. America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.”
There’s much to glean from their observations.
First, an educated populace, they noted, was critical to the operation of this new form of government. Public education and its accessibility to all had not previously been a priority, nor even a consideration for many of the kings and despots who ruled nations up to that time. Second, their famous statement employed the future tense. To them, the jury was still out on America’s greatness. But they clearly saw our potential in the people they met and the places they visited.
Today, we find ourselves shouting at one another between breaths and insults that Lefties are socialists and communists and Righties are tighties bent on fascism. And while all this is going on, China is eating our lunch right in our own backyard.
The New York Times reported China had built a space station in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Since 2008, China has steadily filled the vacuum in Latin America that the United States has left, believing ourselves to be superior in every way to the nations “down there.” What happened to the Monroe Doctrine? Did it become as passe as common courtesy in the United States is today, especially toward our neighbors and allies?
Then up comes this P.T. Barnum of politics wielding a crowbar to force the chasm ever wider. And nobody’s noticing. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We’re all noticing the arguments. The insults. The smoldering invectives. What we are not seeming to notice are the trends. The devolution of American justice. American education. American leadership. The loss of America’s goodness.
Suddenly, it’s now all about the art of the deal. The dominance of the zero sum “I win, you lose” mentality so prevalent in our modern culture that has left us a political shambles.
And yet, would it be so if the people didn’t want it so? Look at those red and blue political maps that show overwhelmingly red across the vast expanses where small towns and farms lie. And then, here and there, blue pops up with regularity in the cities where the majority of our population now resides.
But it’s not just rural versus urban. Those of our citizens who work for corporations rely on salaries and benefits from those corporations. Why shouldn’t they support their employers? An uneducated populace fearing invading street gangs from the southern continents might well find solace in leaders who promise a border wall everyone knows won’t work. It didn’t keep the Mongol hordes out of ancient China. A wall is a wall. Why would it work today?
And this nonsense of militarizing space sounds appealing until somebody notices if we can do it, then so can others. That’s why the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 was signed in the first place. Does someone have to show the connection between a good education and technological progress all over again, or do we just need a couple of good wars to keep the innovations flowing?
Gus Nicholson is a resident of Avon and Denver.