What makes America great?

statue-of-liberty

These days I think it’s more than fair to reflect on the nature of greatness; in fact, it’s an absolute necessity, as Donald Trump seeks to gain power and ascendancy over his great country.

trump

Donald Trump

That, I daresay, fits his definition of greatness, as in “Making America Great Again.” It’s about power, but not the power of moral rightness and of a great Truth as expressed, for example, by the wisdom of those who wrote the American Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States of America, for the world’s first, full-fledged modern democracy.

Those documents and that country were the hope of the world, though it would take another 75 years, and a civil war, to remove the abomination of slavery from the American dream:

There is no place for racism in the growth of a great democracy’s fulfilment of its promise of equality for all people; no place for such tyranny in the greatness of the moral truth that is America.

The “founding fathers” were wise enough to understand the democracy they were creating was bound to be a work in progress, and that it would not always be smooth sailing. They took great pains to ensure that a country founded in revolt against tyranny would not fall victim to it again as time passed and challenges arose; especially those that might breed opportunistic demagogues. They devised a system of government with “checks and balances” to guard against it. And they made sure to enshrine such fundamental principles as freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the new country’s Constitution.

Being a student of history, and of a generation born when the fate of the world was determined by the outcome of the Second World War, I feel entitled to say the United States saved the world from the most evil regime that ever existed. If not for the “arsenal of democracy” where would we be today? Where would we be if the United States had not sent millions of its citizen soldiers to fight against murderous tyranny on two epic fronts?

It was America’s destiny, I believe, to be there in its greatness at that crucial moment.

And what an astonishing moment it was: within an almost incredibly short period of time after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, America’s huge economic and industrial capacity, mired in depression for a decade, was aroused by righteous fury and resolve.

Yes, one can rightly say the industrial power and military might, was an expression of the greatness of America. But it was not what “made” it great.

What made America great was not its military, economic and industrial power, but the moral power of its founding ideals.

Dwight_D._Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

In fact, to his great credit, former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, three days before he left office in 1961, warned against the potential danger of the vast “military-industrial complex” to that underlying moral strength.

Eisenhower, the former Commander of Chief of Allied forces in Western Europe in the Second World War, was a two-term Republican president during the height of the so-called Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As president he was regarded by many observers as an intellectual lightweight; but that speech was a parting act of courageous greatness at a time when the corporate leaders of the military-industrial complex wielded tremendous, behind-the-scenes power. No doubt he had help writing it; but it was also something Eisenhower, who had experienced the tragedy of war first-hand, obviously felt strongly about. And it shows he had a very good understanding indeed of what America was really about.

It is well worth reading again at this critical juncture in U.S. politics. Here is a brief quote. The italics are mine:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower knew what was truly “great” about America.

Trump has no such understanding.

Some may find this odd, maybe not, but my musings about the nature of American greatness began early this morning as I read some of the follow-up, on-line articles following the death of former Heavyweight boxing Champion Muhammad Ali.

muhammad-ali

Muhammad Ali

Ali was and is still widely regarded as the greatest Heavyweight champion in the history of boxing. But there was much more to the man, a sensitive, caring, humanitarian side that makes one wonder what he might have done had he not first entered the ring as a young, black man growing up in relative poverty in Louisville, Kentucky.

The article I found most interesting and touching was one written by Steve Buffery and published by the Toronto-based National Post. It’s about Ali’s visit to Toronto in 1989 to attend a testimonial dinner for Canadian boxer George Chuvalo in 1989.

Ali and Chuvalo fought twice, the first time in Toronto in 1966 when Ali was champion. He won the 15-round fight by decision and retained his title, but afterwards said Chuvalo was the toughest man he had fought. They fought again in 1972, for the full 15 rounds, and again Ali won in a decision.

They became friends, and when Toronto author and fight commentator Ed Zawadzki contacted Ali about the testimonial dinner for Chuvalo he was quick to respond

“Zawadzki picked Ali up at Pearson International and they were on their way downtown when Ali asked Zawadzki, the son of Polish immigrants, about his family,” Buffery wrote. “The Etobicoke (a west Toronto neighbourhood) native mentioned to the former three-time world heavyweight champion of the world that his mom Wanda had spent years in a slave labour camp during the Second World War.”

“’Suddenly, he said he wanted to meet her,’” said Zawadzki. “’So even though we were already halfway downtown, we turned around. When we walked into our condo, Muhammad walked up to my mom, gave her a big hug, and the two of them sat together, and talked and hugged for a good 45 minutes. She told him all about her experiences in the camp.’

“Zawadzki said it was a couple of days he’ll never forget. The dinner he put on for Chuvalo featured a number of former world boxing greats, but Ali, he said, was the only one who never asked for anything.”

Muhammad Ali’s story is complicated. He was obviously a man with exceptional athletic and physical talents; but also a man of extraordinary intelligence and spirit, a man of charismatic presence who could “light up a room,” as another person said.

It is sad, even tragic, after all that the great side of Ali was so damaged and finally silenced by the other. He had so much more to give, especially now, as a wise elder to his country.

Where have all the great Americans gone? Why aren’t they getting involved in politics at the highest level?

As a result the door has been left open to the rise of a man like Donald Trump, and the soul of a great country is now in peril.

Smooth

4 thoughts on “What makes America great?

  1. I have to disagree about America’s role in WWll. Sure they looked good, swaggering in halfway through with much-needed equipment (and seemingly unlimited access to food and sundry goodies the Brits hadn’t seen for years) and did their bit at the front, but – just for example – the final plan for the D-day landings was Montgomery’s, and British/Imperial forces way outnumbered Americans in the landings themselves. The myth that America ‘won’ WWll really annoys me. British, Imperial and European forces in Europe fought hard bitter battles for six long years and outnumbered the US contribution until right at the end of the war, and Australian forces in the Pacific were similar.
    America certainly leads the world financially, industrially and militarily, but whether that makes it ‘Great’ seems to me another question. I certainly don’t want to live in a country where healthcare is often financially out of reach, and where guns available in supermarkets. And I am constantly appalled at how little otherwise intelligent Americans know about the rest of the world and its myriad cultures: when an American wanting to enter Canada can say to a border official ‘what’s the fuss? Canada’s only an extension of America anyway’.
    There may well be great Americans in politics, but they are at the mercy of corporate money and obscenely wealthy lobby groups.

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    • Well said, Helen. Points well made. I’m intrigued by your reference to the American entering Canada saying “Canada’s only an extension of America anyway.” Where did you hear or find that? My oldest daughter who spent three years recently working in Qatar was always pleased by the reaction when Qataris and others realized she was Canadian and not American. But they were also confused about Canada’s status in relation to the U.S. Many, like the American you refer to above, thought Canada was some sort of semi-autonomous part of the U.S. True, the Canadian economy is very much tied to the U.S. economy, which is why Trump’s threat to cancel the NAFTA free trade deal was such a big concern in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government have played their cards carefully so far in the NAFTA talks currently underway. Meanwhile, the government is seeking other trading partners elsewhere in the world to lessen Canada’s dependence on trade with the U.S. I think the rise of Trump is a sympton of the continuing decline of the American empire. It is a prime example of the importance of education in nurturing the growth of a well-informed, thoughtful citizenry. You would think a good understanding of basic democratic principles, and the way the American system of government is supposed to work, with checks and balances designed to prevent the rise of a would-be tyrant and demagogue like Trump would be a the top priority of the American education system. But obviously a lot of Americans don’t have a clue. And Trump himself is one of them. Sad, so sad.
      Anyway, I’m proud to be a Canadian.

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      • As well you should be! I admire Canada a lot, not least in its determination NOT to be an extension of America. (I can tell who’s Canadian and who’s American by the pronunciation of ‘ou’. Very handy!)
        I have to say that if, as Americans claim, America is the truest and greatest democracy in the world, then I’m very happy to be second best.
        I saw the American in question on a program I watch occasionally called ‘Border Force International’, that follows border officials at Canadian airports and land crossings. I’m constantly fascinated by what people will try to get away with – and by the patience of the officials. I’d be wanting to sock some of the stupid mongrels in the jaw.

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