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.
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.
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.
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.