Ode to America
When there is a natural disaster, a calamitous civil war, or an epidemic, people ask what America will do
On every Fourth of July, I sit down with Thomas Jefferson for a brief morning encounter. Reading the Declaration of Independence is part of an annual ritual where I celebrate my ‘becoming American’. I then take to the road, and drive through the rolling hills of my beloved Virginia, with the winds in my face telling me I am free, and the voice of Muddy Waters belting the blues and reassuring me that ‘Everything's gonna be alright this morning’. Truly, is there anything more quintessentially American than Jefferson, that sense of freedom and the quest for happiness you get from the Declaration and the blues? I always tell myself; It doesn’t get any better than this, I must have died and gone to heaven. I know, I know and before you say it, of course the great Jefferson was a bundle of complexes and he has his own dark side, just as America, but for now allow me to revel in my celebration, for I will address the other America later.
The audacity of Jefferson
I have spent seven years at Villanova and Georgetown Universities studying Western philosophy and political theory, but I have never encountered anyone writing something as original as ambitious and revolutionary as this audacious young American could dare write.” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Plato and Aristotle asked fundamental questions about Being, and how people relate to each other in the Polis, Thomas Aquinas and Machiavelli explained to us the nature of God and the nature, (and exercise) of power; Hegel and Marx taught us that world history should be interpreted as a dialectical progression, spiritual in the case of Hegel, and material in the case of Marx. But only an American from Virginia could write a document that enshrined what became the essence of the ideals on which America was founded; the consent of the governed, and the right to resist tyranny, which are derivative from the more fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I shuddered the first time I read “the pursuit of happiness” following the words; life and liberty. It was impossible for Aristotle or Aquinas or even the worldly Marx to write such a paragraph about fundamental rights that ends with the admonition that men should pursue happiness in the here and now.
I am often asked: Why do you like living in the United States? Or when people know of my infatuation with things American, from the civil war to the blues and ask; why do you love America? I say: because I feel free here; I am home where I am free. I did not come to America as an immigrant intending to settle down, but as a student who wanted my brief American journey to give me a feel of the big skies and endless vistas I watched mesmerized as a youngster in the old glorious American Westerns we loved so much growing up in Lebanon. I was fascinated by the rhythm, the music and the colors of New Orleans and Chicago, and the fast tempo of New York and dreaming of seeing the neon lights of Broadway, up close and personal and not in movies or television or photographs. I wanted to read American novelists, poets and playwrights in English not in Arabic translations.
I guess I felt instinctively from afar the vitality, creativity and the possibilities of America. I have always felt, and still do that America is beguiling in the simple and complex ways it draws you in. America’s bewitching power manifests itself first and foremost in its openness, hospitality and yes its egalitarianism. Of course there are classes in the U.S., but when I arrived in the early 1970’s I did not see class distinctions in the crass way you would see them in other countries.
The stretched hand with the smile, and the quintessentially American “hi” or “hello” would greet you almost everywhere and chip away at your strangeness. No one made fun of my poor English, and people would volunteer to help me say it right. I did not experience discrimination even when I was doing menial jobs, although some of my friends did. (It was ironic that I first heard the phrase ‘you don’t look much like an Arab’ from some other Arab students from the Gulf region who may have taken issue with a Lebanese sporting a blondish moustache, and whose real name was Richard, and who knew classical Arabic better than them to boot). Even as a foreign student and before I knew of something called the First Amendment I felt I could speak my mind without fear. When the 1973 war broke out we organized lectures, and exhibits, distributed leaflets explaining and defending the Arab side. You would think we were student activists on an Arab campus and not the campus of Villanova University on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And yet, and yet, consciously I resisted assimilation, without knowing for a considerable time, that I have already begun my long journey of becoming American.
A Lebanese lefty in America
In my first years in the U.S., I was conflicted about my life here, reluctant to surrender unconditionally to America’s seductive charms, holding on to my Arab identity, ambivalent about domestic politics and very critical of U.S. foreign policy particularly in the three areas that concerned us the most as self-proclaimed progressive and leftist students at that time; The Vietnam war, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Apartheid system in South Africa. When civil strife broke out in Lebanon in 1975, I knew that my plans for returning to the old country would have to be put on hold. It was during this period stretching to the late 1970’s as a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington that I began to use the name Hisham as an activist, supporting the “leftist” Lebanese-Palestinian alliance in the war, hoping to hide my true identity so I could protect my family in Beirut which lived in an area controlled by right wing forces and militias.
Only in America could I say that I am a proud American, revel in its greatness and diversity, without forgetting that I am contributing to this diversity my own Lebanese backgroundHisham Melhem
All along, my Americanization was proceeding apace, something I did not fully realize until later. My infatuation with American music, particularly the blues, was boundless. My fascination with civil wars, born out of the tragedy of Lebanon particularly, the question; why people who know each other, and live in the same neighborhood would kill each other with abandon, led me first to study the Spanish civil war and then of course as a resident of Virginia, where many battles took place, I became totally engrossed in the American civil war. I got hooked on America; and there was no chance of turning back, even if I wanted to. I don’t recall when I moved from “you” Americans to the “we” Americans. There was no one single moment I could point to and say this is the moment I crossed the Rubicon. The crossing was a long time coming.
For years I tried as a journalist writing from Washington for Arab publications (later television stations) to explain first U.S. policies in the Middle East, how Washington works and later trying to provide a window on life in America. On American television and in lectures, I tried to analyze and interpret the Arab world to Americans. It took me a while to admit that I was being estranged from the Arab world following the self-inflicted calamities of the last few decades and deeply disillusioned with the inabilities of the ruling political classes and the oppositions to create inclusive, humane and accountable forms of governance. In the meantime, I was deepening my roots in America and became more entrenched in my American identity while retaining my deep interest in the welfare of the people that I hailed from. I am no longer suspended between two worlds, one foot in America and the other in the Arab world. That journey is over. I have arrived; I am home now.
Only in America could I say that I am a proud American, revel in its greatness and diversity, without forgetting that I am contributing to this diversity my own Lebanese background, the experiences of my childhood as a Christian Maronite (Catholic) who used to recite hymns and prayers in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and as a young man growing up in Beirut and being steeped in my Arabo-Islamic heritage.
There is a thin line separating nationalism from chauvinism. And I have seen how brutal Arab dictators particularly Saddam Hussein used Arab Nationalism as an exclusionary, and discriminatory tool against non-Arabs in Iraq or against Iranians. Contrast that with the ideals of Jefferson’s and the founders of the American Republic. With all the imperfections of this great nation, because it is based on a set of ideals and the values of democracy, liberty and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, someone like me can chose to be part of “We the people”, because becoming an American has nothing to do with ancestry, or blood and most importantly national, religious or ethnic identity.
The American world is astonishing in its mixture of peoples, cultures, civilizations and languages. In America, we pride ourselves on not partaking in American nationalism, because there is no such thing, but in American Patriotism which is the shared attachment and appreciation of the citizenry of the United States, its constitution, and other guiding texts, such as The Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the Gettysburg address, its institutions, its way of life, its uniqueness among nations, and yes its exceptionalism; not as an economic or military empire, but as the repository of the Jeffersonian ideals . This is supposedly, the political culture of the most diverse multicultural society in the world.
But I never felt more American, than on the morning of September 11, 2001.That day is seared in my memory like I am sure it is seared in our collective memory as Americans. An immense and unique tragedy united the country, and most of the world, including some countries not positively disposed towards the U.S., showed solidarity with us and had their own fleeting moment of “we are all Americans”.
Jefferson as the embodiment of American contradictions
Thomas Jefferson believed deeply that the American experiment with governance that is Republican self-government will influence the rest of the world, that the exercise of reason and liberty will lead men everywhere to reject tyranny, demand freedom and the right to pursue happiness while exercising self-rule.
Here-in lies America’s astonishing contradictions, with Jefferson as the embodiment and the most pronounced expression of these contradictions. For the crusader of liberty, the genius of enlightenment, the brilliant writer was also a slave owner. (Jefferson was willing to denounce slavery much more explicitly than other founders. His original draft of the Declaration contained a condemnation of King George for allowing slavery in the colonies, but the Continental Congress, deleted the reference) The founders of the American Republic had different and contradictory views on slavery and their decision to defer a resolution of this abomination, deepened America’s moral depravity and prolonged it for generations and scarred the Republic beyond recognition and almost tore it asunder in the bloodiest encounter Americans had with each other’s or with any foreign enemy since.
When the young Virginian wrote “all men are created equal” he did not include his slaves among them, and “all men” meant white male owners of property, not women, not blacks and not the indigenous populations. After generations of struggle, American women exercised their right to vote in 1920. It took a civil war to free the slaves, but the Emancipation proclamation of 1863 did not make full citizens of the former slaves, who were forced to go through the long purgatory of Jim Crow laws, racial segregation, and the lynchings before their civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, where many blacks exercised their right to vote for the first time.
Yet the Jeffersonian ideals in the Declaration of Independence were always invoked by Americans, and later other peoples seeking freedom. Women’s rights activists meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848 modeled their demands in precisely the same language of the Declaration of Independence, boldly stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal”. Other Americans invoked the Declaration to support their struggles for equal rights; white working men, blacks, and others. All these groups were demanding to bridge the gap between the self-evident truths and reality. As the first successful declaration of independence in the world, it inspired many independent movements and revolutions throughout the world. For all his moral ambivalence, Jefferson’s influence was and still is immense.
Jefferson and the founders understood that the union they were establishing was not perfect, the Republic shall be a work in progress, to be improved and perfected constantly, hence the preamble of the constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….” Jefferson influenced Lincoln, just as Lincoln influenced Martin Luther King Jr. there is a long continuum obsession with perfecting the Union connecting Jefferson to all of his American disciples.
America in the world
Jefferson’s contradictions became America’s contradictions. The sacred American texts of freedom and equality were not always applied overseas. The U.S., contrary to what most Americans believe did engage in wars of expansion, and in the 20th century, particularly during the cold war, the U.S. coddled dictators from Latin America through the Middle East and all the way to south and East Asia, in the name of combatting communism. Iraq and the Middle East is still reeling from the effect of a war launched ironically to impose the ideals of Jefferson on a broken country, by a president who did not understand that Jefferson when he spoke about the appeal of the American system of government was not talking about invasions.
That un-Jeffersonian legacy cannot be denied, and yet the reality is that the American Revolution was unique and America was and still is an exceptional country among nations. The great scientific achievements in the last century cannot be imagined without the U.S.. American ingenuity revolutionized agriculture and irrigation and turned its great plains into the breadbasket of the world. America’s love affair with cars and planes changed transportation and the world. The incredible research and development that took place in its universities and labs in the last century improved medicine and communications beyond imagination. From Henry Ford, to Steve Jobs, from Thomas Edison to Einstein to Mark Zuckerberg, American inventors and entrepreneurs, whether born in the U.S. or naturalized keep changing and improving the world. America’s popular culture, its cinema and music entertained and enriched the world like no other civilization in history.
When there is a natural disaster, a calamitous civil war, or an epidemic, people ask what America will doHisham Melhem
Politically, for all the complaints about American “Imperialism” (and at time the U.S. did indeed act like an empire) the U.S., saved Europe from itself more than once in the last century. The physical and political desolation of Europe after WWII would have lasted a long time had it not been for American leadership and aid that was so instrumental in rebuilding Western Europe. In the cold war the U.S. kept the hopes of the peoples of Eastern Europe alive. American pressure and support of dissident movements against communist rule, and the support for the Afghans under Soviet occupation, hastened the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In the 1990’s the U.S. and not the European powers put an end to the first mass killings of peoples in Europe because of their religious and ethnic backgrounds since the Holocaust, when it exercised decisive leadership in Bosnia and Kosovo. What made that intervention unique is the fact that the U.S. had no discernible economic or strategic interests in the Balkans. America saved Kuwait from oblivion, and prevented Saddam Hussein from committing further mass killings of Kurds. When China was signing lucrative contracts with the oppressive Sudanese regime, the U.S. was protesting genocide in Darfur and spending large sums of money on relief efforts. In the 1990’s America prevented a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, and so on and so on.
The world will be poorer if the U.S. decides to act in the world like China or Russia, driven solely by narrow self-interests. Only the U.S. among major powers is still driven by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. When there is a natural disaster, a calamitous civil war, or an epidemic, people ask what America will do. America, with all its problems and limitations is still the indispensable country. So, happy birthday America, and so long Thomas Jefferson - until we meet again next year.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem