One of the most memorable moments of my life was arriving as a young man from Saudi Arabia to the California of the 1950s. America was everything I expected, and much more. It was a rainbow of hope, beauty and elegance, composed of a confident and modern people who had taken it upon themselves to save Europe and the world twice from the evils that emerged in its dark midst.
As the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said in the 1830s, “When America struggled for the most just of causes … all souls rose to reach to the height of the goal of their efforts.” I was taken up by the American spirit and can-do attitude, by the endless opportunities America seemed to open up, but also by the strong moral compass the country valued so much. Over the years, America gave generously of its spirit and blazed a bold trail, receiving my admiration and that of the world.
Sadly, looking at America today feels like seeing an old friend I no longer recognize.
What happened to the America that left Europe behind to create a nation from nothing, an America that struggled to create a new, better society, reinventing government and collaboratively writing one of the most perfect Constitutions the world has ever known?
Where is the America that emphasized the fundamental importance of checks and balances and the separation of powers, living up to Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people?”
Of course, that road was never a straight one; there were mistakes along the way. In 1621 Plymouth colonists and Native Americans celebrated a harvest Thanksgiving feast together, but those native populations were later also wiped out. To quote de Tocqueville once more, those missteps are also part of America’s story, for “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
What happened to the America that is symbolized as much by the Empire State Building as the smallest hut in the Appalachians? Where is the America of vibrant and optimistic Broadway or Main Streets in every American town, showcasing the constant renewal, transparency and the promise of American business and capitalism? What happened to the America that won two World Wars and reconciled victors with the defeated, whom America helped get back on their feet instead of punishing or subjugating them? Where is the America that enshrined its Wilsonian concepts of freedom in the League of Nations and then contributed so greatly to multilateralism through the United Nations? What happened to the America that recognized its mistakes in Vietnam upon the awakening of the people’s conscience with songs such as “Where have all the flowers gone” or the self-immolation of Norman Morrison in front of the Pentagon and in front of his one-year old daughter?
What happened to the America whose President Kennedy said at his presidential inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country?” Where is the America that created the Peace Corps to extend a hand, to understand and lift up those less fortunate, after Lederer and Burdick’s novel The Ugly American? What happened to the America of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream to “let freedom ring,” where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?” Where is the “shining city on a hill” that President Ronald Reagan spoke of so eloquently in his election eve address? He described that city in his farewell address as:
“A tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”
That is the America I discovered when I first arrived in the 1950s, and the America that I so admired for much of my life. Today I sadly look upon an America tearing itself apart, united only in its divisiveness. In my lifetime, I saw America at its best, but I also saw America lose its way and become, in some respects, unrecognizable.
I believe this is not the America that most Americans want, nor the America the world wants. An America united by its original values, exemplifying optimism and moral leadership in the world is what we need again today. It is time for America’s friends to speak honestly and to offer what support they can in pushing back the dark clouds obscuring America’s beautiful mosaic and suffocating almost 250 years of American greatness. We arrive back at de Tocqueville, with his almost 200-year old warning that “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” Before making America great, let us make America good again.