An introductory statement on the basis of American values which we will further define and explore throughout the coming weeks. Values which taken together makeup Americanism.
Core Values: Surely On This Much, Can We Agree
Society is bound together by many things including trust, kinship, history, tradition, belief, exchange, geography, physical infrastructure (some of these sound a little less uh… let’s say romantic than others), and culture. These things are often difficult to define and quantify and are typically in flux but knowing and understanding what binds us together helps us to reaffirm and strengthen those bonds, to keep our society together and moving toward something better.
As a consequence of the method of our formation, through waves of colonization and immigration by refugees and zealots and slaves and aspirants, through a rapid expansion of a single country across an entire continent in bursts of fortune seeking, religious furvor, hope, and conquest; the United States has always been bound less by many of these than other contemporary countries. Family has often been hundreds or thousands of miles away even if they were in the same country, the institutional power of established churches was never as strong as in Europe, our history is short, tradition and community constantly had to be established anew.
Lacking a common ethnicity, a common language, a common culture, tradition, religion, or history; I believe we’ve always been bound more by our shared aspirations than most other countries. With time this has changed as we’ve developed a longer history, more traditions, become less mobile but our aspirations continue to bind us and by fostering them we will grow stronger as a society.
I see a handful of these aspirational ideals, those core values which I believe to characterize our nation. Totally by coincidence, these values align with words and phrases commonly associated with Americanism. Few would dispute these as quintessentially American values though they are not uniquely American. We value Liberty and guaranteeing that everyone should have the freedom to make their own choices. We value opportunity and that everyone has the ability to achieve more for themselves, to put their abilities to use for the benefit of themselves and others, creating an ever better life. We value diversity and a respect for the differences between people and communities, that we are not a homogenous, commodified, amorphous society. And we value our democratic form of government, that fundamentally a free people can best govern themselves.
This is not a statement of what values I think we should hold; these are the values America has time and again affirmed as foundational to our country and our civic tradition. We have gone to war to defend these values which is an extraordinary thing. Yes, there were other considerations of personal and public interest, but it’s an extraordinary thing to really put the might of this country into defending ideals like these, humanist ideals, not just for our own people but for people around the world, for humanity itself.
It’s true we’ve more often than not failed to live up to our own ideals. Popular democracy and mass enfranchisement was not built into our constitution, a far more limited group of people were permitted to vote at the birth of our republic. It took almost a century after the American revolution for us to abolish slavery. We repeatedly denied the rights of Native Americans to their lands and culture, waged unjustified war against them, and at times committed acts of genocide against them. We have had centuries of racist laws, mass incarceration, political oppression, failures of justice.
And these are parts of our history we must never forget. Some people want to but they are wrong to want to. We have to face what we were, what we’ve done, what we’re doing, to be something better. Our wrongdoings were never just the way things were, they were not egregious mistakes or lapses of judgment, they were concerted efforts by people in power.
We know this because at every step of the way there were people, courageous Americans of every stripe, every background, who knew what we were doing was wrong and fought to stop it. They fought in the courts, they fought in pamphlets and politics, they fought on the battlefield.
America is not perfect. But it is good and has been a force for good. The birthplace of countless movements to better the world. Those who would look at American history and see nothing but imperialism and war and profiteering are just as blind and self-serving as those who claim America can do no wrong.
What makes America what it is, what makes us great if not exceptional, is that we are a place of idealism, of aspiration, even when, as is inevitable, we cannot live up to it. America asks little of us. The American Dream is that in this country we can improve ourselves in our short time on Earth, that our lives can be better, and in improving ourselves improve the world around us, to leave something better for posterity. America asks us to try. I want to see you try.