x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Political boasting misses the point of America's history

The story of the US is not one about a country that was born great. It is the story of a country that is struggling to become better, and this is a story that is worth telling.

My mother was the first person who taught me to be wary of people who spend too much time boasting of their greatness.

She would pity their insecurity and wonder what weaknesses they were so obviously trying to mask with self-praise.

I am often reminded of her lesson when I hear US politicians, especially in an election year, indulging in rhetorical excess about the greatness of America.

The United States is, we are told, the exceptional nation: the greatest democracy, the greatest producer of wealth, the model nation, the envy of the world, a country and a people destined to lead.

America becomes an idol, infused by the Creator with blessings and qualities so self-evident that to question this special status becomes akin to heresy.

I wonder why we Americans are so insecure that we need to engage in endless self-praise. And I can't help but wonder what the rest of the world thinks of all this, considering that so many American policies and behaviours make such a wildly different statement.

Aspects of US history and even our present reality paint a not-so-pretty picture. This country was born with twin original sins: genocide against the indigenous peoples, and slavery.

It took decades to end slavery. It took decades more to grant equal rights to women, and many more still to abolish the racist legal system that perpetuated discrimination against people of colour.

The young United States fought aggressive wars of conquest against native people and against Mexico, our neighbour to the south. We are the only country to have used nuclear weapons in wartime. And in recent years, we have shamed ourselves with the moral blindness of our policies across the Middle East.

It is both embarrassing and irritating that our boasting ignores or hides this history. It is also flat-out wrong.

And boastfulness also misses the point, because America does have a good story to tell the world.

It is the one of which candidate Barack Obama often spoke during the 2008 campaign.

It is the story of our labour movement that inspired workers worldwide, a movement that fought for and helped pass progressive legislation that improved the quality of life for millions.

It is the story of our women's movement that led the way, not only for the right to vote, but for gender equality.

It is the story of our civil rights movement, that put an end to de jure segregation; our peace movement, that ended a war; our consumer and environmental movements that have given us cleaner water, purer air and safer food and medicines.

And it is the story of immigrants who came here with nothing but their hopes and dreams, fought hardship and discrimination, built a better life for their children and are today the leaders of an extraordinarily diverse country.

It is the efforts of these groups combined that tell the story of the country that is America.

My family, like so many other US families, has lived this story.

I recall being asked to deliver one of the speeches nominating Jesse Jackson for president at the 1984 Democratic national convention. As I stood at the podium looking out at the sea of delegates who filled the hall, I thought of my father who had come to America at the age of 25, as an illegal immigrant. He spent years in fear of deportation until he received amnesty in the 1930s.

And there I stood, 50 years later, the son of that illegal immigrant, about to nominate the great-grandson of a slave for the presidency. It was a uniquely American story.

The American story is not one about a country that was born great. It is the story of a country that is struggling to become better, and this is a story that is worth telling.

It is one infused with humility, a recognition of our failings and our continuing efforts to correct injustice and make changes. This may not be the story-line favoured by some politicians, but it is one that can inspire.

It has always been intriguing to me that when we poll Americans and ask why they think people in other countries don't like us, many say "because they envy us" or "because they hate our values of freedom and democracy".

However, when we poll in the rest of the world, we find that people in fact like American values, but wonder why we don't apply our stated values through our policies.

Americans and their government need to get over our insecurity, stop the hollow boasting, take a long hard look at our flaws, and change what needs changing.

When I hear politicians end their speeches with "God bless America", I say, "Amen" - not because we deserve to be blessed because we are so good, but because we need all the help we can get to become better.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa