I love the United States of America. I was born in Philadelphia PA, the son of immigrants from Ukraine and Colombia. Don’t ask me how they met, I’m still wondering about that, and I haven’t seen my biological father since I was 5, so I’ll probably never find out. But that’s another story.
I love my country but I acknowledge that we have some problems. The year 2020 has really brought festering issues to light. From the COVID-19 pandemic response to systemic racism, political polarization and human rights abuses, Americans have a lot of areas for improvement. I don’t want to leave this country but rather prefer to fix it wherever possible. In order to do this, we need to understand where we come from as a nation.
I know the signers of America’s Declaration of Independence said that “all men are created equal,” but did they really believe it? Most of them were slaveholders, so did that make them hypocrites? Or by “men” did they actually mean white men, which excludes women and people of color? It seems ironic to me that this nation was started by people who fled religious oppression in Europe, only to create a legacy of disenfranchisement towards a large part of their own population. How did we get here?
I believe there are two concepts that inform American society today: Manifest Destiny and Rugged Individualism. Each, in their own way, help us understand how the United States of America, a nation created by rich white men, continues to be dominated by them to this day. We have done some horrible things over 400 years of our history, in the name of freedom and democracy. The ends do not justify the means.
Manifest Destiny is a phrase popularized in the mid-19th Century. It described (justified?) the right of the United States of America to expand its borders across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, as well as north into Canada and south into Mexico. This was done in the name of Divine Providence, meaning Americans were destined to bring their way of life to these lands. In other words, we were chosen by God almighty to bring freedom, democracy, and Christianity to the places where we chose to expand.
Sadly, there were people already living in the lands we decided to conquer, namely Native Americans. We tried our best to convert these heathens to our civilized way of life, but when they refused, we simply brushed them aside and took their land. This policy, along with slavery, were the two greatest evils perpetrated by the American people against their fellow human beings in our history.
Critics of manifest destiny argued that the idea of Divine Providence espoused by expansionists was just a cover for chauvinism and self-interest. This was the domain of rich white men who aimed to get richer. Sound familiar? I believe this trait in Americans exists to this day and explains how corporations have bred billionaires, at the expense of the common good. Greed and ambition are what drive capitalism, along with a healthy dose of arrogance and self-determination. Which brings me to the next concept…
Rugged Individualism is a phrase popularized by president Herbert Hoover at the start of the Great Depression. It has defined the character of the American ethos since the beginning: a combination of individual liberties and frontier spirit that helped us grow into the nation we are today. Hoover hoped the idea of Rugged Individualism would help us pull ourselves out of the hard times of the early 1930s without government intervention. He was wrong.
It took the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 for Americans to realize it would take more than self-determination to get us out of the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal was a revolution in the United States of America: Socialism as a means of putting us on the path to recovery and positioning America to eventually become a global superpower. Many things we take for granted today, like Social Security, the SEC and the FDIC, all began with FDR’s New Deal.
Of course, Socialism is a dirty word in politics today. Conservatives cry Socialism whenever somebody suggests doing something for the good of all people, equating it with Communism. Liberals try to make the distinction between Socialism and Democratic Socialism in attempting to enact reforms, like the Affordable Care Act, designed to help the less fortunate. How ironic that we have forgotten the benefits of Socialist policies to benefit many Americans, except when it comes to corporations and the wealthy! The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. really nailed it when he said this in 1968:
So where do these concepts leave us today? In a mess! To me, Rugged Individualism is the biggest reason why the United States of America leads the world in the number of COVID-19 cases, illnesses and deaths. The idea of personal freedoms and self interest when it comes to something as simple as wearing a mask is absurd to me. If other countries can figure this out, why can’t we? Wear a fucking mask, if not for yourself, then for others. It’s basic human decency, people!
I spoke at length about racism in a previous post, Black Lives Matter. To me, Manifest Destiny helps explain how systemic racism exists in America to this day. It has to do with white supremacy and Divine Providence, or the belief that rich white men are destined to subjugate the rest of the world in the name of a superior way of life. In reading more about this, I discovered that Adolf Hitler actually referred to the American example of exterminating the Indians in order to occupy their lands, as justification for his quest to conquer all of Europe and eliminate all of its subhuman inhabitants (namely Jews and Slavs) in order to make room for the superior Arian race. Wow! That is not a good example we set for the world, yet it is downplayed in our history books while Hitler is (rightfully) vilified for his evil deeds.
We can and must do better. Although the Declaration of Independence had its flaws, I believe the United States Constitution mostly got it right. Especially when you consider that as a living document, it is open to amendments. Such as emancipation of the slaves; giving black people and women the right to vote; enacting term limits for presidents.
I believe we need to take that last one a step further and enact term limits for all Federal elected officials, and get money out of politics. I don’t think our founding fathers ever anticipated career politicians; it’s greed that makes that possible, and we need to eliminate politics as a money-making industry. This is how the rich get richer, by buying politicians to enact laws that ensure that they can maintain their advantages at the expense of others.
Finally, I’m saddened by the polarization of our two-party political system. We are divided as a nation like never before, and our leaders stoke this division with irrational fears and conspiracy theories designed to infringe on our perceived rights. Like it or not, we are all in this thing together, and need each other to get through this pandemic, correct wrongs against those less fortunate, and eliminate racism. It’s in our national DNA to act like jerks, and we fought a bloody civil war over 150 years ago because of the evil scourge of slavery. In some ways, we’re still fighting that war. Let’s finally end it so that we, the people, can truly become one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We are better than this and deserve as much.