Saturday, February 12, 2011

The voice of America

By Bob Gaydos
Last week I wrote about the revolution in Egypt and how difficult it can be for mere mortals to know what to do when life, as is its tendency, confronts them with the unexpected, never mind the unplanned. Specifically, I addressed those critics who were instantly telling President Obama what he should say and do with regard to the situation in Egypt, even though no one had any precedent to refer to in the Middle East. Arabs have not been in the habit of rising up against autocratic governments.
I suggested that Obama would best be served by paying heed to the message of the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
I further wrote: “As I see it, Obama needs the wisdom part in this crisis. He can’t control what happens on the streets in Cairo or any other Arab nation. What he can do is speak forcefully and eloquently, in public to the world and in private to Mubarak et al, about what the United States of America stands for and hopes for and will support in any country whose people want it: freedom, human rights, dignity, opportunity, equality and justice for each and every citizen. That message always has and always will resonate around the world. …”
Among the comments I received were the following from my fellow Zest of Orange blogger Michael Kaufman:
“Bob, this is so beautifully written and full of great insights that I am almost hesitant to disagree with you about anything. Still, I have to take issue with your conclusion, not because I disagree with your sentiments regarding America’s vision for democracy and commitment for human rights, liberties, and peace, but because that vision has been so clouded by the actions of our government, our military interventions, intelligence agencies, private contractors (i.e., Halliburton, Blackwater, etc.), for decades. Where was America’s vision for democracy when the CIA toppled the Mossadegh government and installed the Shah in Iran? Or when our government assisted the Chilean fascists who overthrew the Allende government and murdered thousands of Chilean citizens? Have we forgotten the lessons of Vietnam, the napalm, My Lai? What vision of America did “Shock and Awe” and Abu Ghraib send to the world about what America stands for? And when will we learn that “American exceptionalism” might play well at home but it means nothing in Afghanistan, where we are just another occupying foreign power destined to fail. Given this track record the kindest thing we can do for the Egyptian people is to leave them alone. After all, until they took to the streets of Cairo, the United States stood for … Hosni Mubarak.”
OK. First of all, I appreciate the kind words and have the utmost respect for Michael as a writer and, even moreso, as a decent human being. He cares passionately about the things people should care passionately about. But Michael, I believe, has fallen into the trap many liberals fall into when offered the opportunity to be unabashedly proud and patriotic in support of the United States -- they look for any and every possible excuse to criticize their homeland and overlook all the reasons to praise it.
All those examples Michael cites of American misbehavior or outright criminality in regard to other nations are absolutely true. And wholly irrelevant. Simply because America has been guilty of reckless or abusive actions in the past -- actions which belie its foundations in liberty and democracy -- does not preclude it from reminding itself and other nations that those principles are written into the very birth of this nation and, through better and worse, remain the cornerstone of America.
Truth be told, millions of people around the world are weary of hearing about the grand American vision. Yet when oppressed citizens of other nations take to the streets to protest against their governments, it is virtually always to gain some part of that American vision, not the Russian or Swiss or French or Chinese vision. I think it’s because they know, even with all its flaws and self-serving behavior, America remains, not only the best example of how to offer the most people the greatest opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but also, by virtue of its economic and military might and influence (however varying) around the world, the most likely source of support for those seeking some measure of freedom.
Yes, America has propped up dictators and repressive governments in exchange for “stability” or security, or oil. We have engaged in wars without justification. We are far from perfect because we are human. This is why I did not use the word “exceptionalism” in my column. I think it is loaded with tons of freight, not the least of which being its suggestion of arrogance and egotism. We Americans clearly do not always know what is best for other peoples, even though some of our political leaders and “average citizens” may like to talk and act as though we do. But we are allowed to learn from our mistakes. (How about slavery?) No one can deny what the United States of America stands for because it is written into our Constitution, as amended over the years with a great deal of blood, sweat and tears.
(Brief aside: A local businessman told me that as the revolution in Egypt went on in the streets, with citizens demanding President Hosni Mubarak step down, some of his customers were saying, “We need to do that in this country.” No we don’t. We did that 135 years ago when we told the King of England to take a hike. It was a bloody mess. We now believe in the orderly transition of government in this country. We replace those leaders we don’t like through democratic voting. It’s one of the main qualities that sets us apart from many other countries and is a history lesson that should be well known and cherished by any political group that takes its name from the American Revolution.)
At any rate, I humbly believe that an American president who has demonstrated not only an understanding of the limits of power and the value of humility in domestic and foreign relations -- and who is also a living symbol of the opportunity awarded every (natural born) citizen of this nation -- is more than justified in reminding citizens of other nations what America stands for and hopes for and will support in any country whose people want it: freedom, human rights, dignity, opportunity, equality and justice for each and every citizen.
If not us, Michael, who?

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