Sunday, September 16, 2018

Notes about Lauren Southern’s interview with Sky News in Australia


 
At the end of July, I came across a short video of an Australian television interview with Lauren Southern, who is a Canadian alt-right activist, internet personality, and self-proclaimed journalist.  In this video, she makes sweeping generalizations about Islam, targeting the Muslim world as the source of much of our problems in the West.  Intriguingly, she claims that Islam knows what it wants: it wants a global caliphate. Ha! It is my professional understanding that Islam is far too fragmented to want to fall under a universal government. This is a fiction, based upon her misunderstanding of Ottoman History as being representative of all Islamic history. It is as valid as the claim that “global Jewry” wants to dominate the world. There is neither a monolithic Islam, nor is there monolithic Judaism—nor a monolithic Christianity, for that matter. Frankly, I think it is more an indication of her own deeply held and sinister intentions on maintaining Anglo- and Christocentric global domination; the lady doth protest too much. What she perceives and fears in others may be an inkling of the darkness within her.  

Secondly, she claims that the West has lost its way and does not have a firm identity. I agree with her, but not for the reasons she thinks.  The west has not determined whether it wants in fact to be truly Christian or whether it wants to be the West.  I say this in such a way, because she and many other Western Christians do not understand the core of earliest Christianity. They perceive and idealize Christianity through the rosy lenses of their colonialist and imperialist past.  The form and practice of Christianity that was prevalent during the rise of the colonial west is not the same as the Christianity that Jesus preached. And I state this as a professional scholar of Christian Origins.  I repeat: the interpretation of Christianity that is held dear by many right wing white Americans is far from the Christianity that Jesus preached. It is closer to the very ideals that Christianity railed against. This largely American brand of right wing, fundamentalist Christianity is rooted in overweening pride, in nationalism, in worldly and secular values that are against everything that Jesus taught. Many Christians have found themselves preaching a form of Christianity that is more like the imperial Roman cult that sought to crush Christianity.  Modern Christians need to decide whether they love their nation more than Christ.  Because Christianity asks one to put God before everything, even country and geopolitical and ethnic identity. There is no room for hypernationalism or excessive and exclusive patriotism in Christianity. Proper observance of civic laws is a given, as we see in the widely misinterpreted passage of Paul that was recently ripped out of the pages of the text by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and held up as a testament of the eternal primacy of government. But once the compulsory tribute is paid to Caesar (“render unto Caesar…”), one is then freed to do the real work that God commands. And soon after, all earthly governments will be laid to waste in the apocalypse that is preached by Jesus. And those who favored nation over God or the care of humanity will be cast into the pits of Hades along with those whose excessive pride has enabled them to treat the sojourner with disdain and inhospitability, and the widows and orphans as so much trash.  So Christians need to decide whether they are going to really follow Jesus’ teachings, which are eminently anti-nomian and anti-imperial and critical of earthly government, or are they going to practice the worship of Mammon and Mars and Jupiter, clothed in the American flag, but merely shrouded in the blood of the lamb and his holy name. 

Lastly, Southern is painting a very rosy picture of the history of the Christian West, forgetting the centuries in which gun-wielding Europeans marched into foreign lands primarily in the global south and enslaved indigenous populations, perpetrating enforced conversions upon the inhabitants, and claiming these lands for their own petty, secular European ends.  And today the West continues to allow its multinational corporations to meddle in the affairs of impoverished but resource rich emerging nations, perpetrating wars on their soil in the name of Democracy or Christianity, whichever will best inspire armies to mobilize. To claim that Christianity was always about choice—as she blithely and uncritically does in the video—is to erase the deaths of tens of millions of indigenous peoples on numerous continents who were killed in the course of European expansion, all in the name of bringing Christian civilization and values to them; and it erases the deaths of nearly six million Jews who died at the hands of willing Christian participants in the rise of the Nazi regime, whose ancestors had been taught for generations that the “perfidious Jew” was the “murderer of Christ”, and that to kill or displace the Jew was tantamount to a holy and godly sacrifice.  It ignores the millions of Jews who were murdered or displaced in the pogroms, the expulsion from Spain, followed by the Inquisition, and the various forced migrations and massacres that took the lives of countless Jews during medieval Europe’s long periods of coming to grips with their misunderstanding of Jews in their midst.  Where was the choice in this?  

I remind you that when the Kingdom of Spain expelled hundreds of thousands of Jews in 1492, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II had ships waiting off the coast of Spain to welcome Jews into the heart of his empire as honored guests and new citizens. Refugees resettled in a new land, they flourished in the Ottoman Empire for many centuries until the practitioners of misguided Christendom allowed the hand of the Nazis to reach into these lands formerly governed by the Ottomans, such as Greece and the Balkans, and these Jews now found their way into death camps.  The descendants of the very European Christians who sought the extermination or expulsion of the Jews throughout the middle ages now once again had the ability to wipe out the descendants of those who had escaped.  I ask you, where was the choice in that?  

I do not deny that every nation has the right to self-determination, to preserve the dominant culture in its borders, but it also has a responsibility to protect indigenous and minority cultures as well. And it needs to come to grips with its true identity, and be frank enough with itself to accept that it is the exact opposite of what it claims to be, and if necessary, to celebrate that.  But I say to America and the Western World, do not fool yourself into believing you are something you are not.  As such, we need a voter base that is actually educated enough to know the difference between facts and mere demagoguery—mere hyper-nationalist and pseudo-Christian propaganda spouted by a very charming and attractive young woman who has just enough intelligence to be dangerous.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Comments on "Images of Suffering Can Bring About Change--But Are They Ethical?", in The Conversation


What follows is my commentary on an excellent article, "Images of Suffering Can Bring About Change--But Are They Ethical?", in The Conversation, by Dr. Alison Dundes Renteln of USC.  

https://theconversation.com/images-of-suffering-can-bring-about-change-but-are-they-ethical-100809

Kudos to Dr. Dundes Renteln for an informative and thought provoking article. I particularly appreciated the discussion of the Dorothea Lange photo of Florence Owens Thompson, which has haunted me for years, but which I did not realize had been taken and used under such questionable conditions.

I would also like to offer some observations and alternate viewpoints to those made by many of the individuals quoted in the article. The tendency for "armchair philosophes" and keyboard warriors to make snap criticisms of those who have accomplished much is a powerful impulse. It is easy to criticize in the luxury of aftermath, especially in the comfort of a thriving industrialized Western society. While Thompson may not have benefited directly from the photograph, it indeed helped mobilize people to address the issues surrounding her poverty and that of those like her. Regarding Kevin Carter's photograph of the Sudanese girl beset by the vulture, it is far too easy for critics to state what they would have done in these circumstances; it has long been the quandary of journalists whether to use their camera as a weapon against injustice or to pick up a gun and fight the rebels directly, or to pick up a bowl and feed the hungry--thereby missing the critical photo that could change the world. It is the rare Hemingway who was able to do both--with his pen and his "sword". In the end, it occurs to me that Arthur and Ruth Kleinman, and those like them, may have bullied Carter to his death, seeking to cut down a giant who had done more than most people have ever done. Now, who is the predator?

As noted in the essay's section on David Campbell, photographs are critical in mobilizing our sympathies before it is too late. I would add that we are simultaneously a very visual society, and are very easily touched by the plight of fellow human beings. We are, by nature, compassionate, and we react to perceived suffering. But we are also inundated with images of suffering, and the rare photo that is able to stir our hearts amidst our own suffering, and to devote our meager funds to helping bring about equity in the world, is perhaps worth the questions raised about equity for the subjects of the photos themselves. In journalism, there is often no time to deliberate, as scholars are wont to do, about the course of one's actions. Imagine the absurdity of expecting photographer Richard Drew, who took the iconic photo of the man falling to his death as he jumped from the burning Twin Towers on 9/11, opting not to take the photo, since he was unable to receive a ready answer from the man as to how he wanted to be positioned in the composition to best highlight his dignity as he died. Once again, it is far too easy for established and powerful organizations--like Amnesty International and Save the Children--to unilaterally institute this or that set of guidelines or best practices of how to be a journalist and how to focus on the dignity of their subjects, while the world is becoming more and more callous to the murder and tragedy around us. It is crucial that our eyes every now and then be assaulted by photos of the truly suffering, to move us to collective action, and to distract us from our preoccupation with the beautiful and the wealthy, like the Kardashians and Trump, who are smokescreens and decoys from the inequity and destruction pervasive and waxing in our world.

I take issue with only one aspect of Dr. Dundes Renteln's conclusion to an otherwise excellent article. She opts to focus on the offensive nature of "voyeuristic interpretation of distant suffering", when it is my preference to mitigate this with the recognition that what is truly at stake here is the need to tell someone's tale, and to preserve their suffering for posterity and to elicit sympathy from those with control over society's purse strings. I cannot imagine the Rohingya of Myanmar opting not to have their story told, due to insufficient control of the composition and usage of the subject matter, thereby allowing their villages to burn unnoticed by the world. I think that both sides of the equation need to be considered--both urgency and immediacy of the need for action, as well as preserving the dignity of those whose tales are being told. It is too easy to focus on one over the other in the comfort of our homes and offices.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Resting on Our Laurels: The Laurel-Yanni Debate as Emblematic of Our Highly Divisive Times



For those who are paying more attention to international news than social media—or those who are reading this long after the momentary hubbub has died down, and are searching through the cache of 24-hour media viruses like Chocolate Rain and Overly Dramatic Rodents, allow me to describe to you a seemingly trivial speck on the radar screen of cultural goings-on, which might actually have a hidden meaning and provide an explanation of our current cultural and political trajectory, and offer a solution to our present state of division. 

In mid-May, 2018, a young woman posted to her Instagram account (that’s a wildly popular social media platform, for the uninitiated) a short audio clip and a poll about people’s perception of that clip.  The short clip was on a repeating loop and bore one single word that was easy to hear, but inspired varying perceptions.  Some described a deep, male voice in the clip which clearly said “Laurel”, in his best radio announcer style. Others described a gravelly female voice in the clip which clearly said “Yanni” (pronounced YANN-knee) in her best imitation of your 80 year old great aunt who’s been a chain smoker most of her life. Reminiscent of the great gold dress / blue dress meme debate of 2015, when this first came across my desk, I initially scoffed at this, thinking to myself, “Could there possibly be two words more starkly different and still come from the same audio clip?” So I suspiciously opened the post and listened for myself. Immediately, I heard a hoarse-voiced, elderly lady croaking in a moderately low pitch the neologism, “YANN-knee”, with a seemingly Midwestern accent. I could not conceive of how anyone could ever hear this as “Laurel”.  So I read an article in The Atlantic by a linguist, which I found only marginally helpful in explicating how two entirely different words and pronunciations could come from the same audio clip.[1] I even asked my wife to listen as well.  She perceived neither pronunciation at first, hearing something in-between, but gradually agreeing with me on the Yanni interpretation, before losing interest in the discussion and returning to her e-book on noted philanderer and pioneering radio disk jockey, Richard Blade.  

The next day, I came across a newer article in The New York Times, that included an online tool which was developed whereby one could play the same, original clip repeatedly, but modulate the output through an on-screen, mouse manipulated slider, and hear, effectively, what the other party hears.[2]  I tried it, and immediately—without even changing the slider’s location—I heard “Laurel”, pronounced by a deep baritone male voice, like those who spent their lives in suits and ties, enjoying male privilege, and working as voice actors for advertising companies or educational outfits.  His deep, rich tones, reminded me of the voice over from elementary school film strips and 16 mm movies from the 1970s, telling me about the primary exports from the Amazon Rain Forest, and why capitalism will always win over Communism.  Remembering my statement of incredulity from the day prior, I couldn’t believe my ears!  “Where’d Aunt Margie go?!” I asked myself, proposing that she may have gone to the other room to retrieve her pack of cigarettes, or finding the pack empty, took a quick trip to the QuikTrip to pick up more Camels, or at least some Virginia Slims.  I continued to play with the slider, and Aunt Margie suddenly returned, now stronger than ever, freshly quaffed with gin and tonic, and enjoying a puff of her cancer sticks. As I moved the slider back and forth, adjusting the modulation as my curiosity moved me, I heard Don—the suave and confidently masculine voiceover actor—return from his trip to the Rainforest, only to share with Aunt Margie about his new mistress who lived on a street called “Laurel”. Aunt Margie retorted that she had been listening to that nice Greek musician who used to date her favorite evening soap opera actress, Linda Evans, but she butchered his name in the process, as if she were referring to a nanny goat.  Aunt Margie’s voice sounded a bit tinny the further to the right I moved the slider, but Yanni was still very clear. And as I moved the slider to the far left, Don’s voice was quite clear in all its traditionally masculine, martini-drinking glory, as fresh from a Madison Avenue ad agency, or a safari in Africa. But then something strange happened.  Don showed up on Aunt Margie’s side, and occasionally, Margie took a sip of Don’s martini and languished on his side of the room.  And I realized that both were always there, but depending upon which one I listened for, I heard one over the other.  If I shifted the slider to Margie’s side, irrespective of how far into her domain I was, I began to hear Don crooning, “Laurel” very clearly. And Margie’s raspy, gin-fueled and tobacco burnished “Yanni” was harder to discern.  But I listened very specifically for it, and even recited the word in my mind, I could hear it as Don’s Laurel took a momentary back seat.  

I’m no scientist, but I have spent decades in a university setting, and I do understand enough about shifting human perspective to see a pattern emerging here.  And with the help of both articles I had read on the topic, it became clear to me that both of these words were always and ever present amid the data and sound waves recorded.  Neither of them ever disappeared.  The sound waves were merely sound waves.  But depending upon how your mind deciphered them, and which pulses and frequencies you were attuned to, one word emerged in your consciousness while the other retreated.  Such is the case with radio waves.  They are always there.  Millions and millions of countless impulses travel through the air every day from various sources, such as radio stations, television stations, wireless transmitters and otherwise.  But only certain of these impulses or frequencies are our particular individual devices attuned to receive or decipher into comprehensible and understandable data to which we react.  And so it is with the original recording of what evidently started its life as an instructional vocabulary clip used by an educational company for pedagogical purposes, probably to demonstrate the proper pronunciation of the word, Laurel.  By tuning out background noise, we hear handsome Don crooning “Laurel” in his three piece suit; but by tuning out the foreground noise, and only listening to the background or other peripheral frequencies, we hear Aunt Margie croaking something akin to “Yanni”, between puffs from her Newport Lites. 

This discussion may seem trivial and insignificant in the midst of national and international turmoil in the form of school shootings nearly every month (even one in Texas as I write this), undeniable overfishing and plastic pollution of our oceans, innocent children and adults being murdered in Gaza alongside of protesters, and a shaky truce between North and South Korea, among many other truly important current events.  But this argument over Laurel or Yanni is more than a mere distraction, unlike the gustatory choices of socialite Kendall Jenner prior to her attendance of the Met Gala, or whether her half-sister Kim Kardashian’s semi-nude photo for an online magazine in 2015 actually “broke the internet” or not.  

The debate over whether the actual recording empirically presents the word Laurel or the neologistic Yanni is in fact emblematic of the divisions that the United States is suffering under—and perhaps the world at large.  It is somewhat reminiscent of a folk story from the Yoruba people of Western Africa, in which the archetypal trickster figure, Eshu, indicative of his playful and pranksterish nature, walks between two friends, while wearing a hat that is colored differently on either side—deliberately stirring up trouble by causing an argument over the actual color of the hat.  The friend who sees only the black side of the hat has a different perspective from the friend who walks on the other side and only sees the red side of the hat, a difference of opinion that needlessly causes both friends—obviously unwilling to entertain the validity of the other’s individual perspective—to become bitter enemies.[3]

For many years, I have witnessed a tendency for people to dismiss the opinions and life experiences of their political adversaries as being irrelevant or unimportant. This is a common tendency, invalidating the standpoints of “the other”.  But in the past few years, leading up to the 2016 election, and in the time since then, I have seen a worsening of this, and from both sides of the political spectrum.  In recognizing this sinfulness of “both sides”, I am not purposefully detracting from the gravity of, or dismissing the very real crimes and acts of hatred carried out by certain supporters of a major political party, which include running over protesters with cars, pointing semi-automatic weapons at Jewish synagogues, and all manner of bullying of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.  But the vast majority of people on either end of the political spectrum are not engaging in this kind of lawless and despicable behavior.  Yet, there are people on both sides who are in fact rejecting the validity of the life experiences and socio-political and economic realities of people who support either major party or platform, with the result being that the other side is demonized as if they have no right to their opinions and neither do they have any reason to exist.  

I do, however, see a lot that the proponents of these two sides of the larger discussion have in common.  And much of this they will never realize.  And so they fail to recognize the inherent humanity in the other, no less the validity of their lived experiences or the kernel of truth in their viewpoints, regardless of the shortcomings of their arguments.  And I often see each side twisting words of the other side, ignoring the central points and harping on minor points of verbiage or peripheral aspects of presentation, and dismissing anything helpful that could serve to unite or cause reconciliation.  

Of the many things that I see in common, is that people have a need to feel proud of their identities. People don’t want to feel as if their heritage or their identity, either chosen or inherited, is invalid or deprecated. And all too often they see in the arguments of the other, a pointed disregard for their need for pride.  LGBTQ+ folk often feel that social and religious conservatives do not honor their right to exist and to love those whom they choose to love.  And we see people of a more conservative mindset feeling reviled and bullied for holding more conservative social and moral standpoints, and choosing to teach their children a certain conservative theological doctrine.  People of Hispanic descent, or those immigrating from Latin American countries feel the need to preserve their heritage and celebrate and promote their culture.  People of Anglo descent, hailing from Southern regions of the United States feel as if their entire heritage is being equated with slavery and racism, and being personally and individually blamed for the historical plight of African Americans.[4]  Military veterans and active duty personnel alike want to feel as if they are valued for their service and their contributions to defending our nation; not to be labeled wholesale as baby-killers or murderers and tools of global imperialism.  Catholics, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, people from the Coasts, people from Middle America; people from larger, liberal, urban areas; and people from less populated and largely rural areas; people that own and live around guns and gun culture; people who have never held a gun and reject gun culture—all of these people have a need to affirm their identity and their choices and to feel pride in who they are, and to not have others seek to invalidate their lived experiences and cultural expressions.  

At the core of nearly every culture, we are taught to seek justice. We are taught to desire peace.  We are taught that equal treatment under the law is an individual human right and a just end.  And every one of us believes that we, individually, deserve these things; and we at least pay lip service to the fact that others deserve them, too.  Now, we may differ as to how to bring these things about.  We may have different feelings about amnesty and permissiveness in the face of legalism, about individualism versus collective identity, about authoritarianism versus libertarianism, but we all seek to be honored and respected and understood—and to have our voices heard.  We all seek to preserve the cultures and traditions we grew up with.  None of us likes when our long-held mores and values and icons are exposed to the vicissitudes of historical revisionism or deconstruction and reconsideration, leaving us in a limbo of cognitive dissonance.  None of us likes when our core values and identity are exposed to criticism, and it takes a very wise and self-aware person to be truly open to this kind of criticism. But it needs to be conveyed in a way that seeks growth, progress, and reconciliation; not the wholesale tearing down and deconstruction of a culture’s or a people’s identity. There needs to be a sensitivity to what is lost when we tear down an idol or an icon for their fatal flaws and human shortcomings.  When we criticize or tear down a Gandhi or a Mother Theresa or a Martin Luther King for their flawed and frail humanity, we need to put something up in their place, or at least come to grips with the fact that no “saint” is truly perfect.  

A spirit of division has come upon our nation and between us, as Americans. Whether it is Eshu, the Trickster of the Yoruba, or the Devil of the Abrahamic Faiths, that plagues us, I cannot tell.  But plaguing us it is, and it is making us combative and irascible and even seemingly irreconcilable in our cultivated arrogance that we are naturally correct.  We would do well to show gratitude toward those on the other side of the slider, showing us how to modulate the sound that comes into our ears, and how to understand it differently.  One of the key traditions shared by the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—as well as many other world religions—is that of repentance.  Even the I Ching, an ancient Chinese Confucian text, states that “the mind should be kept humble and free, so that it may remain receptive to good advice. People soon give up counseling a man who thinks that he knows everything better than anyone else.”[5]  It is this advice, from a non-Western culture, that serves as a testament to the ubiquity of such counsel.  We must all be open to revising our viewpoints and reconciling toward those who were our erstwhile adversaries.  We must be grateful to them for showing us that there is a different way to perceive or interpret the sounds that enter our earholes. 

We are all Americans, whether we are native-born Americans, indigenous Americans, naturalized Americans, or aspiring Americans of any sort (documented or not). We are here for a reason and most of us want to be here; and, as such, we have a responsibility, an obligation, to work for the common good.  We are the nation that was central in defeating Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini. We pulled together for that, and despite our differences—even amidst terrible prejudice and oppression of certain racial and ethnic groupings (namely Japanese-Americans and African-Americans begin with)—everyone gave selflessly and played their part.  That time, the enemy was an external one.  But this time, the enemy is within each of us, and it is much wilier.  It is very insidious and divisive.  The only way to defeat this enemy, this trickster, this devil, is to be willing to slide the modulator a little bit left or right and be willing to listen to what the other party hears.  Is it Laurel? Or is it Yanni?  It turns out that it is both.  Until we move that modulator a little bit, we are going to keep on fighting and denying each other’s personal truths and lived experiences out of our hubris, our overweening arrogance that we know everything.  And we will continue to argue over Laurel or Yanni, or whatever is the issue of the month. We can do better. We must do better.


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/05/dont-rest-on-your-laurels/560483/
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/16/upshot/audio-clip-yanny-laurel-debate.html
[3] Ken Derry, in A Concise Introduction to World Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, Alan F. Segal, et al, Third Edition, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2015, p.49.
[4] Note that the cultures and economy of colonial Latin America and Caribbean as well as the Southern U.S. were built upon slavery and plantations and the subjugation of and disenfranchisement of indigenous populations.
[5] The I Ching, Translated by Richard Wilhelm, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977, Hexagram 31, pg. 123.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

I Believe in American Exceptionalism. But Wait, There's More....



I believe in American exceptionalism. Before you boo and hiss me—as my liberal listeners—or before you smugly enumerate my endorsement—as my conservative listeners—I want to clarify.  American exceptionalism has its substance, its truth, not in some divine mandate, irrevocable.  As it says in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Lk 3:8)  And the Apostle Paul says regarding the inclusion of gentiles into the New Israel that he envisions Christianity to be: “Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”

The substance of American exceptionalism lies in the sum total effect of our actions. Our ability to stick to our principles. In light of President Trump’s campaign slogans, to “Make America Great Again”, which was a stumbling block for liberals, a liberal friend of mine questioned if America was ever great.  To me, the statement, “Make America Great Again,” is fundamentally flawed.  We never stopped being great.  But in her defense, she is speaking as a woman of color, a child of immigrants, and a person of religious tradition and ethnic extraction that have been much slandered in recent years.  She is seeing the worst of what we are.  But I answered—and I answer now—that our greatness, our exceptionalism, has always lain within our desire—as a nation—to do better.  To strive harder and to be better than our forebears.  From the start of our nation, our forefathers and foremothers sought to have a better and more equitable government than the monarchies and tyrannies of Europe. They came here to seek religious freedom and economic opportunities that they did not have in Europe, in the Old World, which was dominated by hereditary aristocracies that had made themselves fat on the blood of the peasants whom they were supposedly entrusted to govern.  Now did our ancestors in this land immediately solve all problems and establish universal freedom and equality for all citizens and inhabitants of this land?  No, they did not.  For as humans, they were fallible, and they succumbed to many of the same faults as their ancestors did.  For many brought millions of slaves against their will from Africa to labor here under pain of death, the former telling themselves that it was the natural order of things, and soothing their seething souls from the burgeoning conscience that sought to peek through their hardened hearts, by reciting and mangling scripture that justified their usage and furtherance of their “peculiar institution”—that of slavery.  But in time, better natures prevailed and our founders and their descendants thought better of their actions and sought to abolish slavery.  And many people died, trying to defend their way of life, thinking that they were letting go of their freedom; many people died trying to establish freedom for all men and women and to ensure that the promise of liberty is extended to all people. And in another generation, many women and their male allies fought for universal suffrage, ensuring that women had the right to vote as well as men.  And in another generation, we as a nation pulled together to save the world from the tyranny of fascism in its numerous forms—and from Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.  And in another generation, our people fought for civil rights, to close the deal that had been struck with the former slaves, inaugurated by the Emancipation Proclamation, and to reassert the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people, regardless of race, color, or creed.  Since that time, we have suffered from other expressions of tyranny, such as unbridled warfare that has served big moneyed special interests, putting oil and corporate profits before American lives; unrestricted government access to our personal information and our private lives; or forms of extremism from both ends of the spectrum, and so forth and so on.  Through each and every era, we have fought to make ourselves better.  Sometimes we have succeeded. Other times, we have strayed further from the path, thinking ourselves more free or more equitable.  But in every age, it has been these principles that have driven us to become better than we were before, and in my opinion, this is the source of American exceptionalism.

One of the marks of American liberalism has been to right the wrongs of former times, to seek justice for the downtrodden, and to repent for our iniquities as a nation.  A certain amount of shame has always accompanied the realization that we have done wrong.   Conversely, one of the marks of American conservatism has been a resistance to feeling shame about ourselves as a nation, but in some ways that pride has stood in the way of realizing one of the most important principles of the Judeo-Christian faith systems: repentance.  Long ago, during the Revolutionary War, patriotism meant willingness to die for one’s country, defending one’s freedom.    Modern patriotism has veered off course, attempting rather to defend one’s pride.  Modern patriotism has become synonymous with pride, rather than sacrifice.  And overweening pride can easily become a sin.  I do not seek to take away the source of anyone’s pride.  People want to feel good about themselves.  That’s their right.  We all need pride, as does any child being trained to walk or speak.  We all need a gold star on our homework. But how long do we have to be given gold stars in order to keep us moving forward?  After a while, we need to put away childish things and walk on our own. And a part of this is recognizing our mistake, taking responsibility for our iniquities, for repentance. 


We need a healthy dose of pride in who we are, as a people, as a nation.  But we need that pride to be tempered with humility and compassion, and indeed, repentance for our wrongdoings.  King David, the model of the Biblical king, modeled humility before God, and embodied repentance.  Are we claiming to be greater than David?  Have we surpassed him in perfection?  

So how do I feel about American exceptionalism?  I believe that our exceptionalism lies in our ability to embrace the diversity that made this nation, and through it to build unity.  In welcoming the immigrants of all classes, creeds, races, colors, and abilities, who were able to make this nation prosperous and industrious, and who can still do so if given the right opportunities.  Taking the best of all cultures and sharing and appreciating them.  And are we a melting pot or a salad bowl? I don’t care.  We’re both.  We’ll start our meal with salad and then we move on to the fondue.  And Guess what? After the meal, there is a delicious fruit salad for us all to enjoy! That diversity can make all of us stronger, individually and corporately.  And Our exceptionalism lies in our compassion toward other nations, neighbors or not, allies or not, being willing to lend a hand in the face of adversity and tragedy, being willing to build bridges where there were only chasms.  Our exceptionalism lies in our ability and our desire to make peace and to avoid war, not to thrive in it and get rich on it.  

I want us to feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments. But I want us to do better and to be better; to never stop trying to become what God wants us to be, what our better natures want us to be.  We have a lot to be proud of, but we also have a lot farther to go.  As with any promising teenager, we cannot let them rest on their laurels and be satisfied with a few A papers, a few perfect test scores, a few goals or touchdowns scored.  There is a whole life ahead of us, but we are going to have to graduate high school and go to college, or embark on a career.  No one is going to give us handouts just for being a good student. We have to keep working.  And if that requires a little humility, and a little repentance, and a few “I’m sorries”, then so be it, if it will ensure that we remain righteous and that we retain the greatness that our ancestors worked so hard for.  Be proud of our achievements, be humble about our natural abilities, and be quick to apologize, to police our own, to make amends, to build alliances and to move on.  And to embrace the greatness that I know we are capable of.