The Carr-Weiss Institute
My previous articles in this space have talked about how Americans for the most part just don't get it. So Don, probably fearing that I may ask to move in with him in Scotland, has asked me to write about what is good about America. So,,,
First and foremost, we had a great set of people who set up the country and wrote the founding documents. The people were extraordinary and the documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are staggeringly good. The Declaration is not only good political thought, it is good literature.
...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness....
This is the only document in the world to recognize the pursuit of happiness as a right. That is really quite extraordinary. Today, as it always has been for anybody sworn into public office, the oath is to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Not allegiance to the Queen or any other corporeal being.
In passing one should note that there is a vocal minority who continue to protest the US involvement in Iraq because the Constitution requires the Congress to declare war. One notable case recently resolved was about a 2nd Lieutenant who refused to go to Iraq because he took his oath seriously and challenged the Government. About two weeks ago, after several years, the Army just let him quit, because their lawyers told them the Army probably wouldn't win a court-martial. But in general the Constitution is still alive and healthy. The whole purpose of the US Supreme court is to apply the Constitution to various odd circumstances that crop up. Sometimes the Court gets it wrong because the Constitution is silent on an awful lot of stuff. It doesn't say anything about a woman's right to abortion, so the decisions on that may change, given the court's new makeup. Nevertheless, the Constitution's durability and our willingness to think of it as a working document is really a wonderful thing. Not that everything is perfect.
The whole area of the Court's activism is really where the line is between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives think that the Constitution should be applied literally as it was written. The purpose of the Court is to figure out what the original intent of those who wrote the Constitution is. Liberals on the Court tend to look at what is going on in contemporary society, and then try to figure out what is in some sense fair. Then they find something in the Constitution to provide the underpinning. This is why when the some kinds of issues come, you can get two different opinions at different times. The classic example is the 1896 Court case in which segregation was declared legal, but in 1954 the Court declared it illegal. Most of the Southerners who participated in the writing of the Constitution were slave holders. Thomas Jefferson in particular bought and sold something like 400 slaves during his lifetime, and had about 250 slaves at any particular time at Monticello, his Virginia home.
Though the fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution made slavery illegal, there was an argument made that the Constitution was silent on the issue of segregation. So today, I think that you might still get wrong answers to what most would think are obvious moral issues, given the conservative makeup of the Court . But I think the Supreme Court is a good thing, right or wrong. One of the things I think speaks well for us, is that when the Supreme Court declared George Bush to be the winner in the 2000 election we all went home and shut up. Many of us felt the election was stolen, but there was no rioting in the streets. (I was all dressed, waiting for someone to tell me what street to riot in.) But, we played by the rules, which is probably a good thing, even though Bush has done an awful lot of damage.
Until the advent of transcontinental air travel in the 1950's, the way to go to and from Europe was the ocean liner. With the notable exception of the Titanic, this was a good way to go. Though you could go in and out of Baltimore and a few other Eastern seaports, most people went in and out of New York harbor, where you could see the oxidation overtaking the original copper skin of the Statue of Liberty. They could not read the plaque affixed to the base, but it says,
"... Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the US is that we have really tried to make good on this promise, at least since the 1960's.
I seem to remember hearing something from Colin Powell (Sir Colin, OB, to you) where he mentioned that Tony Blair had said to him that he, Tony, admired America because in England, Powell could never have risen to cabinet rank. I would hasten to point out that we do have a class system here. The schools don't teach about it. And it's not really discussed much. But the rich really are different from the rest if us. We're talking old money, here. The Bushes, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Louis-Dreyfuss family, and the Ford family. These are the guys who send their kids to prep schools and then to Harvard or Yale because they gave a new library wing to the school, not because Georgie had the brains to actually get in. This aristocracy is where all the Under Secretaries and and Assistant Secretaries in the government are, the social club that keeps the government going regardless of who's in the White House. The good news is that it is possible to get in the club if you are smart enough, and get in to the right school. The admissions process really is open to all, or at least all who are a lot smarter than I am. Obama did it, and so did his wife. Though we seem to hate the idea that everybody is entitled to health care, we all embrace the idea that everyone is entitled to free education through grade 12. After that you are on your own, but scholarships for bright students are easy to come by for those motivated to seek them.
Powell's route was different. He was a 'C' student at City College in New York, where ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps. Most campuses have this. Its Army training while in university. The Government pays for your education, and upon graduation you get commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and serve for 4 years.) Though he was a late bloomer, Powell found his niche in the Army and did well. The US armed services are now and have been for years the best example of equal opportunity that can be found anywhere. From the first day at boot camp a soldier's only correct answer to the drill instructor's in-your-face demand, "What color are you, shithead?" is "Green, Sergeant!"
But I digress. Whether Powell is really a member of the inner sanctum is not clear to me, but he's close. I don't run in those circles. He certainly has done well. I don't know if it's only in America, but we certainly stand out.
My company sent me to Korea for a month. I was surprised to find out that education isn't universal. (The following is true, I think. This is the way it was explained to me at the time.) You have to be a Korean citizen to qualify for public school. With such a sizable US military presence in Korea, there are a lot of half-American kids running around who have no civil rights that go with citizenship. That means you have a permanent underclass with no hope of attaining anything. Contrast this to the case where Texas went to court saying that public schools should not be opened to children of illegal Mexican seasonal workers. The courts slapped the Texans down hard saying that denial of education would create a permanent underclass, an abhorrent and un-American situation.
The US has an ongoing debate about what to do with illegal Mexican immigrants. Our southern border is notoriously porous. Oddly enough, we have no national identity cards. So there are bazillions of Mexicans here who work hard and are for the most part welcome. They pretty much mow every lawn in California, and staff all the Mexican restaurants in probably 20 states. But mostly they pick the fruits and vegetables we all eat. It would be easy to deport them all, but then not only would the price of fruits and vegetables go through the roof, the industry would probably collapse, and the crops would rot in the fields. On the other hand, providing schools, emergency medical care, and more police is expensive and a significant drain on western states' budgets. It's a real dilemma. El Presidente Vincente Fox commented in a news conference that the Mexicans do things for the Americans that "not even your blacks will do." There was a firestorm of protest for this awful remark, and he scurried back to Mexico, wondering what he said wrong. But I digress.
And I'm going to digress one more time. When we lost the Vietnam War, the issue of what to do with all the Vietnamese who threw in their lot with us came up. If we abandoned them, then the communists would probably kill them. So Gerald Ford just said, "Let them all in," and we had a huge influx of Vietnamese. They worked hard, went to school, and I was astonished to find out that when I went to military classified engineering meetings, more than half the participants were Vietnamese-Americans. I was truly shocked. I was thinking, my God, these are the people we turned into crispy critters with napalm. These are the gooks we told our guys to kill all of, and let God sort them out. And now they are active participants in making the hardware to keep the cycle going. This really hurts my head. We hire them because they graduated at the top of their class, and we give them Top Secret clearances, because that's how the law works. It really is the moral thing to do, and by God we do it. What a country! Of course we will soon be faced with the same problem: what do we do with all the Afghanis and Iraquis who threw in their lot with us? How we handle that one will say a lot about us.
So, speaking of immigration, why do so many people want to come here? It really is spectacularly true that starting a small business is very easy. Just rent space in a strip mall, and start your restaurant or beauty parlor, your video rental store, natural vitamin store, whatever you want to do. It seems like half the population of Korea has come to Seattle and set up teriyaki take-out restaurants in every strip mall we have. (The Koreans know that nobody likes kimchee, so they open up Japanese teriyaki places, knowing that we foreign devils can't tell the difference between Asians.) Often, four or five families will get together and buy a house, and everyone lives together for two or three years. Then, all the cars disappear, as each family becomes wealthy enough to get their own home. The kids go to school, and in one generation they are fully integrated. That story is repeated over and over.
What else is good about America? For one thing, it's big. That means whatever climate you want, there is someplace that has it. What ever scenery you want, mountain or ocean, desert or rainforest, we have it. We have (sort of) French speaking Cajuns in Louisiana, and people with Swedish accents in Minnesota. You can be born to a fisherman, and decide you want to be a cowboy and there is somewhere to go that embraces that culture. But the geography and geology is, as much as anything, the reason people from Europe come here to visit. The American southwest, with the Grand Canyon, Zion and Arches National Parks, not to mention Yosemite, is unique in the world. The raw natural beauty of all of the 60 National Park is truly a wonder.
I am sort of political animal, so I keep drifting back to the political framework. I mentioned before that we don't have national identity cards. When we move from one place to another, we don't report in to the police to announce our new residence. The government can't listen to your phone calls unless the police give a judge probable cause that you are doing something wrong. You can disappear and never be found again, if you are careful to not use your credit card or get arrested.
We have a sizable number of loonies who have guns of every description in their houses and cars, and even some normal people who do, too. If the government were ever to declare martial law, and storm troopers came to our towns, those troopers would be out gunned by the local populace. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it is, and it seems to be in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
So what else is good about America? We drive on the correct side of the road. And we elected Obama.