THE MEANING OF AMERICA – The American Idea
Part four of a four part series by Avery Slom for the ASPL blog
The idea of America made it different. Arguably, it made it better than most other nations of the late 18th century. The United States was the first country to adopt ideas of the Enlightenment as founding principles: notions such as individual liberty, freedom of religion and freedom speech, equal opportunity, democracy, separation of political power, and a government by and for the people with no aristocracy or inherited social classes. America became, in a way, a philosophical laboratory to test if these liberal notions of human rights and freedom could actually work. Could a nation survive without a ruling class to control what its citizens did, what they said, what they wrote, and what they believed? Many at the time thought not.
But the United States did survive and it prospered because these ideas work. A good indication of how well they work can be seen by reflecting on the rate of human progress, in culture, science, and technology, before and after they began to take hold, not only in America, but in many places around the world. At least as measured by improvements in average health, longevity, literacy, and living standards, people are better off now than at any time in history.
A nation is a collection of people, and they are its greatest asset. It does best when its people can do their best, and this is what America allowed. When all members of a society are assured a fair opportunity to make a better life for themselves and for their children, they strive hard to do so. They create. They innovate. They discover. As long as they are free to question convention and try new things, many will. Often they fail. Sometimes they succeed, and their achievements benefit society as a whole.
In other places and at other times, people of the wrong class, the wrong religion, or the wrong ideology were denied opportunities. Sometimes they were imprisoned or even executed. This robbed their societies of contributions they might otherwise have been able to make. But in the melting pot of America, different people with different beliefs and backgrounds could meet and work together. They came from all over the world and created a marketplace of skills and ideas, mixing and mingling the best to create something new. They came to improve themselves, and in so doing, they improved the nation.
America is no longer alone in embracing Enlightenment ideas. There are now liberal democracies all around the world, and people from countries that may not yet be quite so Enlightened come to them for much the same reason people came to America: freedom, equality, and opportunity. If history can be relied upon for an example, the nations that welcome them into their societies will benefit. If they regard them as an asset rather than as a threat or as a liability, they will be. The loss is to the nations they left.
The simple truth is that all people, regardless of race, religion, language, gender, political ideology, or culture, have more things in common than they have things that divide them. The commonalities are intrinsic. We are all human. We all want enough food, a safe place to live, acceptance of our peers, and the hope of a better future for our children. The things we sometimes allow to divide us are relatively trivial. Many are little more than matters of taste or opinion. Allowing trivial differences to prevent us from working together peacefully toward common goals, to me, seems insane. It’s certainly not consistent with the Enlightenment principles that America was founded upon and that many other nations now share.
If we forget what made America different, the ideas that made it better than the nations that came before, we risk destroying it from within. We risk turning it into just another chunk of land, a country with nothing special about it, the kind our ancestors left.
So when I hear American politicians fueling fear and anger and ranting about excluding people from a chance to share the American dream, I tend to shudder. Denying freedom, restricting opportunity, closing doors to those seeking sanctuary or simply a better life is not what America is about. We’re better than that. I hope we remain so. Let’s not forgot what America means.
The Meaning of America Blog Series:
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