Get out your firecrackers, ladies and gentlemen. This may be the last Fourth of July – at least as we know it.
Yes, I realize that’s a bit hyperbolic. But this is the year our national character is up for a vote. American exceptionalism is on the line. If we lose it, we may never get it back. History will have made the Big Turn.
Now to be honest, just like our president, I was embarrassed by the term American exceptionalism, when I first heard it. I mean why were we special? Who were we to be the boss of the world?
These were the obvious questions that rattled around my brain as a college student and later as a young leftist-type in the period of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Yet somewhere deep down I was a patriot even then. I knew the free world would not have defeated the Nazis without us. I knew the fight against Soviet communism was a good fight and that we must win.
But it wasn’t until much later — still about twenty-five years ago now — that I came to a deeper understanding of American exceptionalism, ironically from a French girlfriend. “Roger,” she told me, “you are the window of the world.”
The “window of the world”? I was taken aback. It was one of the moments when someone tells you something you already knew, but failed to acknowledge. For the last centuries, America had indeed been the “window of the world.”
If someone from a galaxy far, far away were to ask what was good, what was original about our planet, they would have to say our country, what it has struggled to achieve throughout its history and the ultimately positive manner in which it has influenced the human race at large. We protected the world from its worst impulses and pointed the way to freedom. And we led it toward prosperity while we did it.
That window is in danger of closing.
The same forces that made me embarrassed by American exceptionalism as a young man are shutting it, the same guilty feelings that propelled my generation from idealism to self-abnegation. And that generation now has as its standard bearer a somewhat younger president who eagerly does its work for it, our unfortunate son.
So here we are at the Fourth of July 2012, staring at what seems very much like a precipice.
The leader of our faction is a man who seems reasonably intelligent but conventional in the extreme, a moderate man in immoderate times, an undramatic man in an epoch that it is wildly theatrical in its implications, an era that calls for a Reagan or, better yet, a Washington.
But, as the cliché goes, you go to war with the army you have. We can take heart from the fact that it is not the leaders who are so important, but the people themselves. We are in a very real sense the army. It is our job to propel our leaders forward, to give them confidence.
Moreover, expecting leaders to be perfect in this internet era of total information is close to absurd. We all make mistakes and, fortunately or unfortunately, they are all reported almost instantly. We have to learn to shrug them off and move on, at least those that don’t rise to a significant level of importance. We should always remember this is a cataclysmic war being fought with the puniest of sound bites. Washington never had to deal with that.
We also all have to remember to “keep our eye on the prize” and not on each other. Those who want to protect American exceptionalism are perforce an unruly lot because they are protecting something inherently unruly. We are fighting for the ability to disagree, but we should holster some of those disagreements until election day.
The road between this Fourth of July and November 6 will be rocky, again in the extreme, perhaps terrifyingly so. In the worst economy since the Great Depression, it’s hard to believe roughly half our fellow citizens still favor the incumbent. But they do. Faced with that level of cognitive dissonance, the struggle ahead will be nothing short of titanic.
So get out your firecrackers and let loose. Let’s hope this isn’t the last time. (But remember to play safe. We need you on the hustings, not in the emergency room.)