Since this column will come out on the second of July, at the start of the Red, White, and Tahoe Blue observances culminating in Independence Day, it seems to me that a look at the state of what the Founders left us is in order.
A column I read recently said that a key job of the next President, be it Obama or McCain, will be to "reintroduce America to the world." I think that's an interesting and very apt choice of words. To introduce means, among other things, to bring into play, to make known by a formal act, to bring to a knowledge of something. The writer's choice of reintroduce indicates that the US was once in play in the world, once known by its formal acts, and known by the world. My travels over the past couple of years have taken me around the world a couple of times – to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and South America, and the thing I hear most often from people in all those parts of the world is a sense of bewilderment. To paraphrase and summarize, what I hear is "we thought we knew who the US was, and we loved or respected who that was. Now we don't know who you are any more, and we fear or disrespect you."
In the Eighteenth Century, the Founders had a strong sense of identity and independence, but they also had a healthy respect for what was then the rest of the world. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence, the signing of which we celebrate this week, begins with the proposition that "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the Earth, …separate and equal station,…a decent respect to the opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."(emphasis added). The new nation sent its very best – Franklin, Jefferson, Adams – to be ambassadors to key European countries, out of respect for the importance of introducing America to the world. For over 200 years after that the US was not always loved, but was always respected and where necessary feared, but the world was never in doubt about who we were or what we stood for. We would negotiate readily but, in Kennedy's words we would never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear, and as we showed in the two World Wars, you woke the sleeping giant that was America at your own grave peril.
In eight short years we have gone from world power to being seen as a nation in serious decline. We've seen government dishonesty on a scale not seen since 1789, international boasts, blunders, and bullying that makes the most ludicrous banana republics of the 20th Century look intelligent, and we've gone from caring stewards of ethical values on the international scale to being seen as uncaring bulls in the environmental china shop.
I don't know about you, but for me this Independence Day is time for us to reintroduce America to the world, We've made a good start. No matter who you favor for President, I think you will agree that for us to have gone from the Civil War of the mid-19th Century and the Suffrage wars of that same time into the early 20th to having an African-American and a woman squaring off as serious contenders to be President is a powerful statement, no matter who moves into the White House on January 20th. That's a start. We must reintroduce our leadership in environmental stewardship by reducing what the President termed our "addiction to oil" (right before he recommended drilling more oil as the cure for that addiction!). We must stand for our commitment to freedom and democracy by setting the example and demonstrating to the world the value of our way of life rather than by attempting oxymoronically to force freedom and democracy down the throats of people who have not asked for it. We must demonstrate our commitment to the Judaeo-Christian ethic by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and lifting up the downtrodden rather than by trying to decide who can marry whom and how people should handle their reproductive life.
Yes, we must reintroduce America to the world, including the world within America – the people who, like every one of our ancestors, are coming here to the "land of opportunity." We would all do well on this Independence Day to re-read the whole of the Declaration of Independence (or come to the Green today at noon to hear McAvoy Layne read it as only he - that is, Mark Twain - can). And also re-read the inscription on the statue in New York Harbor (Liberté eclairant le monde – Liberty lightening the world):
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!