Five Things the United States Did Right

One of the greatest strengths the United States has constitutes its ability to admit mistakes – to apologize and acknowledge that America has not always been right, and that it has sometimes done things terribly wrong. This capacity has always served the country well; if America has often traveled down the wrong road, it has even more often corrected its path.

Yet although people do the country a great service in perceiving in faults, sometimes the criticism goes a bit too far.

Take my college, for instance, a great institution which I love – but which exemplifies this excessive self-criticism. I have taken classes in which professors have labeled America a nation founded upon “white supremacy.” Another course, supposedly chronicling America’s history, turned out to be a litany of how the United States had oppressed blacks, women, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, the poor, homosexuals, Third World countries, the environment, and everything in between.

I have conversed with friends convinced that the United States has hurt the world far more than it has helped it. I know students so blinded by bitterness and hatred for America’s wrongdoings that it is frightening and very sad – who find racism and oppression in every TV show or every action of the Republican Party. Sometimes I feel the blindness creeping on myself.

So in the spirit of fighting this blindness, here are five things America has done right:

5. Acknowledging its wrongs. Although this post is a reaction to this gone too far, America’s ability to self-criticize still constitutes a substantial strength. Few other countries are as ready to accept error as the United States. While Germany unconditionally views its actions during WWII as a national failure, Japan still honors its war criminals. Britain may admit colonialism was wrong, but many in the country still hold pride in the days when self-determination was denied to half the world.

4. Technological innovation. The United States has developed a number of inventions and innovations which have greatly improved living standards. Whether it was through inventing the light bulb or developing the Internet (for which America was largely responsible), America’s creations are responsible for bettering the lives of billions.

3. Democracy. Although its backing for democracy has not been perfect, in the aggregate democracy is better off with America in the world.  The American Revolution and its revolutionary ideals played a vital factor in spreading democracy and catalyzing the momentous French Revolution. America expanded the right to vote faster than almost every other country (Germany, for instance, only first gained democracy in the 1920s). As a well-working liberal democracy, the United States functions as an inspiration for many other countries. Even if the American government may not support their specific cause (e.g. during the Cold War), many activists for democracy still see America as an example to light their path.

2. Being on the right side of history. In the great conflicts of the 20th century, the United States has generally fought for the right side. America may have made mistakes fighting Nazism or communism, but the overall cause was the more just alternative. It always despised the monarchy which took Europe so long to overthrow. And while America may have dabbled in colonialism, its hostility to European imperialism sealed the fate of their dying empires.

1. Treatment of minorities. This may sound strange, given that so many of America’s wrongs have involved its minorities. Yet while discrimination and subtle racism still burden the lives of millions of minority citizens, at the same time those minorities have far more opportunity than they would have in any other country. America is more generous to immigrants than almost every country in the world – one of its greatest advantages. France and Germany still do not consider their immigrants citizens even after three generations. In China Sun Yat-sen still called the Manchus foreigners three hundred years after they first entered China. In the United States, by contrast, it only takes one generation to become American. For larger groups the process is longer – Jews, Irish, Italians, and Slavs were considered foreign for many years. Today the same applies to Hispanics. Yet eventually Hispanics will be considered as white as the Irish are today.

One group, of course, will never be classified as white – African Americans (and probably Asian-Americans), who have the greatest claim to grievance against America. Yet while the United States enslaved and segregated its black citizens, it also elected a black president in 2008. Blacks have power of sorts today, and the United States has made sure that their story is a central part of its history. Ask Americans to name the greatest American of the past century, and many will probably say MLK. Ask Americans to name the best president, and they will say the one who freed the slaves. This may sound like small consolation to the millions of blacks struggling under the yoke of poverty today. Perhaps a better one is this: in no other country I can name has a dominant majority elected a member of its impoverished minority as president.




Tags: America, liberalism, Right, United States, Wrong (all tags)



RE: Five Things the United States Did Right

Just one quibble - "African Americans (and probably Asian-Americans), who have the greatest claim to grievance against America." I would argue that American Indians have the greatest claim to grievance. Not just for the land theft, wars, cultural genocide, and introduction of alcoholism, but for such ongoing issues as criminal jurisdiction problems that lead to 1 in 3 Indian women being raped and the treaty violations that are the underfunding of the IHS and resulting health disparities. The list goes on; this is one area where we've never gotten anything right. To be fair, the population is smaller than the size of the black population, but within their own contexts, I'd say Indians got the worst treatment.

Other than that one line quibble, though, thanks, this is a good diary that reminds us of our underlying foundation! These are the things we need to reflect on more, that give us hope and remind us why America is worth fighting for.

by Nathan Empsall 2010-05-14 07:40PM | 0 recs
RE: Five Things the United States Did Right

You're absolutely right; I completely forgot about Native Americans when writing this post.

It is wrong that today Native Americans are almost completely forgotten in mainstream American politics, still living in terrible conditions. I guess too many people like me neglect to pay attention to them.

by Inoljt 2010-05-17 09:06PM | 0 recs
excellent diary!

America has been the greatest force for freedom mankind has ever known. I laugh when other countries attack us from the left, or people compare America poorly to other countries from the left, given how racist, colonialist, and warmonger Europe and Asia have been over the years.

With respect to the Indians, while we did treat them god awfully, America isn't the only country to expand in the face of indigenous people. How did Russia and white-skinned Russians (formerly Kievan Rus') stretch from Kiev to the Bering Strait? How did Han Chinese become nearly all of China? Or whites in Australia? Or Arabs from Iraq to Algeria? I do not think what happened to the Indians was genocide. I think what happened was largely ad hoc, though of course with some white trickery, and I would have favored giving the Indians citizenship over the Trail of Tears. But even in America at the time, at least there was democratic (by standards of the day) debate over it. We can talk about the treatment of blacks in America, which has been shameful. But the USA as a sovereign entity was not the one to introduce black slavery on the whole or into the US. Black slavery has been around since the early Islamic period. And we abolished slavery, and when the South wouldn't comply, we fought them. We didn't have colonies in Africa, which contained slavery years after Lincoln first came on the scene. Canada had slavery too, for all their self-righteousness, as they had internment, big secret, hushhh... Blacks had a hard road, but I cannot imagine it would have been any better had black slaves been brought to mainland Europe by Europeans, given their treatment of blacks in Africa, or Jews in Europe itself.

And during the Cold War, when some on the far left argued about colonialism and America but were content with the USSR, what about the Khazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Azerbaijanis, the Baltic peoples, and especially the Ukrainians, killed in a genocide, who all saw their land used colonially by the Russian SFSR, which in essence was what the Soviet Union was: a colonial empire for Russia by other means.

Even in the days when only white men voted, the process was still comparatively far more democratic than any counterpart anywhere, to the point where it led to women eventually getting the vote, along with minorities.

by Lakrosse 2010-05-14 08:53PM | 0 recs
RE: excellent diary!

I absolutely agree with you.

I think that too many liberal critics forget that while America did do things wrong, the wrongdoings have been also been replicated by almost every other human civilization out there. Throughout history, whenever one group has dealt with another on an unequal basis, the end result has almost always been conquest and genocide. Compared to that sordid history, America's record - while not perfect - stands out as a lot better than others out there.

by Inoljt 2010-05-17 09:12PM | 0 recs


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