The Audacity of a Cynic

It is difficult to look at America today and not react with great cynicism.

A Congress of clowns paralyzes our country.  Our political parties have splintered into groups characterized at one end of the spectrum by ignorant fanatics who can’t understand that without government, there is only chaos and no country, and at the other end, intellectual elitists who refuse to accept that you can only legislate people’s behavior up to the very limited point where human nature rebels against compliance.  Our media, on which having an informed electorate depends, is beyond contempt in their dedication to sex, violence, and scandal, rarely interrupted by issues of governance, usually reported by self-styled personalities too lazy to worry about fact or so biased as to spew their own fiction.  Our values, as demonstrated by the monetary worth we assign to various activities of our society, have been corrupted by capitalism run amok, just two examples being questionably competent CEOs paying themselves hundreds of times more than the people who make their products, while some juiced-up jerk who can hit a baseball also earns that many times more than a teacher.

And yet, if I had to choose just one country in the world to live in and bring up my children, it’s America.  Having traveled enough to make at least some comparisons, this suggests that I find the rest of the world really despicable, or that in spite of all its problems, America still offers the best hope for a better life.

At the risk of jingoism or just simplemindedness, I would argue that America has been, and can still be, the hope of the world.

Since the establishment of our nation, America has maintained a commitment to three core principles of government established by our founders.  We believe that (1) people should enjoy the greatest possible individual liberty consistent with the need to live in a communal society, (2) everyone is entitled to justice through laws administered equally and consistently, and (3) government should act though the will of the people, who ultimately decide through free elections who will lead and how they will govern.

We have always believed in liberty, justice, and democracy.  America is that simple.  And that complex.

We have learned that adhering to these basic concepts requires balancing their idealistic hope with the reality of the vagaries and often conflicting demands of external geopolitical forces and the influences of the human condition.  We know our record has been far from perfect.  We can take credit for wonderful achievements that have greatly benefited others and ourselves.  And we deserve blame for failures that have sometimes resulted in great harm.  But the ebb and flow of history shows that when we have strayed from our beliefs, when we have compromised our ideals, we have always worked our way back to some reaffirmation of our founding values.  At the end of the day, no nation has achieved as much for so many.

Liberty, justice, and the democracy of representative government are what we stand for, what we want the world to see in us, and what we wish for all mankind.

But by now we should know that our beliefs cannot prevail just because we say so or because we may have enough power to impose our will.  In today’s world of globalization and interdependence, nothing we want for America or the world will happen unless the world wants it as well.  Our ability to lead, to influence, to maintain and encourage the spread of our values depends on bringing America closer to the world and the world closer to America.  We must be better understood, respected, and believed, which we can only achieve by a greater willingness to understand, respect and persuade.

As difficult as it is to govern just ourselves and find solutions to our own social and economic problems, it is that much more complicated for America to be both a citizen and leader in a world where ideological zealotry, with its chosen weapon of terrorism, severely challenges leaders and people of goodwill.  To lead, we must work not only with friends and allies but also with nations who view us with mistrust or even hatred.

We must accept as reality even what we know is irrational in order to cope with it.  We must be willing to negotiate even when our instincts are to remain unyielding.  We must continue and enhance our tradition of sharing our wealth, our power, and our success for the benefit of others.  We must engage with more of the world while bringing more of the world to us, so that people everywhere might personally experience our liberty, our justice, and our democracy — the fundamental truths about America.

Is all this just wishful thinking?  Do we have the will and the resources to make it happen?  In a world as diverse, as difficult, and in fact as fragile as ours has become, is it even possible?  What America has accomplished in its relatively short history suggests that we have the ability as a nation to muster the commitment and the capacity to overcome this greatest of the challenges we have faced.  If we do not, the world will fail with us.

As a skeptic by nature, I can tell you that expressions of cynical pessimism can often make you feel witty and clever.  But optimism can make you feel better.