According to a story we like to tell, two hundred and forty-three years ago our republic was born.
Of course, like all stories, at least the good ones, dig in a bit and it’s actually, always more complicated. We were founded by people who didn’t like they way things were, nor who was in charge.
There was an astonishing amount of high idealism, and along with it some serious sharp dealing. They dreamed a republic that proclaimed our common humanity but kept slaves.
So, from the beginning a mixed thing. And over the many years we have continued to be the strangest mix of the most sublime ideals and the worst possible actions.
La Rochefoucauld famously opined how “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” I think about our virtues, our ideals. They’re not a sham. They are what we want to be. They are those better angels whispering what we can be. And, I am glad they are what we proclaim. Even as we so often and so easily betray them.
We all know much of the litany of our many betrayals. And, I hope we get how these are not small things. They represent aspects of our common humanity and our specific culture that can consume us. In this moment where everything is in disarray and we have probably the most unworthy occupant of our White House in our history, and given our history that’s saying something, I still find myself thinking of what we are in our dreams. Our virtues, our ideals.
Our virtues. Our ideals. Those things that might save us. That America is about the dream of possibility for everyone. And more. In that America when one fails they are not left behind. It all has something to do with not being from some ancient culture, but rather something new, something constantly renewing. So, we’re not a melting pot. Rather we’re a constantly enlarging mosaic. At our best our many differences are celebrated, and our similarities are cherished. Not exactly out of many one, but something close. One and many.
Now you may have noticed. These are dangerous times. Yes, all times are dangerous. But, we actually live in a time where we face the possibility of extinction.And, this is what I think. Buried within the ideals that have always called to our hearts as the American Dream is a map. It is a map to our survival as a species. Winston Churchill famously said of us, “You can count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” I hope this moment for us is that everything else, and come the next election we will turn toward that right thing. Because, not only do we desperately need that correction, but the world needs our example and our engagement.
There are many such documents, some public, some smatterings of dreams from individuals. An example might be that inscription at the base of the statue that greets all who come to New York’s harbor.
Emma Lazrus’ hymn of possibility for us all.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
That’s the America I want to celebrate. That’s the America we can be. The America of my dreams.
This is the America that can be the beacon on the hill, the light for human hearts, the possibility for us and for the rest of this planet.