In 1786, Scotland’s Robert Burns in his poem “To a Louse,” wrote, “O wad some Power the giftie gi us, To see oursels as ithers see us!” This phrase has often crossed my mind over the past 3 1/2 years, not just on a personal level but nationally.
We now, in 2020, have a new opportunity to think about that sentiment and consider our place and our nation’s place in the modern world. This is a world that has not stood still for the past four years while we have been floundering in temper tantrums, braggadocio, and the desire to return to the womb of “the good old days” of some undefined, glorious past. We have a lot of catching up to do.
On a personal level, it is not always comfortable “to see ourselves as others see us.” Human lives operate on so many levels that, though we may be confident on some of them, we know that we have other aspects of ourselves that we try to hide either because we feel insecure in those roles or we know that they are not the most socially acceptable. Some of how we think about these parts of ourselves come from what we learned as children, about getting along with other people, being polite, and thinking about their feelings. Other aspects include learning to have confidence in what we believe, understanding our strengths and weaknesses, and how this awareness affects how we learn and behave.
Countries go through this same process. Like people, countries see themselves in one way, but other countries may see them in a very different light. The citizens of any country, first and foremost, want peaceful lives, the ability to make a living with fair pay, good health, education, and the opportunity to expand their knowledge and talents in many ways. Do most people, worldwide, live their lives asking if their country is great? I don’t believe so.
First of all, we need to realize this country is huge. It occupies a significant part of a continental mass. It has a disparate population from many parts of the world, most of whom are not indigenous. The country is governed as though it is unified but, despite our national slogan, “E pluribus Unum,” there is a great difference in belief, origin, and way of life..
For most of us, what our country achieves positively or negatively on the global horizon is often seen through the lens of how that international response affects us in practical terms. Maybe we feel personally disturbed by policy decisions made by our leaders, for example, the abusive treatment of families and individuals seeking refuge at our borders. Perhaps we feel less physically secure or maybe we notice that we have to pay more for “cheap” imported goods. Perhaps, those citizens who travel abroad will be queried by foreigners about various international policy changes, or the breaking of long term treaty alliances, or even about the “ups and downs” of famous sports teams. If our country achieves some elusive international goal we may be proud and excited for a brief moment.
Most countries that have been described as great carry a lot of baggage with that description. History is littered with wars, genocides, enslavement of indigenous peoples, and desecration of the environment in the process of some countries achieving greatness through wealth and power. I grew up in England fully believing that the British Empire was something to be proud of. In some ways, it was, in terms of providing educational opportunities where they had previously been very limited, and it still is in its more modern form as an equal association of independent countries. But wealth achieved by land grabs, stolen natural resources, poorly written treaties, and oppressive abuse of indigenous populations, is nothing to be proud of no matter the result.
In modern times the more intangible things like freedom, the right to vote, fair and equal treatment of all people under the law, equal opportunity for education, jobs, health care, decent food, and living space, are what makes a country great. We might say that using those indicators some of the smallest countries in the world are the greatest.
At this point in our history, after several years of encouraging divisiveness that achieves nothing but anger, the slogan from antiquity used in 1799 by Founding Father Patrick Henry, “United we stand, Divided we fall,“ could not be more apt. History also has shown us that “Divide and Conquer,” the mantra of tyrants from before the time of Julius Caesar 2,100 years ago, has been used with success more often than we could list. It is more powerful than gunpowder, and the armaments that followed that invention because it works silently on the inner soul of a population.
Human societies have survived and flourished for millennia even in environments that sometimes were, and, even still are, harsh and inhospitable. The populations that survived and flourished were those in which members cooperated in hunting and gathering food, and later, growing crops, cultivating land, educating children, producing art, music, literature, and scientific discoveries. The history of this country has shown that from a human melting pot of races, cultures, creeds, and languages, it is possible to form a productive society with many positive achievements. That history also shows that when divisiveness is allowed to flourish the cracks and crannies of society begin to expand and things fall apart. Our friends and adversaries notice these changes. The fabric of this culture is at stake. Now is the time to stop the rot!