This is a speech I gave in Lubbock, Texas, a few days after Obama was inaugurated as President. The basic idea is as relevant as ever. I commend it to any American looking for fresh perspectives on such questions as: how should we define patriotism? and what is the proper role we should be filling in the community of nations, given our unique history and our present pre-eminence?
The Second American Revolution
President Obama’s inaugural address is over a year old now but it is still an inspiring evocation of what our country can become, if we will it so. It gave me the launching pad I needed for the thoughts that follow.
To begin, I’ll quote this paragraph from the President’s address:
“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”
So what does this mean, “ushering in a new era of peace…”? Actually, I’ve been thinking about this business of getting to a world at peace for quite a while. It’s been the central theme of the two books I’ve produced over the last few years. So I’m delighted that our new President has seen fit to give me this peg on which to develop one of my favorite themes.
I’ll begin, like the President, by recalling the American revolution over two centuries ago, and how “…a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river…” managed to survive and plant the seeds of the great nation we have become. Let’s look at those seeds, revisit the power they contained, and the way they equipped our forebears to grow and prosper the way we did. Then I want to look at where we are now, a historic hinge in history, a crossroads, as he did in his speech. I’ll try to persuade you that we stand at the beginning of a second revolution, as profound in its capacity to change the world as our first ever was. For if it was the ideas in our first revolution that shook and eventually shattered the old world order, so it will be those same ideas, just now realized in their full potential, that can shatter the present world order and usher in a new era of world peace and enlightenment.
Let’s take a look at the context when our nation was born. The normal pattern for the most modern societies in the latter part of the eighteenth century involved hereditary ruling classes. You were either born into the aristocracy or you weren’t. Another major feature was close cooperation between the rulers and the leaders of the locally established religion. Whether they were called kings and bishops, or pharoahs and high priests, they normally had a kind of buddy system in which the rulers ruled the roost and the priests kept ordinary people in line with promises of heaven and threats of hellfire, or some other unprovable claims.
This pattern of kings and popes, dukes and bishops, had been going on for a very long time in one form or another. It probably began during the Bronze Age when kingdoms evolved and started fighting each other. History began then, and ever since, by and large, societies that had a hereditary class of rulers backed up by religious authority had the advantage when competing against less well organized groups.
And that is the form of organization that still prevailed in most of the world when the United States of America was born. The system was becoming obsolete for a lot of reasons, but that hadn’t yet become obvious to most of the world. It was our lot to show the way to the future.
We broke the mold in two crucially important ways. First, by espousing the concept of freedom, and the principle that all people are born equal, we directly challenged the practice of rule by a hereditary class. This is the true significance of our bedrock belief in liberty and equality. It was the beginning of the end for the royalty, the crowned heads that stood at the summit of the world’s nations at the time.
As a footnote, I have been posted in Morocco, where a King still holds power, and Nepal, where the monarchy was just abolished, and Iran, before the Shah got the ax. So I know something about the King business, like who you address as Your Highness and when to say Your Majesty. I am not at all distressed that almost everywhere, such knowledge has become as useless as knowing how to drive a horse and buggy. Good riddance.
The second way we broke the mold was by declaring that church and state should be separated. Our Founding Fathers knew that in so doing they were striking a keen blow at that ancient buddy system I’ve just described. No more monopolies, please. You can go to any church you want, or to a mosque or a synagogue, or not go at all, it’s up to you. And as for the government, it belongs to you, not to to any religion.
I firmly believe that this feature is no less important than liberty and freedom as a foundational principle of our country. By opening ourselves up to all comers, regardless of religion, we have attracted talented individuals from all over the world who would have stayed home, or gone elsewhere, if we’d erected a religious wall around our young republic. As we expanded westward and our economy experienced explosive growth, our nation not only survived without a state religion, but drew strength from our secular character and the diversity of our rapidly growing population.
When we started on this road, two and a third centuries ago, we didn’t really have much of a clue as to how big a bite of social engineering we’d bitten off. Deep divisions continued between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the lowly born. We were divided regionally and ethnically and along religious lines. Then, as we grew and prospered, successive waves of immigrants came to our shores and new divisions appeared, between the older immigrant populations and the newer ones. Somehow, the vision of a unified nation of immigrants, e pluribus unum, overcame more primitive instincts and these new groups were assimilated, becoming part of our culture and enriching it.
The biggest and deepest gulf of all, of course, was between the slaves and the freeborn. We managed to abolish slavery many years ago but racial discrimination persisted until well into our own lifetimes. I believe much of the passion last week’s inauguration brought out was due to a shared sense that at last, our nation has gotten past that massive cloud on our collective conscience. At last our beloved country has become the truly multicultural, multiethnic society that we have been pretending to be for lo these many generations.
So the seeds of liberty and secularism planted 233 years ago have sprouted and grown and flourished. What we now have, at long last, is a secular nation that has finally learned how to bring very diverse groups of people under a single rule of law based on the principles of liberty and equality.
We are still a work in progress, of course. We still have a way to go before we completely rid ouselves of all the old viruses. If the next president, after Obama, is a woman, that will be a welcome certification that our society has gotten past the gender gap, as well as the racial one. I think it will happen, if not next time, then soon. But even that won’t be enough, for we still have to get rid of our old discriminatory attitudes about gays and atheists, and cope with a more recent and equally unfair prejudice against Muslims.
But we’re over the hump. It’s rather as though we’d been climbing laboriously up a very long trail and finally reached the pass in the mountains that was our immediate goal. Yes, we still have a long and rocky road ahead, but at least it’s downhill from here on out and we can see the good land that lies off in the distance.
We need to talk more about that good land in the distance, not just how we get there but what we want to make of it. And as we do so we need to think back about that first American revolution, when we first broke the mold and started a process that changed the established world order. We did it by setting an example that captured the world’s imagination, not by the old-fashioned approach of war and conquest. We did it by proving that a secular state based on liberty and democracy rather than inherited authority could be made to work.
Now most of the important nations are secular democracies in one form or another, and most of the rest aspire to become like them. The world’s nations have learned to cooperate in many matters, but there are a host of regional conflicts, and the threat of nuclear war still clouds the future.
We broke the mold then. Now we’ve certified ourselves in a convincing way as the exemplar of multicultural success, by electing Obama. Are we ready to break the mold again? Are we ready for the second American revolution? Are we ready to lead the rest of the world into a new and more cooperative era, where every nation has given up war as an instrument of national policy, and human rights are respected everywhere?
That’s a pretty ambitious goal, a free world at peace. It sounds thoroughly utopian, and a year ago I don’t suppose any of us would have thought of it as anything more than pie in the sky. But look at how the rest of the world has reacted to Obama’s ascencion to the presidency! There are over six billion people on the planet and most of them are longing for change, tired of the old regimes, yearning for a shot at a better life. Obama with his call for change has given hope not just to Americans but to everyone. If there ever was or is to be an opportunity to forge ahead and build a solid bridge to the future, that time is now. So let’s hear it again, “Yes, We Can.”
What I’m talking about is our committing ourselves to leading the rest of humanity across that bridge into a new and brighter future, a world at peace, ruled by law not terror. This will mean that at times we shall have to agree to limit aspects of our sovereignty. But our descendants can take pride in belonging to the nation that led the way to a new kind of world that enjoys global peace without sacrificing freedom.
The devil, of course, is in the details. There are quite a few broad areas where we need to break with past policies and strike a new course, and in each case there will be strong arguments, and constituencies, for standing pat, preserving the status quo. But the President’s speech points the way toward movement on all of them. His new team is high quality and this should not prove impossible. The world will be watching.
We can start by getting back in step with the other industrial leaders with a concerted program of action on the problem of global warming, and continuing with measures on other global environmental issues.
We need to work with other nations to make economic globalization more responsible and humane without sacrificing its enormous capacity to produce wealth. Specifically, we need more effective global mechanisms to regulate the recent excesses in the world of finance that have caused the meltdown of the last several months.
We have to keep on trying to defuse certain major regional quarrels, for our interests require it, but we should keep our diplomats up front and our generals in the background. We should work with our allies and our efforts should be aimed at strengthening the UN, not trying to work around it or weaken it.
We can and should renew our commitment to alleviate human poverty and suffering world-wide, working wherever possible with the UN and other countries.
And perhaps most important of all, we can put new steam into the quest for an effective international regime to control nuclear weapons.
I’m going to digress here and talk for a minute or two about this business of nuclear disarmament. It’s not that this issue is more important than global warming or the fallout from the population explosion, but it is in a sense special, and it cuts to the heart of question we’ll increasingly face of reconciling what needs to be done with our national sovereignty. If we can find a way to end the threat of nuclear war without an intolerable abrogation of sovereignty, we’ll probably find that we’ve discovered an essential design element that will make that bridge to the future possible.
For starters, it s a simple fact that war is no longer an option for resolving conflicts between major states, especially if they possess nuclear weapons. We simply cannot afford to get into a shooting war with another major nuclear power because the consequences of its escalating into an exchange of nuclear weapons are too horrible to risk. What is the point of destroying your adversary if you get mortally wounded yourself and the whole planet is poisoned?
I was duty officer in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs during the weekend of the Cuban missile crisis. It was unforgettable. Almost everyone, all the senior people, were there most of the time, some of them around the clock. And these normally unflappable, experienced, tough-minded colleagues of mine were scared. Everyone was acting as though we were in a plane that had failed and was heading for a crash landing. When the deadlock was broken it was like we were walking away alive but dazed from that crash. We survived this one but oh boy, never again.
Never again indeed. No sane leader will lead a nation into war against another nation that has a capacity to launch a nuclear response. That applies to all countries, not just ours, although there are a couple of crisis areas where there is still a dangerous possibility of a local conflict escalating.
I believe that this this limitation on the use of war as an intrument of national policy marks the crossing of a crucially important threshold in the cultural and social evolution of humanity. It is as least as important in its implications as the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry was ten thousand years ago. Why? Because ever since our ancestors started growing their own food, there have been conflicts between groups, and war has been the ultimate recourse for solving them. The USA today is the strongest of the nations because it is currently ahead in a kind of horse race which throughout history was powered as much by war as by any other factor.
And now here we are, facing a conundrum caused in large part by our own success. We’ve climbed a long and rickety ladder, and gotten to the top in part because we weren’t afraid of war when it was thrust on us. We’ve always had citizens patriotic enough to fight for our cause, and if necessary die for it, or we wouldn’t be where we are now. But now we’re at the top, who’s left to fight? Just a few second-rate nuisances we can handle with a hired army, and some serious potential rivals we cannot fight a real war with because of the nuclear standoff.
I do not propose unilateral disarmament or anything like it. First we need to agree on the ultimate objective of a world free of nuclear weapons. Then we need to talk to all other concerned parties, at length and in detail, about the gradual reduction of nuclear weapons stocks around the world and the forging of international arrangements that can gradually take over a central position in enforcing some kind of control regime all the parties can trust. If you want more detail, and from a more authoritative source than me, you can check the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, its article by Ivo Dalder and Jan Lodal titled “The Logic of Zero : Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons.”
It won’t be easy, leading a fractious and divided world into a new and more orderly global community. Even after the sheriff came to Dodge City, there were a few miscreants still making trouble, and some shots had to be fired. There will be plenty of crises, and probably some shooting, along the way. But if we Americans play our cards right, and make sure we remain true to our core values, we can guide the process along lines that produce an outcome we can live with and even take pride in.
If we lead effectively, this future world will be based on our core values of liberty and freedom, because we’ll insist on it, and make it so. That doesn’t mean everybody has to adopt American style democracies. That won’t work, because the world is too diverse to fit everyone into a single mode. But it does mean respect for basic human rights everywhere, and renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy.
This world of the future will be secular, allowing equal opportunity for all religions, as well as for those who follow none of the established faiths. That too is one of our core principles, and we’ll insist on it.
This future world will be tolerant of diversity, as we are within our own borders.
And this future world will be progressive, inspired by a can-do attitude toward resolving whatever problems the future evolution of mankind may throw at us, because that’s the way we are and we shall by our example inspire others to share our vision.
To sum up:
Two hundred and some years ago our predecessors broke the mold of the existing pattern of social organization and launched a new era. Now it’s time for us to break the mold again, and work with other nations to establish a rule of law and justice for humanity as a whole.
I’m proud that my country has the core values needed to take on this monumental task, and the clout to carry it out.
I can think of no higher form of patriotism than dedicating myself to supporting it in this effort.
Carl Coon 1/22/09
Note: This essay, with different introductory remarks, was my text for an address to the International Cultural Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, on Jan. 29, 2009.