During my junior year of college, as I worked toward finishing my B.A. in American Studies, I took “Studies in the American Experience,” the major’s capstone course taught with wit and acumen by Dr. Neil York. About half way through the course, Dr. York explained to us that we were entering a third of the course where we would discuss some troubling aspects of America’s past. Over the next month or so, we discussed a number of mostly glum historical topics such as “America and Blacks,” “America and Asians,” and “America and the Minority.” Dr. York detailed the tragic paradox which weaves itself through American history, starting with a slaveholder who penned “all men are created equal” and working its way right up through the specatcle of Rodney King.
Apparent in all of this was an ideological double-mindedness–a large gap between the American ideal and the American reality. And, as is always the case, that gap is, in a sense, more troubling because Americans are so quick to proclaim the importance of “justice for all”–it would be one thing for an apathetic people to indulge in practices perpetuating racial and other types of inequality, but for a people steeped in the hope of being the Promised Land, such a perpetuation is particularly unconscionable.
And yet, it is not the gap that strikes me most strongly, for almost every nation in the hisotry of world has failed to live up to its ideals in one form or another, and those civilizations that have not done so were so fraught with barbary and injustice as to care very little about their appearance as just or otherwise. No, what is most striking about the history of America is the doggedness with which the American ideal asserts itself–for all her shortcomings, and despite all the frustration and apathy such a record might invite, America, the people, the polis, has shown a remarkable tenacity, a Quixotic insistence on clinging to the idea that, indeed “all men are created equal.”
While our history has been anything but linear, and while I do not mean to suggest that every setback and sidestep has been merely a pace toward destiny, yet America’s overall tac, viewed from the distance of hindsight, shows an encouraging trajectory, as if, from the beginning, we were somehow moving steadily and steadfastly toward the City on a Hill we at first envsisioned ourselves to be. It is as though our wars and tragedies and upticks and scandals and movements and ages have labored together, over the course of the centuries, to bring us toward a world where a man is “judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”
But, of course, such grand visions do little good today, here, now. No, such grandeur will not prevent a single injustice today or cure a single contemporary social ill. For that, we need something much more pedestrian, though equally noble: political involvement, democratic responsibility, and social conscience. Perhaps out of some sense that that is true, my mind and heart have gravitated almost in spite of myself toward the coming presidential election. For better or worse, the office of the American Presidency has become uniquely powerful. There is much to the idea that the President of the United States of America is the most powerful man in the world, commanding as he does the military and ideological might of the world’s most powerful nation. Grave then, is the power and responsibility each of us wields, all of us wield, as we step to the ballot box on Tuesday. The man we elect on that day in November will have four, or eight, years to steer the good ship America either toward or away from that city on a hill. As the last eight years have taught us, there will likely be violent storms amidst the next eight years, too, and it will likewise be the commander’s duty and challenge to lead the ship through those stormy waters. It is my belief that the moral critical mass of Americans–both leaders and followers–will continue to guide us toward that just destiny and it will be for history to look back upon our next president and determine whether his leadership kept us in line with our historical tac toward justice.