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"Fear is a stranger to the ways of love. Identify with fear, and you will be a stranger to yourself." -ACIM

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Book Review: The Idea That is America

Ok so it took me about 6 months to get through this book because I read a lot of other stuff in between as is the case when I read most nonfiction books. I have to go out and read news articles and fact check anything that sounds fishy to me too so it’s not like I go from cover to cover on these things.

Anyway, The Idea That is America; Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World, by Anne-Marie Slaughter is worth picking up. Slaughter is balanced in her criticisms of both the liberal and conservative values that are today professed in our global war on terror and does make a few great points about how we are mishandling our image to the rest of the world.

Her book is broken down into seven chapters titled: Liberty, Democracy, Equality, Justice, Tolerance, Humility, and Faith. Of these I found Liberty, Equality and Justice to be her most compelling. The chapter on Justice seemed to be the best researched while some of her later chapters showed her liberal leanings and seemed to move a little too far towards the ‘can’t we all just get along’ type message.

In general this book is about our core values as a nation and how our current policies are not living up to these values. It is about our shortcomings and our successes. I found the book to be both educational and entertaining despite its shortcomings. (Footnotes! Not endnotes lady!) I hate all that flipping back and forth just to find sources.

A few of her points I will quote here just so you can get a feel for the overall message of the book.

“Our shared values are essential because they link America to the world. The belief that American values are universal values – that all men and women are created equal, that all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, creed, or nationality – connects us to other nations.”
I think that Slaughter is correct here in that if these idealistic values that our founders professed were as true in practice as they are in theory that we would be that great city on a hill (a metaphor that she uses throughout) and that the eyes of other nations would look to us with a fonder gaze.

Slaughter too recognizes this later in the opening section when she writes, “Our pride in our values is a source of tremendous strength, but we often seem to talk as if we were the only nation in the world, or at least certainly the best. Perhaps, not surprisingly the end of the Cold War went to our heads. Instead of understanding these values as part of a process, we too often seemed to believe that we actually embodied them in perfected form. Instead of inviting others to strive with us in attaining our highest ideals, we came to believe that we had finished the job ourselves and demanded that others simply imitate us. Our confidence all too frequently came off as arrogance, damaging America’s image abroad – at times with dire consequences.”

You would have to read the book to get the details on all of Slaughter’s stated American values; however a short scan of the Declaration and the Constitution should give you a clue. Anyway, the book is full of great stories and cases of times when America both stood up for and denounced our values either because of fear or through courage.

One story of an Egyptian named Qutb who came to America in 1948 really hit home with me. He was troubled because he thought he was coming to a land of freedom and opportunity but all he found was capitalism and superficiality. He wrote, “What I really need most here is someone to talk to, to talk about topics other than dollars, movie stars, brands of cars – a real conversation on the issues of man, philosophy, and soul.” Wow. If Qutb was looking for the same thing in 1948 that I as an American am looking for today, then how far have we really come in the last sixty years?

Think about it. Turn on your TV for 15 minutes, if you don’t already have it on now. Listen to the dialogue and you will hear, ‘how to make money fast, start your own business, buy this car, this car can do this for you, our product is the best, buy this, Britney is in rehab, Paris has crabs, who is my baby’s daddy?’ You will have to search long and hard to find a true social conversation on topics such as the issues of man, philosophy and the soul. Huh. What is the American soul today?

On a separate point here, I just heard on my TV that we have now been in Iraq longer than we were actively involved in WWII. Wow. It took us less time 60 years ago to take back Europe from the entrenched Nazis than it is taking us to clean up a so called ‘third world country.’ Sorry. Just thought I’d squeeze that in here.

Slaughter begins her conclusion with this statement, “American patriotism is grounded not only in our love for our country itself, but also in our love for the values our country stands for – of the idea that is America, no matter how far short we may fall in practice. It is the idea that knits us together in our vast diversity. It is the idea that our soldiers fight for. It is the idea that all patriotic citizens stand for, even against our own government. And it is the idea that ultimately belongs to all the world’s peoples.”

Two things here. Our soldiers today fight for politics, money and oil not values. They may believe that they fight for our values, but somehow I doubt that. Secondly, I think you could substitute anything for America in that statement. We love our children, our pets, our families no matter how far short they may fall of our expectations of them. Our ‘patriotism’ and love for our country comes in the same unconditional fashion. America is our motherland. She is our hope our dreams and our life blood. When she falls short of our expectations, we do not abandon her but rather love her still. Yes we must constantly strive to make her better but we must also recognize when we are using her ideas and values in the wrong way, by promoting a corrupt political or ideological philosophy.

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