America’s Aspirational Greatness

By Mel Harkrader Pine

I distinguish between two types of American exceptionalism: accomplished exceptionalism, which is self-celebratory, complacent, and un-critical, and aspirational exceptionalism, which is self-critical, forward-looking, and ameliorative. — Lucy Williams, Ph.D.

I came across the quote above in a highly perceptive 2018 Ph.D. thesis as I was researching what I might say as Better Angels took its new debate format online nationwide last night. The debate resolution: American self-criticism has gone too far. You can watch a recording of it here.

My immediate gut-level reaction to the resolution was: Yes, the criticism has gone too far. That surprised me because my mind was telling me otherwise: Haven’t you been saying that the U.S. needs to face up to the deep flaws in its past?

My gut was right. But let me explain.

Jack Pine
My father as a young man. After immigrating, he changed his name from Yankel Yusel Pinsky to Jack Pine.

My father fled oppression to come to this nation. He had seen his aged father forced to pull a plow to grow vegetable for a foreign army. His brother, sister, their spouses, and their five children would all be slaughtered in the holocaust. He saw hope here — a place where he could deliver newspapers to get by until he eventually had his own newsstand and later other small businesses.

Waves of other immigrants have come here since, and today they mass at our southern border. They all want what America has traditionally offered — a chance, a hope for a better life with less oppression. We can’t let a few bad years wipe that ideal from our minds.

Dr. Williams writes about an aspirational American exceptionalism, which is “self-critical and attentive to history: it acknowledges and considers America’s failings — as well as its successes — and is willing (even eager!) to explore ways in which America can be better.”

So, for me, symbolic, non-destructive dessent is just fine. Kneel during the anthem, keep silent during the pledge, turn your back on a speaker whose views you deplore. Those protests manifest your aspirations.

But my gut-level revulsion kicks in at the blanket condemnations that, frankly, often come from people calling themselves progressives or anti-racists. We can all see the distortions and biases in calling immigrants rapists and criminals or describing Baltimore and other inner cities as infested with drugs. Why don’t we also see the historical distortions and biases in saying…

  • America was founded on slavery and racism, which is ingrained into our DNA,
  • old white CIS-gendered men make all the decisions,
  • the American economy is based on nothing but greed, or
  • if you’re a white American, you’re a racist and always will be?

Statements like those distort American history and dishonor the memory of patriots of all genders, races, and classes, from Crispus Attucks to John Quincy Adams to Sojourner Truth to the pre-Civil War Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who kept a pistol in his desk as he wrote abolitionist sermons.

Those blanket characterizations dishonor all of those who put their lives at risk to fight the Nazis in the 1940s and to further civil rights in the 1960s. They dishonor the Korean immigrants who opened 24-hour-a-day produce stores in Manhattan in the 1970s, helping to make that city brighter and safer.

And they dishonor the memory of my father. He was too busy making a living to be biased against anyone, even the Germans who massacred his family. In 1951, when I was 5, he took me to visit a black man in jail, and then weeks later, after that man died in prison, he took me to a Philadelphia tenement to pay our respects to the family.

I’ll never know whether that man died of the DTs, suicide, or a beating. But I’ll never forget the noise, the heat, and the flies in the tenement where his family lived. And I’ll always be grateful to my father for taking me along and modeling human decency.  Again, I was just 5.

My father died only five or six years after that, but the way he lived taught me to love and defend the aspirational sense of what it means to be an American.

Copyright 2019 © Mel Harkrader Pine

6 comments

      1. While my father’s family was lucky as a result of having been located entirely within the borders of modern Turkey when the Holocaust happened, my mother’s family was not so lucky. Half of her relatives lived in areas that are currently either in Greece or in Italy. Seventeen of them perished during the Holocaust.

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