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The Contradiction of American History

“Why is America the greatest country in the world?” Even if you haven’t watched The Newsroom, you’re likely familiar with Jeff Daniels’ unabashed repudiation, exclaiming “We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending.” Yet, the notion that America is “exceptional” continues to permeate our political discourse.

In the midst of a devastating pandemic, Daniels’ sentiment seems more prevalent than ever. The United States leads the world’s COVID 19 death toll after the President refused to even acknowledge the problem. America is simultaneously embattled with the worst economy since the Great Depression, protests over racial injustice, and a global climate crisis. Meanwhile, revisionist history has entered the forefront of political discourse, raising questions over the historical trajectory of the United States.

From one perspective, America has been the “land of the free and home of the brave” since its inception. The Declaration of Independence guaranteed the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and ensured these rights could be extended to every American. Heroes from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln overcame insurmountable challenges to expand the promise of freedom and democracy. The United States defeated the enemies of fascism and communism, forging a new world order founded upon human rights and international cooperation. America has remained steadfast in its commitment to liberty in the wake of 9/11 and continues to make unparalleled achievements in science and technology. 

An equally true American story is one of segregation and oppression. Indigenous people were stripped of their land and forced onto reservations. Africans were shipped across the ocean in chains and enslaved on plantations. Jews fleeing Europe were turned away during World War II while Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed during regime change missions across the Middle East. Meanwhile, millions of Americans continue to live in abject poverty and lack access to adequate health care. 

Has the United States served as a liberator or an oppressor? Has our country been a beacon of hope or an imperialist hypocrite? The answer is yes, to all of these. Arguing that American history is merely a story of exclusion ignores the countless number of people who have experienced the “American Dream.” Meanwhile, racism has plagued America since its founding and many of our laws continue to perpetuate injustice and spread the disease of white supremacy.  

Where do we go from here? How do we reconcile our heroic yet tragic past? We acknowledge both. We must look back on our successes with pride and our shortcomings with scorn. We need to learn about both of these histories, rather than simply accepting one and repudiating another. We can accept nuance in the complexities of the past. We should move forward with lessons learned by those who preceded us and optimism for those who will succeed us.

American history is a contradiction. We are more than a celebration of our successes or a compilation of our flaws. We are the achievements of those who sit in the Oval Office and the resilience of those who protest in the streets. 

Is America the greatest country in the world? We’re certainly not acting like it. Yet, the United States maintains the ability to live up to its highest ideals and coalesce the world around them. “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s time for our nation to step up, to address our failures and honor our sacrifices, and chart out a more inclusive, just, and prosperous American future.