by Bill Chisholm
In the 2016 race to be President of the United States of America, both the Democrat candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Republican candidate (The) Donald Trump campaigned on the notion of American greatness. Hillary said America was already great and The Donald said he was going to make America great again.
(US) Americans are raised from birth to believe in the greatness of their country. If one takes the vote numbers to be an indication of whether we are still great, or whether we perhaps fell off our pedestal and need to become great again, it seems relatively close to a draw. So the question before us is this, “What does it take to be GREAT?”
We are a nation that loves superlatives, like “American exceptionalism”, being the “freest country on Earth”, being the “greatest nation on Earth”, but what do these things really mean? What are the criteria that we use, what is the yardstick for greatness?
England somehow became Great Britain, what made it so great? The title seems to have come because they had the most powerful military of the time and went around the world invading other people’s countries and stealing their resources. In the end it was quite obvious as colony after colony threw off the yoke of stodgy, overbearing British rule people didn’t think the Great Britain was so great.
We could by the British definition say that the school yard bully is great. He rules the school yard with his toughness and his followers of lackeys. Most of us I reckon wouldn’t be ready to call all school yard bullies, or their national equivalent, brutal dictators, great.
The Oxford College Dictionary has quite a number of words defining the term “great”. Certainly large and imposing are among them, as are words such as exceptional and being above the average, such as with a skill in sports, or someone or something particularly deserving.
Size, bigness is one of those characteristics that earn the adjective great, the Great Lakes, Great Dane and the Great Blue Heron, but what about character? A person that can acknowledge their mistakes and even apologize for them is considered a “big person”. One that can go even further and atone for those errors of judgment and action could well be called ‘a great person’. “Greatness” seems to have a more noble meaning than merely size and being the toughest kid on the block.
Being considered a “great country” takes much more than size and strength, it takes a great character. The United States holds in abundance and in high esteem, the notions of size and strength… in military might, in the amount of money in the bank, the size of houses. But we think and talk little of character.
The Eurocentric history we were taught, makes no mention of the fact that from the get go, the land and resources were stolen form those humans that lived here when the Europeans arrived. The indigenous peoples of the Americas were pushed to near extinction; it has a name, genocide. Those people, that weren’t murdered, were pushed to assimilate both the culture and the religion of the Europeans. We, the European, have never acknowledged the wrongs done, never really apologized, never atoned or tried to attune to a culture from whom we may have learned to love and respect the Earth. What greatness is there in our history? What too of the slaves who were made of the indigenous peoples or of those brought over from Africa and now are the focuses of racial hatred? What of the refugees from our wars and economic policies? There are some real opportunities for greatness of character in acknowledging these wrongs, apologizing and moving toward atonement.
No doubt our nation was founded on some pretty powerful writings, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. One might even call these documents great, they espouse some grand principles. Failure to stand by those words, to incorporate those grand principles into action and thus making the United States a great nation among nations, leaves those documents in the category of great literature.
We have amassed the most powerful military capability the world has ever known, has it made us great in character, has it even made us more secure? Have we set other people free or merely moved in to steal their resources, kill the innocent and call it collateral damage? How could the huge amount of monies and natural resources spent on the military have impacted the other areas of principles laid out in the Preamble to the US Constitution?
If we manifested our stated principles, our ideals; we could be a great country, we certainly have incredible natural resources, the wealth of diverse and intelligent people the ability to be great, but our so called “two party” political process is a system of exclusion, not inclusion. Ideology often trumps ideas and then there is no real discussion about how best to solve our problems. Can a nation be called great when it has made greed a virtue, and has made super citizens of corporations, that seeming have all the rights, but few of the responsibilities of that people have?
Isn’t it strange, that in the land of the free and home of the brave, we have the highest percentage of our people in prison compared to other nations; does that reality make a worthy yardstick for national greatness? We throw people in jail for smoking marijuana, but let bankers go free that nearly broke the economy.
Great should be thought of as a verb, an action word, not merely an adjective, and a descriptor. Talking about something or someone being great makes for the adjective form, but living one’s principles, acting with noble character makes great a verb. Clinton and Trump were both wrong, America certainly has had moments of greatness, but lacked the character of being great. If we were to truly walk our talk, live by our principles we can be a Great Nation.