Who are we?

Zach Wiita

I occasionally find myself becoming embroiled in small, affectionately ribbing arguments with friends of mine, foreign and domestic, about what makes America great. We’ve heard them all, I’m sure – America is great because it is the birthplace of modern democracy, because it is the freest country in the world, because it was founded on the principles that all people are equal. Whether we agree with these arguments, or whether they’re even factual, they remain compelling narratives within the minds of the American people. Still, I find myself thinking that one of our greatest traits – and our strongest asset – is one that is often less remarked-upon than our past or our ideals: our capacity to change from what we were to what we ought to be.

President Barack Obama remarked upon this in his inaugural address two days ago, and while it’s an easy thing to gloss over, I think it’s a vitally important question to consider. The United States stands at a crossroads – on this, everyone agrees. Whether it’s from the economic crisis consuming the world, the emergence of China and India as new global powers, the ongoing war efforts in Iraq or simply the inauguration of the 44th President, this is a moment in history when it seems that the world we knew is leaving us, shifting into something fundamentally different. But the present crises also present us with a unique opportunity to decide, once again, upon the nature of our Union – to, in the words of the President, “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Many readers recoil in fear at the thought of fundamentally changing our country. Change, they feel, is threatening. Why mess with the comfortingly familiar? But this attitude ignores the reality of America – ours has never been a static culture. America today is not what it was in 1776 – a society built in part upon slavery, racism and sexism. Where equality and liberty were only understood to apply to white males. America today is not what it was in 1860 – a society torn apart by the institution of slavery, where even free black men were not regarded as whites’ equals and women were denied the right to vote. And America today is not what it will be in 2109 – hopefully a society where there are equal rights for LGBT Americans, where preemptive warfare and torture have been renounced as routine tools of statehood and where no one is made to feel less valid of a person because of his or her religion. Life is change – and so is America.

This is our great strength: our capacity to evolve and improve, to continually create a more perfect Union. The present crisis gives us this opportunity to once again re-evaluate our national identity. Are we to be a purely competitive society of mutual predators, economically exploiting one another until our society implodes? Or shall we be a culture of partners, built upon cooperation and bound by bonds of affection toward our fellow citizens? Shall we be a society whose foreign policy is built on fear and anger, lashing out violently against any we perceive as a potential threat whilst ignoring our erstwhile friends and allies with whom we once shed so much blood? Or shall we be a society dedicated to peace, to the resolution of conflicts without bloodshed whenever possible? Shall we be a society that regards diplomacy as weakness and seeks to find a violent solution to all of the world’s ills? Or a society that renounces aggression, recognizing that diplomacy is a sign of strength, not weakness – but that, yes, war may be necessary from time to time, even if it should not be our default instrument of national security?

In short, will ours be a culture built upon freedom, partnership and mutual sacrifice? Or will we be a mere collection of political actors fighting one another in the oppression of a dog-eat-dog world? What kind of people will we be today? Who are we?

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theater studies major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].