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Testing the currents of hope

 

Asheville Citizen-Times, April 8, 2008

In any list of defining American values, hope and ambition have to rank high. European colonists and later immigrants landed on these shores hoping for a new and better life. Where they’d come from, the social order was well-established. Here they had a chance to remake it.

Hopeful ambition wrested the continent from indigenous inhabitants and built empires on every scale. We authored the book on modern free trade and created the most powerful military in history. The United States didn’t invent the law of the jungle, but American-style initiative continues to employ and even admire ruthlessness in the pursuit of private interests.

Former president Bill Clinton recently defended this trait before a West Virginia audience: “If a politician doesn't wanna get beat up, he shouldn't run for office. If a football player doesn't want to get tackled or want the risk of an occasional clip he shouldn't put the pads on. . . . Let's just saddle up and have an argument. What's the matter with that? That's what America's about, right?”

History is in no position to argue with him. But it was a different sort of hopeful ambition General Omar Bradley spoke of when he said, “It is to the United States that all freemen look for the light and the hope of the world. Unless we dedicate ourselves completely to this struggle, unless we combat hunger with food, fear with trust, suspicion with faith, fraud with justice - and threats with power, nations will surrender to the futility, the hopelessness, the panic on which wars feed.”

His call was to an empowered hope on behalf of the public good, the larger-hearted hope that shelters the homeless, feeds the hungry, cleans the litter from roadsides, and occasionally also flames up in our national character. One of those times was the World War II era in which Bradley, America’s most recent five-star general, played a leading role. In other eras, hopeful warriors for the common good ended the institution of slavery, brought women the right to vote, improved the treatment of workers, and outlawed Jim Crow.

American greatness can be measured by who and how much we control. But it can also be judged by our ability to rise above selfish hopes in times of need. As a people we haven’t done it often, but when we have, the world has become a better place. Those are the episodes that earned us a reputation as the shining city on the hill. Here and around the globe, people who value the Bradley vision of America wonder whether those lights have now gone out.

We project a pugnacious dream of a future revolving around the acquisition and expansion of power. Rich is up; safety nets are down, the economy is in the tank and people are spoiling for a fight. President Bush packs the courts and bureaucracies, running roughshod over checks and balances in the process, while Congress investigates Roger Clemens to prove it isn’t impotent.

Leading presidential contenders don’t usually dare to premise a campaign on the proposition that we can rise above selfish dreams and shine again. Candidates like Barack Obama aren’t supposed to slip through party machines. When clipped, to use Bill Clinton’s phrase, about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a candidate is supposed to retaliate. To his credit, Obama has so far resisted. These are trying times, deserving of a serious debate about what’s actually going on.

So, while the world watches us and we watch each other, we ought to ask ourselves another fundamental question. Skeptics sneer at the notion that Obama is made of the stuff that raised Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, FDR, and Dr. King to greatness. The question isn’t so much about whether he is as whether we still are.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2008 all rights reserved

 

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