Where Is Greatness To Be Found?
Seldom is an American found to be toting a mirror by his side. He’s rarely so vainly adorned—never so narcissistically dressed. That’s not to say, though, that he’s some kind of unkempt recluse, scornful of a polite appearance and a cared-for face. Heaven forbid it! No, he shares nothing in the likeness of the pockmarked brute, one ugly and unworthy of an Instagram shot. He doesn’t lumber about on all fours like some knuckle-dragging ape, nor does he strut liked an atavist with a hunched gait. At least to some extent, he does indeed mind his mug before stepping outside and into the world.
It is to say, though, that he’s never in need of a mirror to reveal to him what already he knows. He doesn’t need an object in whose reflection he can see his own greatness returning his gaze. To him, to his all-American pride and his soaring blue-blooded self-esteem, such a device will always obscure more than it can reveal.
Greatness isn’t to be found in the countenance; such a canvas is too superficial and its fabric too thin. Nor, for that matter, is exceptionalism—the concomitant to greatness—to be found written upon the face. Search as you may and you’ll find neither written there. Between the lineaments of the brow and the emotions that so animate the lip, you’ll seek and find them not. Beneath the furrows and the wrinkles and the sunburns and the steel chins, greatness plunges ever deeper from view and toward the American soul. So too does exceptionalism, and not all-that far behind. What you’re left with is a face, a changing tapestry, a mask that’s weaved from one moment to the next by its own caprice. In that way, it’s a transitory thing; it’s beholden to emotion, sentiment, and thought.
Greatness, then, and its associated sense of exceptionalism are to be found not on the skin, but in the soul. They’re not external imprints, but internal tattoos. Like a genetic mark, the two are etched into the marrow of every American’s bones. As if evolutionarily inscribed from one generation to the next, from the fathers of the Revolution to the children of the New Deal, greatness and exceptionalism anchor our every sinew and fill our spirit to the brim.
To greatness, we Americans are inherently and inextricably bound. How could we not be? The greatest accumulation of political thinkers and philosophers course through our veins. The manifestation of their ideas constitute the scaffolding of our hearts. We hear with our ventricles’ every beat the pulse of Aristotle and Cicero and Montesquieu and Locke. We feel with every sensation the eloquent prick of Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton and Paine. Taken together, plus a few voices more, our nation became and continues to be the embodiment of the Enlightenment. For centuries and, in many ways, persisting right along up till this very day, ours was the government to which all others aspired. Ours was the summary of man’s unalienable place in a world that we were first to christen as radically different and new.
To hear it said, then, of an American, by an American, and to a group of Americans that this peculiar and inimitable country was never really all that great is to swallow an unnatural pill. It’s to occlude the nose and ingest the inedible, to knowingly choke down a poison noxious and foreign to the throat. It’s so unnatural a gulp, in fact, that it’s almost immediately retched upon its passage through the lips. The patriot’s tongue simply won’t tolerate the smallest taste. Yes, he’ll endure most hardships and suffer many toils, but the proud American won’t comfortably withstand being told he and his country aren’t great. It’s not that his hubris wouldn’t allow it to be so, but that his history would intervene on his behalf.
Yet hardly a belch was heard when a few weeks ago, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed that “America was never that great”. Upon hearing such an inane utterance, my stomach immediately turned. My insides rankled sour as if two trimesters pregnant on a bumpy cruise. Surprisingly, though, my symptoms were unique. I asked myself, how could Cuomo, an incumbent and long-successful politician representing one of the oldest and grandest American states, say so offensive a thing? Better yet, how could he say what he did and still remain a viable political candidate? Surely the admonishments from within and without his party would do him in.
That wasn’t the case. Democrats (with whom Cuomo is aligned) and Republicans responded as anticipated to what the governor had to say, but the effect was a wash. The left-wing media’s coverage of his comment was tepid, but such a failure to move toward open criticism was to be expected. New York is a state liberals must win. The right-wing responded more passionately, but only slightly so. Both failed to reach an appropriate fever pitch. Worse still, in light of Cuomo’s recent electoral success (he emphatically beat his challenger, the former actress and current activist Cynthia Nixon, by whose role as Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City she’s best known), one must conclude that his message of self-loathing and American-effacement had some kind of resonance in the minds of those to whom he appealed. His “America was never that great” statement might’ve rather helped than injured his gubernatorial chances among those unimaginative enough to call themselves his constituency.
Yet of whom said constituency might be composed, I haven’t an exact idea; I hesitate to imagine a group of Americans so patriotically disinclined. But those constituting it certainly exist and—as evidenced by Cuomo’s success—their numbers aren’t few. Had they been, the governor wouldn’t have raced so easily through his primary and onward to a likely third term.
In my nearly involuntary repudiation of Cuomo’s statement, as if a knee by a hammer struck, I feel as if I’ve become a member of a dying breed. Like an old religious group buried in time and earth, our mantra has the sound of a shamanistic cry, our holy ideals the incredulity of an ancient and silly myth. Our primitive profession is this: America is and was great.
The youngest politically-conscious amongst us (by which I mean to say millennials) no longer subscribe to this point of view. In the Howard Zinn, Andrew Cuomo, relativistic, multicultural milieu within which we now live, it’s unacceptable to ascribe to one’s thinking such a haughty, Tory, solipsistic belief. America, in the opinions of those various and overlapping actors listed above, is an irredeemably ugly place. It bears the indelible markings of an ineradicable sin. It’s a bedraggled experiment in “liberty” that’s stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast with too many casualties along the way. This strange vision of a country we once loved has gained traction in the universities of our day, and no amount of historical perspective seems capable of loosening its grip.
As we’ve been divested of our historical perspective, so too have we waved our gratitude farewell. Following Cuomo’s path, there’s very little about America we ought to venerate or for which we should give thanks. To do so would be useless and downright offensive to the multifarious “oppressed” inter-sectional groups that recently and viciously have been marginalized. In place of thanks, Cuomo and his followers have adopted what the Germans call selbsthass, or “self-hate”. As so often those Prussians do, they capture the self-loathing essence of America’s sentiments. Like schadenfreude, we here in America west of the Rhine drown ourselves in the feeling but lack the word. To reject as indecent and oppressive the foundations upon which this nation was built is to hate oneself—to live under the shroud of selbsthass. And this, be he of German extraction or American birth, no healthy person should do.
But maybe, at just this moment, a healthy look into the mirror is what we all need. For once, we might need to look a bit deeper into the unfamiliar eyes that return our stare. In them and then through them, we navigate to the atrium of the soul. It’s there, deep beneath the surface and in our patriotic core, we’ll recognize that America was, is, and shall remain great—so long as we want it to be.