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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

On this July 4th, Steve Saideman reflects on the United States that elected Obama and invaded Iraq.

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4 July, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

I have been an ex-pat for about eleven years. As an outside observer, I have experienced feelings of incredible frustration and embarrassment due to the country of my birth. I have also taken immense pride in its achievements.  The Iraq War and Abu Ghraib mark the lowest points in recent American history, and the election of Barak Obama marks as one of the highest.  How many countries have elected the child of an immigrant, one of mixed race, to the very highest office?   In the past week, I have felt the ups and downs in very quick succession, making me both happy and extremely mad about the choices of the present and the legacies of the past. American history is so very much a combination of such high and low points.  For instance, I wrote this post on the day before the fourth of July – the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  There is much that this one battle stands for, but the most obvious one is that it gave the Union the military momentum and Abraham Lincoln the necessary political capital to make right the foundational flaw of the United States – slavery. 

One could argue that the American Civil War did not end in 1865 but in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act that empowered African-Americans to vote.  Alas, last week, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted this legislation, with the majority arguing that so much progress had been made that specific states no longer had to pre-clear changes in election laws.  Indeed, there has been much progress – the registration and turnout of African-Americans in recent elections has been comparable to that of white Americans. 

However, it is precisely this turnout and the increase in Latino voters that has prompted an entirely partisan effort that I like to call #Voterfraudfraud.  Republicans have been pushing for legislation that has as its essential aim to depress the turnout of those groups least likely to vote for them—African-Americans, Latinos, and students.  The claim is that the risk of voter fraud is so very dangerous that we must make it harder to vote, while American history demonstrates that the opposite is very much the problem.  The risk of voter disenfranchisement means that we need to make voting easier even at the risk of voter fraud (which, in the U.S., is largely imaginary).  The reality is that racial conflict did not end with the election of Obama. 

Yet, I cannot help but notice that other events suggest that history is moving in a progressive direction.  The day after the Supreme Court undermined the rights of ethnic groups, it recognized that the federal government could not deprive gays and lesbians of the rights enjoyed by heterosexuals – to have the benefits that come with committed relationships.  This is an amazing, impressive, and inevitable step in American history.  One of the most important products of the Civil War was a set of amendments to the Constitution, including one that recognized that all are guaranteed equal protection under the law. 

This contradiction – degraded voting rights, and recognition that gays and lesbians could not be discriminated against by the federal government (states still can, for the moment) – is so very American.  After all, the Bill of Rights, which was a revolutionary document when it was written, defining so many important rights such as freedom of speech and of the press, was attached to a Constitution that counted slaves as 3/5th’s that of all other males for the purpose of allocating representation.  Thus, we should not be surprised at the contrasts of last week.  Contradiction is inherent in the United States of America.

On this Independence Day, I take great pride in the achievements of the United States, have great frustration at the mistakes that have been made since before 1776 and up to the present day, and focus on one of the key attributes the country has always demonstrated: resilience.  Of course, resilience is necessary when huge mistakes are made, such as Vietnam or Iraq.  The country is currently bitterly divided, and the impasse in Washington is making it very difficult to make the necessary decisions to move forward. 

But this is not the first time that there have been such cleavages.  The country recovered from the Civil War, and it came back from Pearl Harbor with a vengeance. It bounced back from the assassinations of 1968, and from Vietnam and from Watergate.   Consequently, I have confidence that the U.S. will recover from the bad decisions of last week and build on the good ones.  On the other hand, I also have another deeply American trait – impatience.  Thus, I will whine and complain about the slow nature of progress. (But a winding way forward is not all bad, as it guarantees inspiration for blog posts down the road.)

Enjoy Independence Day, my fellow Americans. We have made great strides since 1776, and yet we have so very far to go to perfect the Union.

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