February 16, 2010

Our Fate is Not Sealed

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As another semester of Left, Right or Wrong? commences, it seems that pessimism rules the day. At Cornell there are seniors uncertain about the future, and nationally there are contentious issues, ranging from financial regulation to foreign policy. How much worse can things get? Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Historical destiny may be beguiled, deflected and transfigured by human policy, but [that] it cannot be coerced.” If history is any guide then, we should not fear.

If you ponder the history of the United States and the nation’s role in the world, one conclusion at which you might arrive is that the road from the Revolution to the present day has been anything but smooth. There are many events in our history that seemed like impossible impediments to progress. Consider the founding of the nation; the so-called “great experiment.” Experiment is not a very confident word, and at a time when the nation had little money or military might, there was little reason to be confident. Yet, the nation functioned and developed and grew. About 100 years later, the nation was torn apart by civil war. While it took much bloodshed and a great and courageous leader, the country carried on. Consider the circumstances surrounding the U.S. entry into WWII. The nation was still feeling the effects of a multi-year depression that wreaked economic havoc. A foreign enemy had just attacked our naval base. Nazi Germany was bombing our closest ally in Britain, and the United States was headed to war. Once again though, the country persisted. And just over 20 years later, in the 1960s, we stared nuclear war in the face and lost our leader. Despite the worst of circumstances though, the United States has managed to carry on and prosper, making sure to adhere to our Constitution and founding principles.

This may sound like an American exceptionalism argument, and to a degree it is. This is surely not to say, however, that history can be coerced, as Niebuhr points out. Rather, the history of America is one that, when taken as a whole, runs counter to the current pessimistic attitude (yet this attitude is oddly at the same time consistent with U.S. political culture). And, just because history is as such does not mean that the future will tell the same story. Nonetheless, there is something about the American system of government and the makeup of the nation that has allowed the country to adapt.

Recalling the ups and downs of U.S. history will most likely not comfort many. Nor does it offer any prescriptions for the problems of today. However, the U.S. need not cede its role as the world’s sole superpower. Fortune-tellers with PhDs who predict the nation’s fall from grace cannot make it so merely by virtue of their “authority.” We must trust in our ability to innovate and create. We must work with, not against, our representatives and leaders, so that vigorous debate is not for nothing. Idealism is not necessarily for the naive, and so as President Kennedy said 49 years ago, “Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle.”

Original Author: Lee Blum