Given that we are all students on a liberal arts college, I don’t need to tell you that America has never been innocent.
No country has ever been founded without bloodshed, especially not a country that becomes a superpower or aspires to be one.
The history of the world is one where conquest and progress almost inexplicably appear besides this violence. The British Empire. Japan under the Tokugawas. Communist China. But perhaps no two nations have had this thrust upon them in recent decades like the United States and the post-USSR Russia.
Just a few days since this writing, the 45th president of the United States expressed a desire to work with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a tyrant who has ordered journalists killed, dissidents silenced, corrupted the courts and consolidated the wealth of his nation to him and an associate of friends.
On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly called Putin a killer, to which our president derisively asked him if he thought our country was so innocent.
Now again, everyone reading this knows at least to a degree we’re not.
The period in which America emerged as a superpower to the present is a barbaric history of proxy wars, sponsoring dictatorships and coups, bullying, and imperialism. This is nothing at all to be proud of.
We have enslaved our own people, denied women basic rights, polluted our lands, and just a few months ago we embraced the worst kind of fearmonger, a man who pits people against each other simply for the amusement of it, even when they have nothing against each other.
We are the nation that gave the world William Faulkner and the nation which killed Emmett Till. We are the nation that gave the world “Apocalypse Now” but allowed the war it depicted to be waged for some 20 years before finally giving up and abandoning a country to a fate it could have completely avoided. We are the country that elected men such as Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Barack Obama but have also elected Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump. No, we have not been innocent.
But we are something altogether more important: a nation which continually tries to improve itself.
A nation that is willing to confront these facets of our being and try to improve them. With just a few sentences, Donald Trump suggested such a thing was stupid and unnecessary, that instead we should be like Putin’s Russia: a country that is founded on the very ideals of cynicism and mediocrity.
When Russia wages war, it does not care about causalities. When Russia wages war, it does not do so even under the pretext of it being the right thing. Russia has no free press, no courts that matter, nothing except the word of a single man and the people who help him make his money.
We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, this is true. But we did not take their oil. We attempted, however in vain, to help its citizenry. We honestly believed we were doing the right thing and we were able to hold ourselves, if not accountable, aware that what we had been doing was cancerous to our humanity.
But a cancer does not choose to stop being a cancer. We have chosen so many times to try and stop what we have been doing to ourselves.
To allow people of color and women in general to vote. To enact political change in our government. To make choices that suggest that there is a world that is not run on bitterness and cynicism.
Are we failures? Of course we are. But that is because we aspire to Utopia, as we rightly should. Every president until now has lead with the idea of something to aspire to, that an America where people don’t have to be on their own and where things matter can exist.
This is a hard thing to confront. It feels as if so much of the time there has been failure, but progress is not gradual, nor is it linear. Progress is a web, expanding outwards, taking steps sideways and backwards as much as forwards. We will likely never eliminate racism or misogyny, certainly not within our lifetimes. But there are people alive today whose grandparents were slaves, and who suffered under a racism enshrined in our very Constitution. We can change, we can continue to change, and we will always have to struggle against the darkness.
Fellow Lawrentians, Trump is right when he says we have not been innocent, but are we going to allow his tone to dictate this information? Are you going to say that we can be something better, or to assume we will forever be a plague upon the world? You don’t have to be an exceptionalist, but you have to believe that you can change the world. Otherwise he wins, and Putin, a man who believes Democracy is a joke, is right.