Magann: Why I Believe in America

We can create a more perfect union in fact and in myth.

by Matthew Magann | 1/23/18 12:30am

I love America.

Those are controversial words. I’ve met many people who disagree with them. Perhaps our nation stands for the equality and freedom of all people, but we often betray that. We prop up foreign despots and fail to address inequalities. Especially today, under an administration that increasingly sides with America’s inner demons, I’ve noticed among my peers a cynicism toward America. Our Constitution might protect the rights of all, but consider the inequalities faced by ethnic minorities or immigrants or women or a whole host of other groups. Can a nation so steeped in injustice hold any hope of redemption?

I believe that it can. The ideals on which this nation rests — ideals of freedom, democracy and equality — are radically liberating. They call for every citizen to live free from tyranny and to face judgement on merit, not on class, race or any other irrelevant factor. By any measure, we’ve succeeded in our liberal experiment; democracy has swept across the world and America has prospered. Still, there’s lingering skepticism toward America’s values.

American ideals sound universal, but when they were written they applied only to a subset of white men. And we cannot escape the fact that, at the time of America’s founding, we were a nation built on the slavery of black Americans and the genocide of our indigenous people. The values did not apply as they should have, and in that, America failed. But that failure did not invalidate the American project, and the vision that our founders laid out soon began to counter those inequalities. Throughout our history, Americans have taken action to ensure that our values apply to us all. And we’ve made astounding progress.

That original nation cast off slavery, segregation, male-only voting and other forms of oppression, all in the name of its founding values. Far from hindering justice, America’s ideals provided the best weapon against oppression. We’re often right to condemn inequalities, but in doing so we should remember how effective America’s principles have been at fighting injustice. The story of America is the story of a nation struggling, failing at times, but ultimately striving to live up to its founding principles.

When we confront our present-day inequalities, we must keep faith in America’s liberal values. There’s a temptation to condemn the entire nation for some particular inequality when in the moment the nation appears to be an oppressor. But when we bear in mind our history and look to our most successful movements for equality, we see an embrace of America’s founding values. Martin Luther King, Jr. loved America. He, and much of the civil rights movement he championed, didn’t reject America, despite the horrors of segregation that the country allowed. I could understand a black American in the segregated South resenting America, and with good reason. Yet the civil rights movement refused to buckle. Instead, it held America accountable to its values, highlighting the hypocrisy of racism in a country supposedly built on equality. Far from opposing America, civil rights protestors championed America’s true values; as King said, “I criticize America because I love her.” The civil rights movement forced America to confront its injustices, showing the nation that segregation violated our liberal ideals. And for that, we celebrate the members of the civil rights movement as national heroes.

The preamble to the Constitution famously sets out a vision for our nation as “a more perfect union,” and that is the history of America. It began with much of the population denied access to American freedoms, but throughout our history courageous Americans have fought that oppression. They continue to fight it today. We are a nation still beset by intolerance and inequality, and we as Americans should fight those injustices. But in doing so, we must never in our anger lose sight of the values that make this nation great. America may never fully live up to its values, but by holding true to our ideals and fighting injustice, we can strive to create a more perfect union.