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Thursday, July 1, 2010

The American Idea

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Today I learned that one of my co-workers may be leaving our department.  I will consider it a great loss if he goes.  He and I have had many heated political discussions.  But our relationship is strong, and we have great respect and love for each other.

This brings to mind a course I had in undergraduate school—it was called American Idea.  It was the class I enjoyed the most.  Of course I can’t remember much about the course—except one time I was giving a talk and said it was time to get down to brass tacks.  Coincidentally as I said the phrase, someone started hammering next door.  Everyone laughed.  Whatever I thought about the American Idea then, I definitely have an opinion now as to the most important aspect of the American Idea. There are many indispensible aspects—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the system of government, the private sector, the drive for creativity and freedom with responsibility.  But I think the most definitive aspect is resilient goodwill.  Political and party divisions, philosophical and religious differences, education and income disparities do not destroy mutual respect and a sense of individual worth—a sense of basic equality.  There is an understanding that we are mortal and that unique experiences have helped mold us and our beliefs.  There is a willingness, based on goodwill, to assume that others are being guided by their best lights—as we are ourselves.  That often our best lights bring us to different conclusions.  To maintain individual integrity, we must agree to disagree.  Phony agreement that would entail one side of the issue betraying their true feelings and to “just pretend” is seen as more harmful than the sparks that fly from honest controversy.  I have a word for such solid goodwill and mutual respect--love.  I think the American Idea is founded most basically on the disciplines of empathy and love.  If I am right about this, I have great hope for a strong and vibrant America.  If I am wrong and mutual respect is merely a sham—a cover for overweening selfishness, then dissolution is inevitable. 

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