Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The View From Napa Valley

Drink wine, and you will sleep well. Sleep, and you will not sin. Avoid sin, and you will be saved. Ergo, drink wine and be saved.
--Medieval German saying
My past excursions to California were always work related, and always to the southern portions, Los Angeles or San Diego, where the weather is warm and the skies sunny. But the California of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Malibu and The Palisades has never seemed entirely real to me. I longed for a more authentic experience, where the land and history combine fortunes, where the geography is rugged, the air brisk, and nature lends a hand. This past week, Andrea and I journeyed west, to the Golden State’s northern confines, to San Francisco and Napa Valley, for a week of rest, food, wine, and exploration. I hope to return soon.

Having never ventured previously to San Francisco, I soon discovered why Billy Graham once said of it, “The Bay Area is so beautiful, I hesitate to preach about heaven while I am here.” Although we had only two full days to explore and wander through the city’s streets and neighborhoods, I would have to place it among the most splendid and interesting cities in the United States. From the deck of our friends’ house in Pacific Heights, I viewed Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge with my morning coffee as the fog settled over the San Francisco Bay. The city’s incredibly steep inclines were a challenge to walk but provided spectacular views of San Francisco’s varied hillside neighborhoods, charming enclaves of houses and shops, restaurants and pubs, most of which have retained individual ethnic and historic flavors.

Although the fog in the Bay Area can be incredibly thick and, while the climate is not as warm as the state’s southern regions – Mark Twain once remarked that his coldest winter “was the summer I spent in San Francisco” – the region is possessed of an inherent beauty that blends with the natural landscape. From Fisherman’s Wharf, we walked along the San Francisco Bay to the Ferry Building, a grand and historic structure which has been transformed from a rundown train terminal into an architectural masterpiece, a marketplace of art galleries, shops and gourmet restaurants. The financial district contrasts sharply with the hills and valleys of the rest of the city. From Chinatown to the gay-friendly Castro district, to the remnants of post-hippie-culture in Haight-Ashbury, the streets are lined with a balanced blend of residential housing and small businesses, coffee shops, and diverse retail stores, each fitting nicely into the surrounding neighborhood.

“You wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist,” Dylan Thomas once wrote. “The wonderful sunlight there, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes. Beautiful Chinatown. Every race in the world. The sardine fleets sailing out. The little cable-cars whizzing down The City hills. And all the people are open and friendly." On our second day in the city, we drove through Golden Gate Park, admiring its lush, expansive, green lawns, intricate gardens, diverse geography, and its many walkways, museums, and trails. A model of city planning, it rivals the majesty of New York’s Central Park and ranks among the nicest, most impressive urban landscapes in America. We dined on a cliff overlooking a fog-covered view of the Pacific Ocean, then crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to Sausalito, another gem by the Bay, a picturesque waterfront community of galleries, shops, and cafes.

Two days was hardly enough time to do San Francisco justice, but even so, I understand Rudyard Kipling’s sentiment, “San Francisco has only one drawback. ‘Tis hard to leave.’”

 * * *

A far different, but equally rich experience awaited us in Napa Valley, where rows upon rows of grape vines line up precisely on rolling hillsides, a perfect symmetry of beauty and sense-altering aromas in the mountain surrounded peaks and valleys of wine country. We tasted several of the region’s fine wines, from sweet Rieslings and smooth Zinfandels, to complex Merlots and deep, rich Cabernets. For obvious reasons, we visited the Ehlers Estate, a small but elegant winery in St. Helena, where I announced my presence as the “long lost cousin” who had finally arrived, in search of a “family” discount. They were unimpressed. Apparently, I was not the first Ehlers to have sought special dispensation at the winery, claiming lineage to our “Uncle Bernard” who made his way to these parts in 1886. But the wine was exceptionally good and the wine club manager, a pleasant sounding South African woman, led us on a tour of the grounds, where we tasted the grapes straight off the vine.

It was interesting to experience a part of the country so defined by one industry. Much as horse farms define Lexington, Kentucky, vineyards distinguish Napa, one vineyard after another, hundreds of family and corporate owned “grape farms” that support a multi-billion dollar wine industry. The wine here is among the best in the world and justifies the rhetorical question first asked by Cardinal Duc de-Richelieu of 17th century France, “If God forbade drinking, would He have made wine so good?”

In my younger days, I drank beer. Simple, straightforward, masculine, it fit my self-image as a slightly aging, unpretentious, ex-jock. Perhaps in a foolhardy attempt to round out my rough edges, Andrea introduced me to the world of wine several years ago. Now, as Vito Corleone exclaimed in The Godfather, though I suspect for different reasons, “I like to drink wine more than I used to.” There is nothing like three days of good wine and good food to relax the spirit and soothe the soul. Several vineyards and wine tastings later, I understand the sentiment expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Wine is bottled poetry.”

* * *

A glass of wine in hand, and with Election Day approaching, I watched with some interest this past week the California governor’s race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. I began following Jerry Brown’s career when, during winter break of my junior year in college, toward the end of 1979, I visited the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. As I admired its Ivy League splendor and picturesque, tree-strewn campus, a barrage of television cameras and reporters interrupted me as they made their way across the commons. I moved a little closer and saw the then-Governor and presidential primary candidate strolling in my direction, greeting everyone in sight. I shook his hand and followed him into the auditorium, where he gave a thoughtful, intelligent speech that continues to impress.

Although jokingly called “Governor Moonbeam” back then, I was enamored of Brown’s political style in part because of his eccentricities. He was, and in some ways still is, a politician way ahead of his time. His platform in 1980 summed up his visionary simplicity, “Protect the earth, serve the people, explore the universe.” At Dartmouth, he discussed a book I was then reading, Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School (Random House, 1979), which advocated, from a business school perspective, tax laws and spending priorities that encouraged conservation and promoted the development of clean and renewable energy sources. These were considered essential to end our dependence on foreign oil and to gradually shift us away from limited, costly conventional sources of energy: oil, coal, gas, and nuclear (for my previous essay on this topic, see America and Energy: A Failure of Vision). 

Brown was young and energetic, intelligent and progressive. He appealed to reason and common sense, and articulated a detached public interest. He was the only candidate at the time discussing energy policy with the right mixture of vision and practicality (Independent Party candidate John Anderson would do so later). I even liked his campaign buttons – a plain, brown (get it?) circle.

Brown also had an intriguing personal history. After completing his freshman year in college, Brown entered a Jesuit seminary, where he took a vow of poverty and lived in seclusion for three-and-a-half years. According to a recent profile by John Judis in The New Republic, Brown “later said that he learned two fundamental principles from the Jesuits – agere contra, or ‘go against yourself,’ and ignatian, ‘detachment from creature comforts and worldly desires.’” Brown’s countercultural instincts were welcome in post-sixties California, especially on the heels of Watergate in 1974 and, at the age of 36, he became Governor.

I found Brown’s disdain for the accoutrements of high office a refreshing change of pace; he refused to be chauffeured in the state-funded limousine, driving a Plymouth instead, and he declined the Governor’s mansion, choosing to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento. He eschewed interest group politics and Democratic power brokers. He surrounded himself with idealistic intellectuals and espoused the principles of E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful, which advocated humane, ecologically-sound, soft technologies. He understood that the planet cannot forever sustain undisciplined and unlimited economic growth.

Brown’s response to the energy crisis of the 1970’s helped make California a world leader in conservation and renewable energy. Under his leadership, California adopted the nation’s toughest air and water pollution standards and enacted strict energy efficiency requirements for all new buildings. Through smartly-applied, targeted tax policies, he promoted the development of solar, wind, and geo-thermal energy. Brown championed public transportation and mass transit, including high-speed rail lines, placing California at the vanguard of environmentally conscious communities. Although “widely mocked at the time,” according to Judis, even such Brown-like ideas as installing designated lanes for car pools and cyclists “is now a staple of metro planning.”

Though he leans to the left on many issues, Brown governs very much from the center and caters to no one’s ideological impulses. As Governor, he aggressively countered public waste, railed against “big government,” vetoed bureaucratic pay raises, and cut spending on many traditionally liberal benchmarks, including education and welfare, where additional spending was not resulting in added benefits. From 1998 to 2006, he was a surprisingly effective mayor of Oakland, where he worked closely with developers to revitalize the city center, backed charter schools, and adopted crime fighting strategies that had been successfully applied in New York City, aggressively enforcing anti-nuisance and loitering ordnances that provided fresh life to Oakland’s deserted downtown. As a result, a thriving art scene has flourished in downtown Oakland, and shops, restaurants, and high-tech startups have moved there.

Brown also possesses a refreshingly authentic honesty, which distinguishes him from more typical politicians. The son of a charismatic and well-respected former Governor, Brown once said that in his youth he was both “attracted and repelled” by his father’s brand of politics: “The adventure. The opportunity. The grasping, the artificiality, the obvious manipulation and role-playing, the repetition of emotion without feeling. . . .” When he ran for President in 1980, he was opposed to national health insurance because, as he explained, “You smoke. You don’t exercise. You eat junk food. Then you get sick. And you want me to pay for it?” When a reporter asked him recently why voters should believe him when he says that he has no interest in running for President again (he ran in 1980 and 1992), Brown replied, “Age. Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again.” Now 72 and married, he added, “. . . you know, I come home at night. I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California.”

Brown certainly loves the limelight and, like many high profile political leaders, perhaps he is more entertaining from a distance than for those who must observe him every day. But much as California is ahead of the nation on important benchmark issues, so too is Brown. More intelligent than the average politician, more dedicated to solving problems, he articulates the right mix of liberal and conservative policies. The rest of the country should take note. For a large state with enormous problems, California could do a lot worse than put Brown back into the Governor’s mansion . . . or in his case, at least, a Sacramento apartment. If elected, he will jumpstart the state’s conservation efforts and expand its capacity for clean and renewable energy, thereby providing jobs for scientists, engineers, and construction workers alike. And he will do so in an undoubtedly entertaining manner. Seems like a winning formula. Next time I’m in Napa, I’ll drink to that.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Almost Time to Rake the Leaves

The long shadows of September now behind us, the leaves change colors as the sun sets and darkness descends by early evening. Dried sunflowers, orange pumpkins, and the multi-colored gourds of autumn decorate neighborhood porches, as the brisk air and blue skies of October transform summer into fall. The Cardinals having fallen from grace with a mysterious and inexplicable late summer collapse, baseball season is essentially over for me and all of the unfortunate souls who embrace the 24 teams that failed to make the postseason. Weaker fans with football allegiances transferred their emotional investments to pigskin rivalries weeks ago, filling their weekends with tailgate parties and the sounds of clashing helmets. Soccer moms transport budding athletes to tournaments and practices, where soccer and lacrosse and field hockey are played on rectangular fields devoid of the charm and history that pepper the diamond-shaped pastures of our national pastime.

For the suffering baseball fan, whose team was mathematically eliminated or realistically out of the race by early September, the last weeks of the season are a slow, tortuous journey into the abyss of the soul. It ends only after the last out of the ninth inning of the 162nd game, when the season comes mercifully to a close and the baseball angels, at least those of non-playoff teams, pack up for winter.

After the locker rooms are emptied and clubhouses cleaned out, after the players and coaches return to their real lives, to their families and homes and off-season workouts, only then can one partake of a sabbatical from the excesses of fandom and the irrationality of caring so much for a team that knows not of your existence. The sports pages no longer filled with box scores and the running soap opera that is the pennant race, it is almost time to rake the leaves again.

For the third time in the last four seasons I have been forced to watch the post-season with an unwelcome dispassion. Granted, it is less stressful and, with the Cardinals a distant memory of a long, frustrating summer, I can watch and enjoy the games for the pure skill, strategy and drama that is baseball at its highest level. How could anyone not appreciate the masterful performance of Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in Game One of the National League Division Series, or the nearly equally impressive, fourteen strikeout performance by Tim Lincecum? I can relax and enjoy, as a baseball fan, the pitching matchups between the pesky Giants and the powerful Phillies, as I look forward to the much anticipated rematch between Philadelphia and New York in the World Series.

But in my solitary moments, if I am completely honest, thoughts of the postseason without the Cardinals – even the act of writing these words – brings a sharp and profound pain to my heart. If my lifelong love of the Cardinals has taught me anything, it is that there is far more losing than winning in baseball. “Strong feelings do not necessarily make a strong character,” wrote William Carleton. “The strength of a man is to be measured by the power of the feelings he subdues not by the power of those which subdue him.”

Baseball is a metaphor for life, or so it seems, and I could not help but feel sorry for Brooks Conrad, the 30 year-old journeyman infielder of the Atlanta Braves who made three errors in Game Three of the NLDS against the Giants, costing the Braves the game and, quite possibly, a chance at the World Series. Brooks is the Everyman, a hard working, career minor leaguer, who only made the post-season roster because of injuries to Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, two of the Braves best players. He had played a total of eleven games at second base in his major league career when, due to circumstances outside his control, he was called into duty against the Giants. But in baseball, as in life, when you seek anonymity, there is no place to hide. The ball will always find you.

Before a sellout crowd and a national television audience, with millions of people watching, Conrad made a wild throw to first base in the first inning, dropped a pop fly in the second, and let a routine ground ball go through his legs in the ninth. The last two errors resulted in two of the Giants’ three runs in what turned out to be a 3-2 Giants win. To make matters worse, the ninth inning error followed what would have been a heroic two-run homerun by the Braves’ Eric Hinske in the bottom of the eighth, a dramatic shot that propelled the Braves to a 2-1 lead and erupted a previously quiet hometown crowd. But when Buster Posey’s ground ball went through Conrad’s legs with two outs in the top of the ninth, the go-ahead run crossed the plate and the Giants won the game. Brooks Conrad is now forever tarnished as the kid who blew the playoffs for the city of Atlanta.

“Don’t you know how hard this all is?” Ted Williams famously asked a reporter who had criticized his team in the previous day’s paper. “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Baseball is a test of character that regularly challenges one’s capacity for handling adversity and coping with failure. Even a great player fails more than he succeeds, and a really good team will lose 60 to 70 times in a season. It is for this reason that the true fan develops defense mechanisms for coping with disappointment, for caring about a team that consistently breaks your heart.

But fans can be cruel. As the Braves came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, after Conrad’s two-out error had parlayed victory into possible loss, and as Conrad sat in the dugout, alone and head bowed in shame, the Atlanta scoreboard played a video of Conrad’s walk-off, pinch-hit grand slam that had beaten Cincinnati earlier in the season. The crowd at Turner Field booed mercilessly, even though it was that home run in May and a second pinch grand slam later in the season that helped the Braves earn the wild card berth and earned Conrad more playing time -- and the confidence of his teammates. “What have you done for me lately?” is today’s constant refrain, magnified in professional sports, where exceptional play and heroic efforts are expected every day.

"You hurt for him," Braves outfielder Matt Diaz said after the game. "This should be the time of his life." For Conrad, the memories of this one game will linger for a lifetime; his dream has become a nightmare.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Conrad is hardly alone in the annals of baseball misery. When Bill Buckner let Mookie Wilson’s groundball slip under his legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, allowing the winning run to cross the plate for the Mets (who naturally went on to win Game Seven), it took Red Sox Nation two decades and two World Championships before it could offer forgiveness. No one suffered more than Buckner. Despite a magnificent career that spanned 22 years and compiled over 2,700 hits, he was forever marked with a scarlet “E” on his chest to the fans of Boston. When his son and daughter were cruelly mocked and taunted in school, Buckner, a strong, rugged first baseman, moved his family to Idaho, where he could live in peace and in the solitude of his own suffering.

“To err is human, to forgive divine,” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century. In 2008, twenty-two years after his misplayed groundball, Buckner was invited to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch. When he walked from the Green Monster in left field to the pitcher’s mound, the Boston fans gave him a prolonged, apologetic standing ovation, as if to say, at long last, we forgive you. Buckner stood on the field overwhelmed with relief, tears streaming down his face. He had finally come to peace with his internal demons and soothed his misery; and in his own gentle way, he could now offer forgiveness for the unfairness of it all.

As fans, we too easily forget how truly difficult it is to play this game, even when the outcome is not magnified by world-wide television coverage and the exaggerated meaning individual fans ascribe to what is, in the end, just a game. Baseball is a team game, and the cumulative performance of the parts is what counts, not the individual success or failure of one player. “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success,” Babe Ruth once said. “You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Good teams not only have good players, they have chemistry, that intangible something that the Cardinals desperately lacked this year. I could sense it when I watched them play, especially in late August and early September, when the stress of the pennant race and the burdens of competition were at their peak. They looked uptight, a group of men blessed with the opportunity to play a child’s game, something that many of us can only dream of, that still dream of; and yet, it appeared, they were not having fun.

So, for me and the faithful loyalists of all but a few remaining teams, it is time to rake the leaves. Yet the sense of loss I feel at season’s end is inevitably and optimistically followed by a sense of hope. For a baseball fan, the end of one season opens up fresh dreams and new possibilities, the unbridled optimism that spring will once again bring a harvest of bright young stars and reliable veterans, when team chemistry will click, and when the baseball angels will reward my faithfulness and determination with a contender. “Wait ‘til next year” is the oft-repeated maxim, from which I have found comfort on many occasions. Although the darkness of fall has arrived and the harshness of winter beckons, for baseball fans, next year is never all that far away.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

American Exceptionalism vs. the Myth of National Superiority

America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. . . . The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
--President Barack Obama, January 20, 2009.
Ever since our founding, Americans have believed that the United States plays a special and unique role in the world. 234 years into this grand experiment, most Americans continue to espouse some notion of American exceptionalism – the belief that the United States possesses a historical destiny placing it uniquely among the world’s nations as an arbiter of freedom and democracy. All American presidents, liberal and conservative, historically have spoken of the United States as the exemplar of liberty, and President Obama is no exception. Only in America, he often exclaims, could a black man with a funny sounding name become President.

But American conservatives in recent years have taken the concept of American exceptionalism further, believing that America is morally superior to other nations, and that our superiority entitles us aggressively to export our political and economic values to other parts of the world, with force if necessary. Where liberals and conservatives differ, where liberals become uncomfortable and conservatives unabashed, is in the notion of national superiority.

That we are superior to all countries in the world in every aspect of our governance, our culture, our society, is asserted often and rarely proved by empirical evidence or objective criteria. Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Lowry of the National Review presented a conservative view of American exceptionalism in a March 2010 article, stating unequivocally that America is “freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” While most Americans instinctively agree with this particular sentiment, it is essentially a statement of faith, not reason. Is America really the “most free, most democratic” country on earth? Conservatives tend to treat it as dogma, a theological creed essential for a true patriot. But is the sentiment supported by empirical facts? How substantially does the influence of money in our political system undermine our belief in one-man, one-vote? Is our two party system open to the establishment of new political parties? Four times in our history, the electoral college has allowed the popular-vote loser to become President of the United States. Corruption of our political leaders, particularly at the state and local level, is commonplace. Racism and discrimination have historically hampered economic mobility and educational advances. We imprison a larger share of our population than virtually any other democracy on earth.

If we could truly rate democracies on an objective, point-by-point scale, how would the United States stack up? Attempted earlier this year by Freedom House, a center-right, independent watchdog organization that, since 1941, has promoted democratic values and opposed dictatorships on the far right and the far left, Freedom House rated every country on earth for its commitment to “free” and “democratic” qualities. America, not surprisingly, scored well, as did many other democracies, mostly in Europe. But while we fell within the top tier (scoring the highest ranking of 1-1), we scored fairly low in comparison to many top tier countries on such things as “electoral process”, “rule of law”, and “freedom of expression”.

In several key social and economic indicators, we lag behind much of the advanced industrial world. Take health care. Conservatives claim that the United States has “the best health care system in the world,” as did House minority leader John Boehner last February. In reality, our for profit health care system, while providing very good care to those who can afford it, denies access to millions and covers fewer people at higher overall costs than do the health care systems of many other countries (mostly in Europe). And we have higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancies than most of those countries. But it is deemed almost un-American to look to our European friends, or to Asia or Israel, for ideas on how to improve our health care system, or any other area of American life.

Many conservatives have criticized President Obama for stating during a European trip last spring, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” For conservatives, this statement proves that Obama rejects American exceptionalism, for if everyone claims to be exceptional then, in reality, no one is. There are two problems with this faulty logic. First, anyone who has ever met citizens of other countries knows that what Obama said is true – most Brits, most Greeks, most Germans, most Italians, most Swedes . . . each believe that their country is blessed with a uniquely special heritage; only Americans seem surprised to hear this. Second, the President actually endorsed American exceptionalism when he went on to say: “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. . . . [T]he United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”

Although the President nailed it exactly, to many conservatives, what makes America exceptional is the belief that America was uniquely blessed by God at its founding. Conservatives tend to glorify America’s mythological history with an uncritical eye and dislike anyone who shines light on America’s past blemishes. While conservatives love to espouse the fiction that America has always been a land of opportunity, is there any doubt that America’s creed of liberty and equality was not historically open to all? African Americans were enslaved and treated as chattel; women could not vote until the 1920’s; the Jim Crow south denied full emancipation to blacks until well into the 1960’s; Japanese Americans were interned during the 1940’s; and many ethnic groups were denied full access to our best schools and the professions until fairly recently. It is liberals, not conservatives, who have consistently advocated and enacted policies to bring the country into closer conformity to the ideal of equal opportunity for all, who have sought to make the United States a fairer and freer nation for more of its citizens. In return, some conservatives, like Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza, believe that liberal ideals are somehow less authentically American, the result of a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mindset.

To believe that America is unique in its devotion to freedom and liberty, or that we have nothing to learn from the rest of the world, results in an arrogant glorification of military power and obedience to an anti-internationalist xenophobia. Are we exceptional, or do we stand out for other reasons? In The Myth of American Exceptionalism, British author Geoffrey Hodgson writes:

From the very beginnings of American history, the commitment to freedom had been mixed not only with the ‘damned inheritance’ of slavery but with the ambitions and interests – for land, for wealth, for military glory – that were scarcely different from those of other peoples and other rulers in other times. And why should they be different? Americans, after all, were not angels. . . . They were men and women of the same clay as the rest of us, and specifically they were, in their great majority, Europeans who brought with them to America European hopes, European fears, European ideals, European prejudices, and a European worship of the nation state.
What makes America exceptional are the ideals embedded in our Constitution, our unique history, and because we have succeeded at great things when we act as one nation. But when we blindly assert our superiority and act with inflated self-regard, when we refuse to examine the things that work in other democracies, we do so at our peril. America's social, political and economic values did not develop in a vacuum and were influenced and affected by many great historical events and transformations that occurred or originated outside of the continental United States – oceanic trade, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, migration, democratic government, industrialization, the scientific revolution, and the creation of a global economy.

Some conservatives long nostalgically for laissez-faire economics and believe that President Obama -- the same president who bailed out the banks and compromised on the public option -- is a dangerous socialist out to destroy America. These conservative voices operate with a very short memory and a selective sense of history. We came close to unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism in this country back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The result? Unsafe working conditions, exploitation of child labor, no minimum wage, no 40-hour work week, no required overtime and holiday pay, no product safety regulations, dirty air, dirty water, and pandemic inequality, poverty and injustice. It took progressives, who believed that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth needed checks and balances and a regulatory framework upon which to enforce higher ideals without sacrificing creativity and America’s entrepreneurial spirit, to correct these shortcomings. Today, because of reform oriented laws and regulations, almost all of which have historically been opposed by conservative forces in this country, we have a safer, healthier, more just, and fairer economy and society. Some of these reforms were borrowed from our European friends, and we are a better nation because of it. What makes us exceptional is that we are empowered as a people to make our government, our society, and our country better.

America is exceptional when we strive to achieve the ideals of our founding principles and when we choose, in the words of President Obama, “our better history.” We are the most ethnically and racially diverse country on earth; we have mostly avoided class warfare and have historically opened our borders to many who sought unbridled opportunity (ironically, conservative forces have mostly been opposed to new waves of immigrants, and still are). What is exceptional is our willingness to correct past injustices, to recognize our shortcomings, to learn from other nations and cultures when they have something worthwhile to share. What makes us exceptional is when our national actions are, as President Obama stated last year, “based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals.” When America stays true to its ideals, when we respect humans around the world and at home, when we tap into the potential of all of our citizens regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or class, when we work together as one people to solve our national shortcomings – which requires a willingness to acknowledge and discuss them – only then is America truly exceptional.