Reading Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

Someone said that when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears. That seemed to be the case when I reviewed Ted Widmer’s Ark of the Liberties: America and the World for the Dallas Morning News.

For quite some time I’ve been chewing over the question of America’s duality, our divided nature, and how the broad term “America” has become an umbrella covering radically disparate ideas both at home and abroad. There are so many conflicting notions making up America that Bill Clinton could say “There is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what’s right about America.”

What Widmer does is supply a historical context for understanding that two-sided reality, and for clearing our minds both of chauvinistic cant and blame-America-for-everything distortion. Extending Clinton’s statement (btw, Widmer wrote speeches for Clinton), Widmer would look at a historical disaster like slavery and say, rightly, that American slavery was a massive betrayal of all our fine words about equality and democracy and human dignity.  But he would then say, in fairness,   that the long struggle of abolition, Lincoln’s career, and the Civil War itself demonstrate the best of America and show that we have within us, always, the seeds of renewal.

I think two groups of people might be disappointed and offended by Widmer’s book:

1. Those who believe that America is, always will be and loves being  a vast militaristic, plutocratic cancer on the planet. This camp rejects Widmer’s “two Americas” idea, believing there is really only one America, and it is the source of almost every bad thing on the planet. It would be the source of every  bad thing on the planet, but you cannot make money at certain bad things, so we don’t mess with those.  These folks rightly denounce America for slavery,  but they dismiss the long struggle for redemption from the evils of slavery–a redemption that may be coming to pass in the Obama candidacy.

2. Those who embrace American “exceptionalism” to the point that they believe we’re exceptional in everything, that somehow we, of all nations of the earth, operate without regard to self-interest, never violate our stated principles, and are not complicit in any kind of historical wrongdoing. For these people, imperial adventures like those against the native Americans and the U.S.-Mexico War never happened. The first group sees only the sickness. The second group sees only the cure.

The review is here if you’d like to read it.

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