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From Liberty Street: National Glory

John Turner

On the day I had scheduled to buy traveler's checks in British pounds for an upcoming trip, I opened my newspaper to discover that the dollar had hit its lowest point in more than six months. Just bad luck, I told myself at first -- an unexpected fee of several hundred dollars. But the more I thought, the more I found myself wondering about the larger meaning of a weak dollar. What does it signify in our overall scheme of life?

Some would say, of course, that a weak dollar is a good thing. It helps our manufacturers sell more overseas and it disciplines our buying of foreign goods, which seems to be in desperate need of discipline. That's in the short run.

Still, on the whole, a weak dollar bespeaks a weakness in the nation. It says that the other people of the world don't think the United States is worth as much as they once thought. It is a country with financial problems. It cannot control its own destiny to the degree we and the world once believed it could. It is not as independent as its national leaders continue to tell the citizens it is.

It, too, is subject to history. That's a thought most Americans don't like to face.

The notion of American exceptionalism has been strong in the American psyche. Americans have enjoyed thinking of themselves as existing outside the rules. The constraints which bedevil other people don't apply to us. It has always been a silly idea but that hasn't stopped it from being extremely influential.

Now we are moving into a world in which evidence against our exceptionalism -- in the way we have thought of it -- is becoming too strong for denial. So what are we going to do about that?

There are two likely paths, and the one we chose over the next ten years will probably determine the fate of the nation over the course of this century.

One would be to follow the lead the Bush administration has set before us for the past five years and put most of our faith in military power. We can view ourselves as the nation that can beat up anybody else in the world and stands ready to do it if other nations throw up a challenge. Whether we can actually live out that fantasy I'm not sure. The other nations can bring financial pressure against it, which they are already doing to some extent. But overweening military power can sustain itself for quite a while, if it is exercised ruthlessly.  And it could be that Americans are ready to be as ruthless as they need to be to maintain military dominance.

The other path would require a refining of the American character to bring forth the promises of the nation's founding documents. It would require a rededication to the goal of becoming what we said we wanted to be -- a country of liberty and justice for all.  We have strayed from that ideal over the past fifty years, mainly under the influence of fear, and the juvenile Manichaean notion that the world is divided between good and evil instead of being, as the founders told us, always and everywhere a mixture of good and evil. The latter is a complicated notion and complexity has been the condition Americans have feared most of all.

To face complexity, and manage it, while working towards a refinement of the American character, will require far better education than we were willing to pursue during the latter half of the 20th Century. We will have to learn not only our own history but the story of the great power structures of the past. We will have to know what they did and what they caused.  We will have to argue vigorously about what they meant. That is what Jefferson, and Adams, and Hamiliton did. It is not what Bush, and Cheney, and Rumsfeld do. A revolution in learning and thought will not be easy for us because we have slumped far into intellectual indolence.

No one can say which of the paths we'll follow. There are national forces working now for each of them, and which will prevail will depend on how all of us make up our minds. But, to return to the strength of he dollar, we can say that if we follow the first course, dollars and what they can buy will loom larger in our consciousness, whereas, if we pursue the second, dollars will not lose their significance, but they will not possess us like they do now.



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