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Published in Press Stream:
American Politics

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American Politics
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Personal account of James Miller, Managing Editor of The Interpreter, a publication on Russia, Ukraine, and Syria. A contributor at Reuters, The Daily Beast, RFE/RL, elsewhere.
Are There Any Patriots In America?
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Fireworks explode over the Lincoln Memorial on July 4, 2016 (AP/Jose Louis Magana)

The Most Important Question Of 2016: Is America The Greatest Country In The World?

Last Monday, America celebrated its celebration of the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It's hard to explain the 4th of July to non-Americans, but it is an occasion to reflect on not just our independence from Great Britain, but on the ideology of the American Revolution and the promise of democracy itself.

Few would argue that the 4th came at a time where optimism in the U.S. is at historical lows and Americans are more divided than ever. Just days after the parades and fireworks, video released on-line showed police shooting two black men. The week ended with a terrorist attack against the Dallas police force which left five officers dead and ten others wounded. There were riots in the streets, and there were riots on social networks, and the brief unity which this country feels every July was immediately shattered.

All this has me reflecting on how our founding fathers, the legendary American "Patriots," would feel about how their "great experiment," is turning out. It also had me reflecting on the word "patriot" itself.

The word "patriot" should not be applied to our founding fathers. Or, perhaps it should, but then the word means something radically different -- nearly the opposite, in fact -- from what it means today. Sam and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and George Washington are only now branded "patriots" because they so hated the behavior of their country that they committed treason, and unlike other geographical revolutions which have followed since (the Whiskey Rebellion, the Texans, the Confederacy, ect) they won their war.

The founding fathers were admirable and unique for other reasons. What they did was to stand up for a set of principals which they believed were right (and, by the way, they WERE RIGHT, another important distinction from their historical analogs in the South and how the word is used today). They fought not out of some misguided pride -- in fact they fought for the opposite reason, that they were disappointed with their country and were no longer willing or able to ignore its shortcomings. They reflected deeply on their choices, they applied the principals of the enlightenment, THE ENLIGHTENMENT, to their set of beliefs, and determined that they had the right and responsibility to stand up and fight for a more just system.

When I hear Americans say that this country is the greatest in the world, I can literally feel Thomas Jefferson roll over in his grave. We are playing a game with a hand stacked with aces. We are the third largest country in the world both by population AND by landmass -- the only country blessed with both. Russia and Canada have more land, and worse climate, and a tiny fraction of our population. China and India have overcrowded cities, a comparative lack of natural resources, and stiff regional competition. We have been able to thrive in our land of plenty because we have been separated from the world's competing superpowers by two giant oceans. Our oldest cities are hundreds, not thousands, of years old, and we have the luxury of having cities with streets laid out in grids, something which is nearly unheard of in the Eastern Hemisphere.

We SHOULD be the best in the world, because we're the luckiest people in the world. If we are not the best it is because of our own failings as a society. We won the game, then we set the rules, and yet we are still falling behind in nearly every category (except the awful ones, like percentage of the population in prison and size of wealth disparity).

America could be #1 at everything again. That latent capacity is there. If we are not excelling, it is because we, collectively, have chosen the wrong paths. Today's "patriots" seem to ignore all of that. They pretend that we have nothing to learn by looking abroad, building coalitions, or changing our ways. Patriotism has now become synonymous with fear of change. It has become nationalism. History teaches us that this is a major mistake.

The day before the fall of Rome, the greatest country in the world was the Roman Empire. On July 4, 1776, the most powerful country in the world was the British Empire. Do not mistake history and power with greatness or stability.

WE, however, have something that all the other great empires did not have -- hindsight. Will that translate to foresight? For 240 years, the answer has largely been yes. Right now? It'd be a miracle if this country, in its current form, lasted another 240 years, or even another 20, unless we have a serious rethink of some of our behavior.

But it's not all doom and gloom. We have time. For all the racial tensions, this is not 1968 (yet). For all of our external threats (most of which we are ignoring) the fall of American Rome is not on the horizon (yet). Regional separatism is here, but it has no moral weight and is not seriously being discussed (yet). Our economy is still an unrivaled juggernaut (though perhaps only because the Chinese system is so flawed) and there's no reason to believe that its flaws will lead to a collapse (yet, but the warning signs are there).

I believe in America. We can pull it together. We can right the course. We can lead again. No country is more capable of greatness than we are.

We'd better do it soon, because history shows that in any number of ways , the barbarians are at the gates. A true "patriot" would recognize that and stand up and fight. Unfortunately, right now, it seems that all the wrong people are the revolutionaries.

But we've still got time.