Can We Succeed?

We were at a dinner party just prior to Christmas. One of the guests was a retired Canadian military officer who had spent a considerable amount of his career as a military attaché to the Canadian foreign service in a variety of European countries including Russia. As often happens the conversation turned to current events including politics.

After listening to the rest of us prattle on for a bit, our Canadian friend announced that he just could not understand American politics. He said that we are just too hard on ourselves. He went on to describe our politics as plumbing the depths of our minor shortcomings while ignoring the successes of what makes America great.

He described America as a great country that has always risen to the challenge with tenacity, innovation and courage, individually and collectively. He described a country that is loved and admired throughout the world for its generosity and contributions to peace and humanity. A country that, regardless of the depth and breadth of the challenge, always finds a way to persevere and prevail.

And yet we seldom celebrate our achievements, our generosity, or our contributions. Little time is spent celebrating the liberation of millions of people in Iraq and Afghanistan or the heroics of our service men and women. Instead we are inundated with the horrors of the civilian casualties of war — an unavoidable consequence particularly when the enemy seeks to use civilians as human shields.

Little time is spent on our contributions to the advancement of women’s rights in Afghanistan where women were mere chattels under the Taliban — one of the most repressive regimes in modern history. Instead we focus on the breadth of sexual promiscuity and aberrations in America as if it is “normal.”

We wring our hands over political correctness — that we might offend even one person — at the expense of our safety and security. We decline to enforce our own laws for fear that someone might denounce our actions as racist and in our failure expose our own citizens to added costs and exposure to criminal and personal danger. And yet we never acknowledge that we treat others better than any of the nations or nationalities most likely to criticize us.

Our science and industry have provided most of the significant advancement in the production of food and goods, improvement of safety and efficiency, advancements in medicine and medical care and growth in the standard of living throughout the world. And yet we spend our time diminishing those contributions with a constant drone about the evils of business and impose restrictions that continue to drive production and jobs overseas — and then we whine about “outsourcing” as if we are blameless for creating the conditions that cause it.

What is wrong with America dominates our discussion and our news. What is right with America is given short shrift and most certainly seldom celebrated.

At the end of that discussion I was reminded of the difference between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. President Carter spoke of a great malaise and led the country into doubt, depression and defeat. President Reagan spoke of America as a great shining city, poised on a rise for all of the world to see and led the nation into a period of optimism, prosperity and international respect.

It is a mark of leadership to encourage progress by reminding others of their contributions and not their failings. Where we proceed in the next decade will be determined by that quality — or the lack thereof.