Recently on his “Uncommon Knowledge” broadcast, Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution at Stanford interviewed Matthew Continetti, author of a fine new book on American conservatism, and Christopher DeMuth, a distinguished public policy scholar and former president of the American Enterprise Institute. Toward the end of the conversation, Robinson asked his guests why America’s Big Tech companies, whose profits now come largely from overseas, should nevertheless prioritize America’s interests or at least avoid undermining them.
DeMuth responded with four words: “Because they are Americans.”
His words, simple yet profound, transported me. Suddenly it was 1965. I was 10 years old. My four younger brothers and I, together with my mother and grandparents, were attending the Memorial Day parade in the little mountain town of Mount Morris near the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border, in the heart of the Appalachians.
My father, who was then only 39 years old, was marching in the parade with his fellow World War II veterans. Two decades earlier, these sons of farmers and coal miners had helped to destroy the Nazi war machine. They risked their own lives to protect the lives, freedom and dignity of others — not only their fellow Americans, but Europeans and everyone else. The “youngsters” in the parade were the Korean War vets. There were not yet Vietnam vets. At the head of the parade and in the color guard were the World War I vets.
We were waving flags and cheering our heroes. There were Gold Star mothers riding in convertibles and a marching band from the high school. The parade stopped at the little war memorial in the center of town between the volunteer fire department and the bank, the colors were presented, and one of the local preachers prayed an earnest prayer, praising the courage and sacrifice of the fallen soldiers and thanking God for freedom and democracy.
We were the only family that was not Protestant — my mother’s family is Catholic, my father’s Syrian Orthodox. There was one Black family in the local community. But all of us were accepted as fellow citizens, and we treated one another with respect.
All differences among us vanished, and we united in our love for our country and in gratitude to those who had given “the last full measure of devotion.” What mattered — all that mattered — was that we were Americans. And we were proud to be Americans — proud of what America and its citizens had done, proud of what America stood for. We believed in — and cherished — our country.
We were in the midst of the Cold War. The Cuban missile crisis had occurred less than three years before; JFK had been assassinated by a communist less than two years earlier. Not one of us was in any doubt about which side was in the right and which in the wrong. We knew communism was evil and it was our ideological foe. We rejected the Marxist dogmas of atheism, dialectical materialism, the class struggle and the idea that history is driven by conflicts of material interests. We deeply denied that we must overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. We believed in the God-given dignity of the human person.
We were under no illusions that our country was perfect. Still, we believed America was a great and good land, and that its principles were true and right — worth fighting for and, if necessary, dying for. We knew that where we as a nation fell short, it was on account of a failure to live up to these principles.
Reflecting on these childhood memories, I ask myself: Were we naïve? Were we simplistic? Were we uneducated and captivated by an unobtainable ideal? Did we deceive ourselves with a white-washed image of America? Was the nation founded on a series of deeply immoral beliefs, and the Constitution merely an instrument to sustain oppression?
I am still that 10-year-old child. I still believe what that little boy believed. I love my country— because it’s mine, yes, and because it is ours. More than that, though, I love our country because it is good: its ideals and principles are true. I love our country because of what, at its best, it stands for, and for the great good it has done — not least by showing that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” can indeed “long endure.”
Today, the state of our politics provides legitimate reasons to wonder if our nation continues to value and honor its principles and strive to live up to them. Some people, noting that many of the men who declared that “all men are created equal” were slaveowners, condemn these principles as phony. Some want to apply them selectively and in a spirit of ideological partisanship: freedom for me but not for thee.
On both edges of the ideological spectrum there is talk of “national divorce” and even civil war.
Yet I have faith that America and her noble principles will endure.
A source of my optimism is my father, my hero. Now 97 years old and extremely frail, his kindness, compassion, courage, profound moral strength and child-like faith inspire me and my four brothers every day. Every year since he returned from Normandy and Brittany in World War II, he has participated in the same annual Memorial Day parade in that little Appalachian town, though in recent years he has not marched, but rather been pushed in a wheelchair.
Every Memorial Day, my father salutes the flag as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung. On his chest he bears the medal he received from the Republic of France when he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his contributions to the liberation of that nation from Nazi tyranny. Each year, my brothers and I have to exert enormous pressure on him to wear the medal. In his humility, he does not like to display any insignia that distinguishes him from his honorable comrades in arms at the memorial service; indeed, many medals were deserved but never awarded.
One need not earn a medal for valor to be considered a defender of America. What unites us — what renders us “we” in “we, the people” — is our shared commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which recognize the profound, inherent and equal dignity of each and every member of the human family. I, and you, and all of our fellow citizens have certain responsibilities to America because we are Americans.
That’s true of coal miners and farmers. And it is no less true for university professors and tech executives.