These last couple of years I had the privilege of being back home in the United States. After having lived so many years in small and mostly authoritarian countries – nano-managed by their paranoid regimes – I have been amazed to witness again the way civic life flourishes in America.
Here, people come together – voluntarily – to stitch the richest fabric of any society that has ever existed. Churches, neighborhood committees, think tanks and charitable organizations all work, not to control each other but to improve the quality of our democracy. I have realized again what sustains America’s place in the world.
Some do not understand this or think we achieve greatness through means that limit the individual. Individualism is what we are so known for; not “harnessing” it but instead setting it free. Individuals are encouraged to find what stokes their individual passions and connect with others to make that fire more intense.
President George H. W. Bush once said:
“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding. We will work on this in the White House, in the Cabinet agencies. I will go to the people and the programs that are the brighter points of light, and I will ask every member of my government to become involved. The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”
The American community is what he was talking about. Citizens coming together voluntarily to do good. Not coming together in a violent act of occupation, or to demand something that is not theirs; but instead to give back freely from that which they worked so hard to achieve.
You see, President Bush was comfortable with the American narrative and content to step back and fan the flames that light up our national landscape. He was a wise leader.
This should not be taken for granted, for it is not always the case. Distrust often seeps into the debate by leaders who do not believe in “we the people.” Thinking primarily of the evils of society – and yes there are many – they want to replace the individual pinpricks of light with a blanketing federal bureaucracy. Do-gooders are replaced with an army of unthinking bureaucrats; which has the unintended consequence of extinguishing the individual lights that illuminate us.
I have seen this happen through my sojourn in difficult lands. Governments who see their people as flawed, or worse as a threat, seek to control them through oppression, or through mis-named democratic socialism which is nothing more than a polished authoritarianism. And in doing so they offer their people a deal: welfare in exchange for subservience.
But this is not the American way. We have come too far. Together, we have overcome too much. They say the difference between a state and a nation is that a state is defined by its physical boundaries; while a nation has a shared culture and values. The United States is a nation. Under God and indivisible – we are a place which will always be the last, best hope. But we have to work for it. Trust is hard work; charity bereft of pity is difficult; and violence is always only one occupation away. Nevertheless – and be this as it may – I will always bet on America and revel in its thousands of points of light.
Joel D. Hirst is a freedom advocate and a democracy activist. He is co-founder of Cordoba Group International, a consulting firm and author of the upcoming novel, “The Lieutenant of San Porfirio.” Hirst tweets @joelhirst