Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
November 7, 2012
Given the nature of newspaper deadlines, I am writing this column on Tuesday, Election Day, to be published on Wednesday.
That means I am writing with no idea what the elections will bring, but those who will read this should know all (or at least most) of the results.
Slipping into this political limbo moves me to think about one issue that whoever is elected will have to wrestle with, even though it was most certainly not a campaign issue.
I’m going to get to that issue in a roundabout fashion (as always), starting with the topic of American exceptionalism.
What is American exceptionalism? I’d say it is the belief that America is unique. No, more than that: uniquely blessed. The idea that we stand head and shoulders above every other nation. That we serve as a beacon, a model for what all other nations should aspire to.
Or, in very short: We are the good guys.
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I, in fact, have always been a sucker for American exceptionalism. As I have written before, I grew up wondering how I got to be so lucky to be an American. How sad, I thought, to be stuck in one of those other countries.
I’m older now, and I have grown to recognize our nation’s flaws along with our greatness. But I am still a chuckle-headed patriot, blinded by the flashing red, white and blue.
But there has to be more to exceptionalism than just blind love.
Some of the most fervent exceptionalists argue, in effect, that America is exceptional “just because” – because God chose us to favor among all nations.
And that’s that. No questions need be asked. No doubt need be expressed.
And that is where we run into trouble.
Yes, the United States has certainly been blessed (by God, if you wish). We have impressive and varied natural resources. We have vast stretches of fertile farmland. We have long coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific – and, by the same token, we have those broad oceans protecting us.
Given those natural blessings, plus the blessings of our history – too manifold to go into here – we have been granted favor to develop into the great nation that we are.
But we had to become a great nation. We had to earn our greatness.
And that belief does not contradict those who believe we were “chosen” for greatness by God.
After all, if you are inclined to so believe, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – but they had to earn the right to stay there by obeying his rules.
God allows us to sin so that we can earn our blessings by avoiding or at least repenting those sins.
And so now, at last – if you can believe that this is where I’ve been heading all along – we get to America’s infrastructure.
Yes, infrastructure. Roads and bridges. Highways and railroads. Sewer and water and electric systems. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in the postal system, too.
There’s nothing exciting or sexy about any of this. Even the word “infrastructure” is ugly.
But it is in many ways the foundation of our national greatness. We have been building roads and bridges, sewers and water systems since the first settlers came to this continent.
The greater we became, the more we built. And the more we built, the greater we became. From the first crude trails cut into the wilderness to the legendary trails that carried settlers across the continent to the transcontinental railroads to the astonishing system of highways that knits the nation into one.
The infrastructure we built is a big part of what we did to earn our exceptionalism – our right to stay in this “Garden of Eden.”
But now we seem determined, as a nation, to abandon that infrastructure, to destroy – through neglect – that shining resource.
We have decided we “can’t afford” to maintain our highways. We “can’t afford” to rebuild our bridges. We “can’t afford” to create a modern rail system. We “can’t afford” to keep the post office running. We are the wealthiest nation on the planet, but somehow we “can’t afford” any of what we need to do.
Of course, we “can’t afford” it because we have decided we don’t want to pay taxes – and taxes (sorry about this, folks) are the price of civilization, the price of greatness. Just as skipping that apple was the price of staying in the garden. Just as rejecting sin is the price of God’s blessing.
Some of us rant freely about the debt we are leaving to our grandchildren – but we also need to recognize that we are destroying the foundation of our national greatness.
Even if we do not leave those grandkids trillions of dollars in debt, we are still threatening to leave them a nation in ruins, with crumbling highways and collapsing bridges.
We are taking a free ride on the coattails of the past generations that did the work and paid the bills.
Not to get all fancy-pants financial on you, but money we borrow now, running up debt to invest in repairing our nation, is virtually interest free. Money that our grandchildren have to borrow to do the repairs we neglected is almost certain to come with a much higher interest rate – and the repairs themselves are certain to be much more expensive.
Do we have the resolve and courage to earn the right to continue to call ourselves “exceptional”?
Almost 150 years ago, in Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln – the man who instituted this nation’s first income tax, to pay for the Civil War – spoke words that apply to this question of mine.
He spoke about the founding principles of this country and then said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
That war was over slavery. This war is over paying for our greatness.
Will we pay the bill?
Will we endure?
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is email@example.com.