I was recently asked to sit on a panel discussing the Future of the American Idea, hosted by the Jack Kemp Foundation. I shared the panel with three very distinguished speakers in American political discourse: Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol, and Gary Kasparov. Thanks to my good friend Michelle Van Cleave for nominating me to be part of such a distinguished group. The below essay is essentially what I offered to the discussion.
I believe that the American Idea can be expressed in four key values: Courage, Idealism, New Beginnings, and Community. These values are epitomized in two very different, but quintessentially American communities – recently arrived immigrants, and the US military.
The story of Meb Keflezighi is a great example of how immigrants continue to embody the values of courage, idealism, new beginnings and community. Meb spent his childhood struggling to survive with his family in a village in war-torn Eritrea. After many years of courageous effort and persistence, his father succeeded in bringing Meb and his family to America, and with the help of the Eritrean-American community and their new American friends, Meb and his family were able to make a life for themselves in San Diego. Meb was 12 years old when he arrived, and speaking little to no English had to step up and adapt quickly to the new language and culture in San Diego. In school, he found that he had a talent for running, and after stellar performances at San Diego High School, he went on to attend UCLA and become an NCAA champion in multiple events. In 1998 he became an American citizen and represented the US in the Athens Olympics in 2004, bringing home a silver medal in the marathon to his adopted country. He has since become the first American in over 30 years to win the New York City marathon, and then, though given little chance for winning, became the first American in three decades to win the Boston Marathon in 2014.
When people claim that Meb is more African than American, he responds forcefully and proudly “I am an American!” When a friend of mine accompanied Meb to an Eritrean-American gathering in his honor, he was struck when the event began with the pledge-of-allegiance to the American flag. Meb’s ten brothers and sisters have all attended college, to include some of the best institutions in the United States, a tribute to the courage, hard work, love and dedication of Meb’s father and mother, and the support of their community.
My good friend Kim, a second generation Vietnamese-American has shared with me much of her life growing up in the very tightly knit Vietnamese-American community in Atlanta and Southern California. When new immigrants arrive from Vietnam, the Vietnamese-American community rallies behind them, with a strong sense of shared obligation to support new arrivals, and help them get on their feet and adjust. The Vietnamese American community holds new arrivals accountable for making their own way with the help they receive. They are expected to become contributing members of their communities and to represent the best of the values of the Vietnamese culture, while respecting, and adapting to the values and customs of their new country.
To Meb and Kim, and to the Eritrean and Vietnamese-American communities, America is still the land of unlimited opportunity, not of unlimited entitlements. The American Idea is still fresh, inspiring, and real – it hasn’t become infected with disillusionment and cynicism. The stories of Meb, Kim, and so many other immigrants follow the pattern of many of our European-American forefathers who left “Old Europe” to begin anew in America. Our immigrant forefathers, and immigrants coming to America today, have all exhibited the courage and idealism to break from the old and venture into the unknown, to start over and build strong communities that reflect and embody the American Idea.
Similarly today, members of our military represent those same values. All have courageously volunteered to leave their old lives, to make new beginnings, and to accept the dangerous mission that serving in the military on behalf of America entails. The military culture is demanding, but it is also infused with idealism and optimism as it seeks to embody the values of honor, sacrifice, and service-above-self that represent the best in America and the best in its service members. Each of the military services actively strives to create a sense of community which holds its members accountable for pulling their own weight, for contributing to the greater good, and for representing the values that continue to make America a place where courageous idealists from around the world want to come to make a new beginning and build great communities.
The American Idea recognizes that some have not always been treated well on its behalf. African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans and others have legitimate grievances regarding how some have interpreted the American Idea. Past abuses cannot be undone, but they can be acknowledged, and lessons taken from them to help new generations to do better in the future as the American Idea evolves and becomes more inclusive.
The American Idea is not about looking backward with regret– it is about looking forward with optimism. It is about proudly proclaiming “I am an American!” and boldly stepping into the future, striving to live up to high ideals that make strong and vibrant communities, communities that sustain the American Idea that sustains us all.