After a number of reader complaints about inaccuracies in your previous columns, I’ve been asked by the Department of Corrections to get in touch with you regarding your latest piece. Unfortunately, I did find some issues, so it’s a good thing we caught them ahead of time. I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I dispense with small talk; we don’t get paid OT and the air conditioner at the Department office is busted. My notes are below, starting with the headline.
Here’s What Makes America Great, Gov
Is this a joke? Like is this some kind of cockney voice or something? Andrew Cuomo is from Queens. But I’m really just here to go over the facts, so let’s take a closer look.
Though Bill Clinton was a far better talker than he was an orator, at least one of his sentences should be carved in stone: “There is nothing wrong with America,” he said in his 1993 Inaugural Address, “that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” That’s a line Andrew Cuomo might want to commit to memory.
The New York governor is in the news for saying on Wednesday that America “was never that great.” He went on to explain that the U.S. “will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged” — while complaining that Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan was “retrospective” and intended to return the country to darker times past.
Couple things. First of all, it’s both entirely accurate and ultimately trivial to describe the slogan “Make America Great Again” as “retrospective.” The word “again” is the tip-off here. If this is confusing, consider Trump’s last speech before his inauguration, when he appeared at the Lincoln Memorial as an opening act for Toby Keith. He said, “We’re going to do things that haven’t been done for our country for many, many decades.”
More to the point, if you’re going to make an argument based on something Cuomo said, you want to make sure you’re basing it on what he actually said, and not what the President accused him of saying in all caps on his Twitter feed. Now, I’m no fan of Cuomo. I hold him personally responsible for the cumulative hours I’ve spent stuck in the tunnel on my daily commute to the office. But as it happens, he went on to elaborate on what making America great again would mean, given the real, uncontroversial facts of American history.
Here’s what Cuomo said:
What was the great time that you want to take us back to, when America was great? Before the environmental protection movement? Before marriage equality, when it was just a man and a woman? Before these new immigrants started to come across the border, and before the women’s equality movement?
As you can see, these are factual references to things that were indeed different many, many decades ago. That’s just the historical record. But let’s grant Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that “many, many decades” could refer to any period of time longer than two decades and shorter than a century. It’s hard to identify a time “many, many decades” ago when things were “great” in America: Nine decades ago, women did not have the right to vote. Eight decades ago, up to 120,000 Japanese-Americans were held in concentration camps. Six decades ago, Jim Crow laws were federally permitted. Three decades ago, thousands of Americans died as a result of a public health crisis, the spread of AIDS, that the President refused to acknowledge. It seems fair to pose the obvious question: during which of these decades was America great? OK, back to you.
As political gifts to the Trump 2020 campaign go, it’s hard to think of one so perfectly wrapped. Fox News was all over it. So was Stephen Colbert. For conservatives, the remark is proof of moral ignominy; for liberals, of political stupidity. And it was particularly rich coming from someone whose own campaign slogan, from 2010, was, “Together, we can make New York great again.”
Ah, nice. I believe that this is what my teenage son would call a “sick burn.” But as good as it is, it doesn’t appear to be true. I can’t find any evidence that this was Cuomo’s campaign slogan, only that it was something he said once, in a video announcing his candidacy. I checked to see if there was an official slogan we could swap in, but I’m not sure he had one. The thing he says repeatedly in that video is “I work for you,” which is not terribly catchy, but it’s the closest he gets. The only thing on his website at the time that looks like a campaign slogan is: “The INDEPENDENCE to do what’s right. The EXPERIENCE to get it done.” I’d cut this.
But it’s also a statement more than a few people agree with, not least among progressives Cuomo is trying to woo in his primary campaign against challenger Cynthia Nixon. So it’s worth reminding ourselves of just what it is that really makes America great.
This is another case where you’re opening yourself up to accusations of intellectual dishonesty. If you’re pointing to Cynthia Nixon’s supporters, you have to acknowledge Cynthia Nixon’s response, and she hardly expressed agreement with Cuomo’s comments in the present case. “I think this is just another example of Andrew Cuomo trying to figure out what a progressive sounds like and missing by a mile,” she said to New York 1. It seems like you want to claim she makes a full-throated critique of American exceptionalism, but she hasn’t done that.
It’s in that Clinton line: A capacity for adjustment, self-correction and renewal, unequaled among the nations, and inscribed in our founding charter. “Unalienable Rights.” “The consent of the governed.” “The pursuit of Happiness.” “Created equal.”
If you want to reframe your article as “Here’s What Makes the Declaration of Independence Great, Gov” (though I’m still not crazy about “gov”), you could go with this. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a thorny inconsistency, namely that the guys who wrote this owned slaves and only let white male property owners vote.
Other countries rise on strengths that ultimately become their failings, sometimes their downfall. Conquest made Rome vast, proud — and overstretched. Militarism united Germany in the late 19th century only to become the source of its catastrophes in the next century. Top-down authoritarian directives built China’s factory floors and high-speed rail networks. But they also impede the bottom-up flow of information and ideas that makes economies adaptive and creative.
I guess it makes sense to evaluate a nation’s principles based on the outcomes they produced, but doesn’t that kind of contradict the way you want us to think about the United States? If we apply this approach consistently, the picture is less clear-cut. Some might say that China is achieving greatness, if what you care about is economic power. Historically, Germany has been through more periods of transition than this simple rise-and-fall arc.
Apply the same reasoning to the U.S., and there are some not-so-promising outcomes you’ll have to factor in. Life expectancy is on the decline for the third year in a row, a pattern that reverses previous growth. The infant mortality rate is higher in the U.S. than in Canada, Australia, Japan, and most of Europe. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States has the 4th-worst levels of income inequality among developed nations, surpassed only by Mexico, Chile, and Turkey. If you want to chalk up America’s successes to its principles and its failings to something else, you’ll have to make the distinction clearer.
The U.S. has also endured reversals, crises, malaise, and committed its share of crimes. There is an extensive literature, dating to the 1780s and continuing through the present, predicting imminent doom or long-term decline. There’s an equally long literature cataloging America’s many sins, most of them real but very few of them all that particular to us, including slavery, ethnic cleansing, territorial conquest, racism and misogyny.
“Few of them all that particular to us” is doing a lot of work in this sentence without getting much done. If you’re claiming that America is not the only nation to be guilty of these things in all of human history, that’s true, and also frankly too banal an observation to waste column inches on. If we limit ourselves to the duration of America’s existence, I’m not sure the point holds up. For example, the US military has the most troops stationed in other countries of any military in the world. While its frequent foreign interventions and regime changes may not be quite the same thing as “territorial conquest,” there’s no other country in the same league, in terms of global interference.
But the consistent theme of American history has been one of continual overcoming by way of direct recourse to first principles — principles that are timeless and universal, even if they were laid down by hypocrites. It’s how Lincoln resolved the crisis of the house divided. It’s how the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were ratified — along with the 19th. It is the basis for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s how the Obergefell case on marriage equality was decided.
I can see why you’d want to cite Martin Luther King Jr. here, but you haven’t quoted him. I doubt you’ll be able to find an expression of your argument in his words. In his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” King called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” It’s also worth noting, by the way, that in the address at the March on Washington, King speaks of “greatness” only in a conditional sense. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges,” he says, later adding, “if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.” It’s inspiring, but it’s also scathing and insurrectionary. Of course, King was far more eloquent — and principled — than Andrew Cuomo, but his words kind of prove Cuomo’s point rather than yours.
It’s also why a record number of Americans — 75 percent, according to a Gallup poll from June — continue to believe in the benefits of immigration, despite the Trumpian assault. The American birthright belongs, potentially, to everyone. This is unprecedented. Other countries accept migrants on the basis of economic necessity or as a humanitarian gesture. Only in America is it the direct consequence of our foundational ideals.
The Constitution never mentions immigration, so the word “direct” might be a problem there. Which “foundational ideal” did you have in mind? You’re going to have to make a clearer argument, maybe citing a different legal document. I hate to keep asking this, but have you read the Constitution? Here’s a link for your reference. Plus, immigrants are a higher portion of the population in Germany, Canada, and several Middle Eastern countries, so that’s going to be an obstacle for you in making this point too.
It’s easy to deprecate some of the puffery and jingoism that often go with affirmations of “American greatness.” It’s also easy to confuse greatness with perfection, as if evidence of our shortcomings is proof of our mediocrity.
But greatness, like happiness, lies less in the achievement than in the striving—and in the question of what we are striving for. Another foundational phrase: “A more perfect Union.” What does that mean? It is both purely subjective and highly purposeful, a recognition of imperfection and the necessity of change.
I was hoping throughout this column that you’d define “greatness” at some point, since it’s at the center of your argument. You come close here, but you don’t quite do it. You say it’s not perfection, and it lies in striving. I’m getting the impression you consider greatness not a question of material conditions, but of ideals. Whether or not this is valid in itself, do you think this is what Trump means when calls for making America great again? I get the sense that he has a very concrete idea of what made America great before — in terms of material conditions — and he wants to get back to that. If you’re defining it differently, maybe you agree more with Cuomo?
Elsewhere in the world, religious traditions demand certainty, cultures compel conformity, and political systems demand obeisance. The American tradition rests on pillars of self-questioning, self-actualization and disagreement. This, too, is historically unprecedented.
If you have an intern who can help you get set up with Google, there are some things I’d recommend looking up. Start with “evangelical Christianity.” You may also want to familiarize yourself with the concepts of “racial profiling” and “mass incarceration.” As for your comparison among all other countries, that’s hard to quantify. But the Economist (which I know you subscribe to) has tried, with a “democracy index” that ranks the world’s nations based on “electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties.” The US isn’t even in the top twenty. The best-ranked? They’re mostly the Scandinavian social democracies you dismissed as “a politically dying force” in a previous column.
By coincidence, Cuomo’s remark came just a few days after the death of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul, whose 1990 speech, “Our Universal Civilization” has since been widely shared. It concludes with Naipaul’s tribute to “this idea of the pursuit of happiness.”
“It is an elastic idea; it fits all men,” he said. “So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
The late Naipaul is a contentious figure, and his documented attitudes towards black people and Muslims may not make him an ideal person to quote here. But no matter what you think of him, I’m not convinced this quote serves your purpose. Are you under the impression that its title refers to the United States? That seems unlikely. Naipaul doesn’t define what he means by the term in the speech, but he very specifically detaches it from the idea of a particular nation. In fact, it appears to represent something that inherently goes beyond a nation, with the potential to take multiple forms. Among the things he seems to describe as constituting a “universal civilization” are Islam and English literature. He describes his own life’s arc, from Trinidad to England, as “movement within this civilization…from the periphery to the center.” If you wanted to proclaim the superiority of Western Civilization over the rest of the world — and I’m sure you will in a future column — you might be able to use this. But if you’re trying to argue in favor of one particular nation-state, this speech isn’t the best reference. It’s pretty much doing the opposite.
Want to know what makes America great, governor? Look no further.
I don’t want to throw off the whole thesis of your column here, but two days after making the statement you based your argument on, Cuomo walked the whole thing back. He held a teleconference with reporters and said: “I want to be very clear: Of course America is great and of course America has always been great.” I don’t see how you can publish this column without citing that, but you would probably have to rewrite the whole thing if you did.
Let me know if you have any questions. I need an aspirin.
Department of Corrections