America the Unexceptional

(This essay was originally published as “American Exceptionalism seems to be in retreat,” by the Newport Daily News on June 10, 2017.)

With his recent statement of intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord on climate change, separating us exceptionally from the other 195 states which signed it, President Trump has promoted the project, started in the campaign season, of turning America from an exceptional nation, leading the free world, to an ordinary, unexceptional country, single-mindedly chasing its own, narrowly defined interests.

I cannot remember exactly when I began to think of my country as exceptional. Perhaps it was listening to the World War II stories told by my many aunts and uncles or watching the many TV shows on that war like “Victory at Sea” and “Combat.” Perhaps it was listening to Dion belt out my exact emotions with “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love.” Perhaps it was experiencing that mystical age of the Kennedy Camelot. Certainly by the time I graduated West Point, all paid for by the American taxpayer, I was fully grateful to the American system which I considered exceptional.

The idea of American Exceptionalism—that America has a special place and role in the world—has its roots deep in the history of Western civilization. Our founding fathers carefully studied ancient democratic Athens and ancient republican Rome as models. The great Athenian statesman, Pericles, said that his city-state’s “distinguishing excellence” was that “in the hour of action we show the greatest courage.” He held high Athens as “the school of Greece.” Though not always succeeding, America—no matter who the president–has sought since World War II to be the “school of the free world.”

Early Christianity provided one of its founding metaphors, drawn from Matthew, Chapter 5, Verse 14: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” The early colonial leader John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as President Ronald Reagan, both spoke of America as a “city upon a hill.”

In 1783 George Washington emphasized the unique character and role of our new nation in saying “the Citizens of America …are to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.” Thomas Jefferson stated in his letter of 1811 to William Duane: “The last hope of human liberty in this world rests with us.”

Part of Abraham Lincoln’s objection to slavery was anchored in his belief that America was to be a model for all. The warehouse of the largest slave traders in the country, a mere seven blocks from the Capitol, was a terrible embarrassment, he argued. “We were proclaiming ourselves political hypocrites before the world by thus fostering Human Slavery and proclaiming ourselves, at the same time, the sole friends of Human Freedom.”

The idea of American Exceptionalism has never been partisan. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was part of President George Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,” a valiant if misguided attempt to push the bounds of democracy beyond its earlier victories in eastern Europe in the 1980s. President Barack Obama mentioned the concept in his farewell speech in January: “So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional—not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.”

At times President Trump has shown his ability to merit the mantle of the American presidency: his plans for mending our infrastructure, his concern for those thrown into unemployment by the faceless forces of globalization, his nudging of allies to carry their fair share of the burden. However, by his proposed ban of Muslim immigrants from selected countries, he has erased the words of Emma Lazarus from the Statute of Liberty. With his erratic tweeting, he has shown disregard for the necessary machinery of democracy and has promoted a democracy of chaos and distraction. By slashing the budget of the Department of State and increasing that of the Department of Defense, and by his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—in a public speech—placing interests over universal rights, Trump has magnified the idea of might makes right at the expense of the idea of might for right. By his labeling of the media as the “enemy of the people,” he has taken a page—however unwittingly—out of the totalitarian handbook of the 20th century. By not revealing his income tax returns, he has shown contempt for a vigilant, free-thinking citizenry. And by his coarse words and actions, he has promoted the vulgarization of American society.

The torch of freedom is leaving America. Perhaps it is going north to Canada, as The Economist has suggested; perhaps to Japan or Germany, as G. John Ikenberry in Foreign Affairs has suggested.

Thomas Jefferson’s concern of 1811 is apt today: “The eyes of the virtuous, all over the earth, are turned with anxiety on us, as the only depositories of the sacred fire of liberty, and that our falling into anarchy would decide forever the destinies of mankind, and seal the political heresy that man is incapable of self-government.”

The exceptional irony is that this is happening under a president so focused on American greatness.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News, RI.

 

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Memorial Day: A Time to Honor and Remember

Healthy civilizations remember and honor those who have died serving them. These memorial occasions are also opportune times to reflect on the civilization’s creed—its fundamental values and beliefs.
Almost 2450 years ago, Pericles, the great statesman of ancient Athens, did just this in one of the most famous speeches of Western Civilization. At the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BCE), he was called upon to give a funeral oration to honor the fallen. Instead of giving mere praise and consolation, he spoke to the idea of Athens. “Our city is called a democracy because it is governed by the many, not the few. In the realm of private disputes everyone is equal before the law ….” “We alone regard the man who takes no part in politics not as someone who minds his own business but as useless.”

Pericles Funeral Oration, Artist: Philipp Foltz
(wikipedia.org)

Things hadn’t changed all that much in the annual Memorial Day parade in my hometown of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, where I found myself a few years ago. The last one I had attended was the last one I took part in—maybe 1960—as a cub scout in Troop 49.
The parade lineup looked about the same. In the first section were the high school band, mayor and council, board of education, policemen and ladies auxiliary, American Legion, VFW, disabled veterans, and firemen. The second section followed with the service organizations, such as the Elks, Knights of Columbus, and Women’s Club. The third section included the boy scouts and cub scouts, the girl scouts and brownies. Bringing up the rear was that beautiful, big red fire engine.

There were no significant changes in the setting either. Memorial Park, on whose corner I had dutifully posted myself many times as a member of the sixth-grade safety patrol, appeared the same. The memorial itself was unchanged: a large, four-sided piece of grayish-white rock, with metal plates on each side, stationed in the middle of a sea of white pebbles. The plates bore lists of names, names, and more names.

The town’s citizens were out in force as they were in the late 1950s- early 1960s, the heady days of the Cold War. Despite the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957, I knew we were still the greatest superpower. From my boyish perspective, we had to be. Despite the loss of Buddy Holly in 1959, rock ‘n roll was going strong with Elvis, Fats Domino, Frankie Avalon, and the Shirelles. As a budding baseball player and avid fan, who collected baseball cards of those perennially strong New York Yankees, I reasoned that the “World Series” was always held in the U. S., never in the Soviet Union.

The ceremony itself seemed to be an echo of those generations ago. I recognized a good number of the town officials and veterans though their faces were now etched with wrinkles and their hair was now hoary, or gone. The schedule of events still consisted of that uniquely American blend of God, country, and commemoration: the opening prayer, the national anthem, and the mayor’s remarks.

Finally, the roll call. As a boy, I never understood why one man recited names and the other monotonously answered with “Absent.” Eventually I came to understand this solemn moment in honoring each of the town’s fallen by name. Democracies make it a practice to place value on the lives of each and every individual, no matter what make-up. One can certainly realize this in visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, or the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

The dreary, solemn notes of “Taps” were always followed by the most exciting part of the entire ceremony—the rifle salute. Three volleys. My friends and I would scramble for the shells as they were ejected from the rifle chambers. Finally, came the placing of the wreaths and poppies, and the closing remarks.

Since this took place in the late 1980s, the last three men on the roll call were townsmen who died in the Vietnam War. The last man called was Mike Mackerel. He was one of those, as President Ronald Reagan called them, “boys of Vietnam who fought a terrible and vicious war without enough support from home.” A year or two older than I, I didn’t really know him that well, but I can remember him—thin and scrappy—playing second base for the Kiwanis Club little league team, while I played for the Elks. As I turned to walk home, I spied through the dispersing crowd my high school classmate, Marty. He had served in Vietnam while I had served in West Germany.

In the memorial services around Newport County this weekend, we shall remember and honor our fallen. We should also recognize and appreciate those fighting for us today in many far-off places. Finally, it is an appropriate occasion to remind ourselves of some of the key words of our common creed, such as: country, democracy, service, courage, and sacrifice.

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

 

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Trumperica: Going the Way of Norse Greenland?

(This essay was originally published as “Is America Going the Way of Norse Greenland?” April 30, 2017, on the History News Network [online] http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165689)

Civilizations which make bad decisions about the environment they occupy, cannot sustain themselves over the long run. By appointing Scott Pruitt, a known environmental skeptic, as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, and by signing on March 28, the executive order beginning the rollback of the Obama-era initiatives, President Trump has placed the US, now Trumperica, on such a path.

The Vikings were a warrior, sea-faring people from Scandinavia who in the late 8th century began to project their power first to the British Isles and over the next centuries from as far west as Canada to as far east as western Russia. Their initial raids consisted of only several ships; however, eventually armadas of 30 or more ships plundered the coastal and river towns of western Europe. More than simply violent raiders, they were also very courageous explorers and extensive traders, even if they generally were heavily armed. Ahmad Idn Fadlan, a 10th century Arab soldier and diplomat of Baghdad stated, “Every one of them carries an ax, a sword, and a dagger.”

In 984 a group of these Norse Vikings ventured to Greenland and established two major settlements. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond explains how these families from Norway eventually built churches, used iron tools, and herded farm animals. Life on Greenland was harsh, but, as they demonstrated for nearly 500 years, still sustainable. Thereafter, they vanished.

Initially, however, they prospered. They had discovered a virgin landscape suitable for livestock and had the luck of a relatively mild climatic era. They were able to grow adequate hay for their livestock. The sea lanes back to Europe were ice free, facilitating trade for needed goods. Their European kin sought the walrus ivory they were able to supply. There were no quarrelsome natives.

Greenland and Ice Caps

(water.usgs.gov)

However, as time wore on, the favorable conditions changed. The climate became colder, shortening the growing season. The European demand for their ivory declined. Lastly, native Inuit people appeared. These factors were beyond their control; however, they did have control over how they responded to these challenges.

Regarding the Inuit, the Norse chose to view them as inferior people who had little to teach them, calling them “Skraelings” (wretches). The Christian Norse therefore chose to reject their technologies and strategies: their streamline kayaks to harpoon seals; their large boats (umiaqs) and their specialized harpoons to kill whales. They did not learn the special techniques the Inuit used to hunt ringed seals, the most abundant seal in the coastal waters. There is also little evidence of inter-marriage or trade between the Norse and the Inuit. Clearly, the Norse kept them at a distance and chose conflict over cooperation.

Regarding the environment, the Norse made decisions which gave them short term benefits, but which in the long term were unsustainable. By cutting the trees and over-grazing with their livestock, they destroyed the natural vegetation. For fuel and also for the construction of their buildings, they cut and stripped the turf. All these activities caused harmful soil erosion, leading eventually to shortages of lumber, iron, fuel, and arable land.

American civilization, the world’s second largest carbon polluter after China, now has the Trump administration leading it, one that seems intent on fulfilling President Trump’s campaign pledges to place economic growth above a sustainable environment. Appointing Scott Pruitt as EPA director in February was akin to letting the fox into the henhouse. On March 28, Trump signed an executive order beginning the rollback of the Obama-era environmental initiatives and attempting a futile revival of the coal industry. This order directed the EPA to begin the process of rewriting Obama’s Clean Power Plan of closing numerous coal-burning plants and constructing new wind and solar farms. With these actions the United States has now officially become an “environmental skeptic.”

If the world had arrested the markers of harmful climate change, perhaps the situation would not be so ominous. However, this is not the case. As reported by the National Geographic Society, the global surface temperature average in 2016 set another record. It was higher than 2015 which was higher than 2014. Last year’s average was 1.69 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average. The Artic has warmed significantly and its ice cover continues to thin and to shrink. The world’s two largest ice sheets, in Greenland and Antarctica, continue to decline. Since 2002 the Greenland ice sheet has lost an average of 287 billion metric tons of ice each year. Over the past four decades, climate-related disasters have risen. Finally, last year the Great Barrier Reef off Australia experienced its largest recorded coral die-off.

Diamond ends his analysis of the demise of Norse Greenland by focusing on its leaders: the chiefs and clergy. These were the primary decision-makers who owned most of the land and most of the boats, as well as controlling most of the trade with Europe. They chose to devote much of the trade to importing luxury goods to enhance their lives and prestige. They might have made wiser decisions for the settlement’s longer term interests, for example, to import more iron and fewer luxury goods, and to copy the successful technology and techniques of the native Inuit. However, they had the power and privilege to decide otherwise. Diamond concludes: “The last right that they obtained for themselves was the privilege of being the last to starve.”

We should not dismiss the example of the Norse Greenland as irrelevant to our civilization, though it consisted only of several thousand people. The lessons in decision-making of this remote European outpost of the Middle Ages warn us to avoid clinging to formerly beneficial values and ways when time and circumstances have made these harmful in the long run.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and environmental politics at Salve Regina University, RI.

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The US Enters World War I

(This essay was originally published as “April 6, 1917: The US Goes ‘Over There'”, in the Newport Daily News on April 6, 2017.)

One hundred years ago today, the United States declared war on Germany, joining the war almost three years after its inception.

The war had begun in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary, following the assassination of its heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared war on Serbia. Within two weeks the two major alliance systems of Europe were at war. The Triple Alliance consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary (without Italy) was arrayed against the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The former had been joined by the Ottoman Empire and were called the “Central Powers.” The latter, eventually joined by Italy, were called the “Allies.” Many other lesser states, such as Japan, had joined the war, making it a truly global conflict.

From the beginning, the United States, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, was committed to a policy of neutrality. The son of a Protestant minister, Wilson was driven by such high ideals as justice, democracy, and freedom of the seas and favored diplomacy and cooperation over war. He attempted to use the war to change the norms of international relations. Old-style power politics and selfish nationalism would give way to diplomacy and collective security. Good will would triumph over animosity and ill-will.

While personally inclined toward Great Britain, he proclaimed: Americans must remain “impartial in thought as well as action.” Attempting to protect the US’s lucrative commercial ties with the warring states, Wilson demanded that all warring states respect the rights of neutrals.

Within the US, public opinion was mixed. German-Americans were either neutral or, with Irish-Americans, supporters of the Central Powers. The financial and commercial sectors favored the Allies. Trade with them between 1914 and 1916 had blossomed from $800 million to $3 billion. Groups like the suffragettes and the prohibitionists were preoccupied with their own domestic agendas.

In early 1915, Germany, under blockade by the powerful British Navy, turned to a powerful new weapon in its arsenal, the Unterseeboot (submarine). On February 4, 1915, Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone. Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning.

On May 7, 1915, the British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland, killing 1198, including 128 Americans. Survivors totaled 764. The sub’s commander, Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger would tell his friend: “The ship was sinking with unbelievable rapidity. There was a terrific panic on her deck. … It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen.”

Lusitania (pbs.org)

Upon learning of the event, Wilson controlled his emotions. He kept to his normal routines, playing golf the next day (Saturday), taking a drive, and going to church on Sunday morning. He told his secretary, Joe Tumulty that he realized his calm response would irritate some people. However, “I dare not act unjustly and cannot indulge my own passionate feelings.” Under pressure from the United States, Germany in September 1915, promised not to attack passenger ships and to allow evacuation of neutral merchant ships.

Two key factors led the US to enter the war: first, the decision by Germany to resume unrestricted submarine warfare and second, the Zimmermann telegram.

In early 1917, Germany decided to make submarine warfare the heart of its naval strategy. German Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf proposed allowing submarine commanders to sink all vessels entering the “war zone” around its enemies. This, he maintained, would end the war in six months. The probable US entry into the war was irrelevant. He boasted: “I guarantee upon my word as a naval officer that no American will set foot on the Continent!”

While the US broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3, Wilson stopped short of demanding a declaration of war. Disbelieving the new Germany policy, he said: “Only actual overt acts on their part can make me believe it even now.”

The final event which brought the US to war was a telegram from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, to the German ambassador in Mexico. Decoded by British intelligence, it instructed the ambassador to propose to the Mexican president an alliance between Germany and Mexico, to take effect if the US entered the war against Germany. It stated that, in return for Mexico’s support, Germany would help Mexico seize its “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. On February 24, 1917, Great Britain presented the fully translated telegram to the US.

Woodrow Wilson (WW1centennial.org)

After several US ships were sunk in the succeeding weeks, President Wilson addressed the Congress on April 2. Using high, moral language, he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He warned of “many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead” and proclaimed that this war was on behalf of all nations. “To such a task we dedicate our lives and our fortunes.”

Congress responded with rousing emotion and applause, and on April 6, passed a joint resolution declaring war on Germany.

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a writer, educator, and monthly columnist.

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West Point at 215, Graduates Defend and Serve the Nation

(This essay was originally published as “West Point Going Strong at 215,” in the Newport Daily News on March 16, 2017.”)

As the U.S. Military Academy at West Point celebrates its 215th anniversary, the ever-uncertain international security environment and the civic needs of our liberal democracy ensure a perpetual role for this reliable, enduring, educational institution.

Congress established the Military Academy on March 16, 1802, originally as a school to supply engineers for the country. Washington’s Continental Army had relied too heavily on foreign-trained engineers such as Thaddeus Kosciuszko of Poland and Baron von Steuben of Prussia. The school, located on a point where the Hudson River turns west, served as the country’s sole engineering school until 1830.

Since its establishment West Point has had many distinguished graduates and has supplied the country with much of its military leadership. A favorite expression at the Academy is that “much of the history we teach was made by people we taught.” During the Civil War West Pointers like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant commanded both sides in 54 of the 60 major battles and commanded one side in the other six. The class of 1915, “the class the stars fell on,” produced 59 generals from a class of only 164. Both history and Hollywood have immortalized such graduates as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, and George Patton.

Less than ten months after their graduation, some 140 graduates of the class of 1990, serving under Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (Class of 1956), helped to secure our victory in the Persian Gulf War (1990-91). Lt. Gen. Fred Franks (Class of 1959), as the VII Corps commander, led the decisive flanking movement against the Iraqi Army in that war. As a major in the late 1960s. Franks taught me plebe English and was my assistant baseball coach sophomore year. During  the Iraq War, 2003-2011, fifty-nine graduates gave their lives.

From the ranks of West Point have come thirteen astronauts and 90 Rhodes scholars, fourth in the latter category among all schools. Mike Pompeo, Class of 1986, is the new CIA chief, and Lt. Gen H. R. McMaster, Class of 1984, is the president’s new national security advisor.

The Military Academy’s mission is to educate, train and inspire its cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the U. S. Army; and a lifetime of selfless service to the nation. It does this by developing cadets in four main areas: intellectual, physical, military, and moral-ethical. The Corps of Cadets is composed of approximately 4,300 of America’s finest young people. Last year’s graduating class consisted of 16% women and 26% minority. From its first class of two cadets, the Academy now graduates approximately 950 cadets each year, providing the active Army with about 20% of its needs for lieutenants. A West Pointer must serve at least five years of active duty and three years in a Reserve Component, reasonable repayment for an education that is estimated to cost the American taxpayer $225,000. per cadet.

Cadets on Parade (US Army photo)

When threats to our security have appeared remote, critics have argued to collapse West Point and its sister academies into one or even to eliminate them: the cost too high; the payoff too low. Such dramatic steps would risk much. West Point has provided the country with leaders of character for 215 years, not only to fight its wars but also to serve the nation selflessly after they leave military service, often in self-directed and quiet ways.

It is said that West Point is the “conscience of the Army.” Its graduates in the civic community also serve as part of the conscience of the nation, fortifying it with the critical values of honor, integrity, and service which the Academy has engrained in them. Its graduates believe in the rich heritage of Athenian democracy, which promoted such a tremendous flourishing of freedom and creativity in that ancient city-state, as we enjoy in America. However, they also recognize the necessity of the Spartan warrior values of vigilance, discipline, honor, and courage to maintain them. In broad, bold letters on the side of an Academy building stand steadfastly the cautionary words of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: “The hand of the aggressor is stayed by strength and strength alone.”

USMA Coat of Arms

West Point serves then as a source of those citizens of character who Plato argued were so essential for a republic. And its core values of DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY are imperative for a liberal democracy to continue to flourish in this uncertain and increasingly authoritarian world.

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a West Point graduate, Class of 1970. He teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University and is writing a novel on Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, Class of 1847.

 

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Trump: White American Cincinnatus

(This essay was originally published as “Is Trump the 21st Century Cincinnatus?” by the History News Network [online] on February 26, 2017)

In dire times the ancient Romans would appoint a dictator, giving him unchecked power to lead the Roman Republic out of the crisis. In electing Donald Trump, a threatened, indignant white and older America, still with its strength in numbers, elected their hoped-for savior. Exit polling data collected by Edison Research for the National Election Pool indicate that 63% of white male voters and 53% of white female voters chose Trump. Also, the majority of voters older than 40 voted for him.

Before Rome was an empire, it was a republic—literally a “thing of the people”—with primary power in the hands of the Senate, composed of 300 senators, while two consuls served as chief executives. In extraordinary times, the Senate would appoint a dictator, a single man with supreme power, normally appointed for six months and normally leading an army into action against a specified enemy. He could rule by decree, change any law, and act as the supreme judge, with no appeals allowed after his judgments. After leaving office, he could not be legally charged with any wrongdoings during his tenure.

The most legendary dictator was Cincinnatus who was appointed dictator in 457 BCE to defend Rome against the invading Aequi. The Roman historian Livy tells us that Cincinnatus, leaving his three-acre farm, accepted the position, raised an army, and defeated the Aequi.

Cincinnatus chosen as dictator. By Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1612–1660) – Jastrow, CC BY 2.5

        Clearly the analogy has its limits. America faces no literal military invasion; however, white and older America, fears fanned by Trump’s vision of reality, senses an invasion of immigrants from Latin America and terrorists from Muslim countries. While he is no dictator, his supporters would be happy to see President Trump use his executive powers to the fullest to “drain the swamp” and fix these problems. Also, damn to the environment and down with regulation, they would praise him for giving full throttle to unchecked economic development in a quest to bring back jobs supposedly given away to foreigners but in reality eliminated more by technology.

The biggest difference is that Cincinnatus epitomized Roman virtue and unselfish civic action; Trump epitomizes egotism. As dictator, Cincinnatus became the first servant of the state: He resigned his office within fifteen days, even though he was appointed for six months. Following his lead, George Washington, the first President General of the Society of the Cincinnati, chose voluntarily to retire from the presidency after two terms in office, setting a precedent. Trump will try to bend reality and the state to his will and interests. He is our first president without a scintilla of prior public service. And at seventy years of age, it is doubtful whether his love of self and wealth, St. Augustine’s cupiditas, will be transformed to love of God and others, what Augustine called caritas.

Demographic trends indicate that the white-alone American majority is vanishing. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that between 2010 and 2015, the white-alone population (not Hispanic or Latino) decreased from 63.7% to 61.6%, while Hispanic or Latino, Black, and Asian populations all increased marginally, totaling 36.5% of the population. In March of 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that by 2020 more than half of the country’s children will be minority race, and that this shift will take place for the population as a whole in 2044. It also indicated that the fastest growing segment of the next decades will be people from “two or more races.”

Demographics were eventually an important factor in the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. Once it had reached its largest extent in the 2nd century, migrating and invading Germanic and Asian tribes repeatedly breached and occupied the overextended Roman frontier. When the Germanic leader Odoacer took power from the teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476, Germanic control of the Western Roman Empire was essentially a fait accompli.

For America then to retain its vitality and exceptionalism, it must debate and reaffirm its basic principles, ethical code, and constitutional order, and the future caramel-colored, multi-racial American people must embrace these as legitimate.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, RI, and is writing a novel on Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

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Civility: An Essential of Civilization

(This essay was originally published as “Civilization is Dependent upon Civility,” February 11, 2017, in the Newport Daily News.)

The growing incivility in American civilization has finally hit home for me. For the first time, someone posted a comment with coarse language to my blogsite.

The person was clearly an African American, so I allowed his use of the n-word: He was quoting its use by a white person. However, when he called this white person a “little racist piece of [swear word],” I edited it.

One Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s, I was working at Wildermann’s German “Pork Store” in northern New Jersey when Kenny Wildermann, my childhood friend’s older brother, admonished me, probably in response to my own swearing. He gave me a definition of swearing which I still like in its simplicity and truth. He defined it as “an immature way to express oneself forcefully.” Now I would modify it to “an immature and uncivil way … .”

There is not much disagreement among historians about the definition of “civilization.” A common definition is: a complex culture/society with a large number of people who share common elements. The common elements may include such things as cities, political structure, military structure, social structure, increased material wealth and specialization of labor, writing, religion, and artistic and intellectual activities.

Of course, because a body of people may meet these markers does not mean that the civilization is necessarily “civilized.” Civility, like beauty, is clearly in the eyes of the beholder. For example, in his book, “We Were Not the Savages,” Daniel N. Paul judges the British settlers of the 15th-19th centuries as more savage and uncivil than the native peoples of Canada’s maritime provinces.

Likewise, the question of who were more “civilized” during the crusades of the high Middle Ages will certainly turn on whether the original source is a Christian or Muslim writer.

During the Revolutionary War, the British certainly considered us “colonials” to be an uncivilized bunch, clearly shown in the uncivilized and dishonorable way we fought them.

To me, a clear marker for the civility of a society or civilization is the level of respect and dignity that its adults have for each other, reflected in part by the level of profanity and vulgarity they use toward each other. What words do they use in the public square to communicate with each other? When faced with disagreement, do they avoid slanderous and salacious attacks on one another and remain focused on the actual issue?

The answers to these questions have significance. For when human dignity and respect are not upheld, soon neither will the basic human rights of the Western tradition: freedom of speech and of dissent, and the pursuit of happiness, among others. Taken to its extreme, incivility will eventually lead to the trampling of human beings.

If indeed civility is an important part of the stitching which holds a healthy civilization together, American civilization is clearly at risk. The information revolution has given us the internet with all its wondrous benefits; however, there is no code of ethics that governs it, something I have now witnessed firsthand. Our technical advances seem to have outstripped our ethical codes, a situation that will only intensify as technology continues to progress in leaps and bounds.

Added now to the impact of the no-holds-barred ethical code of the internet on our society is the ethical code of our new president. The first president in history without any public service, President Donald Trump has brought, understandably, a commercial and capitalistic code of ethics to the office of the presidency. This is in contrast to the unwritten code of behavior that comes with this office, the office of our head of state and as such our first citizen of civility. This unwritten code I have witnessed and admired in my adult life in presidents from John Kennedy to Barack Obama. We may argue about its specifics; however, I would guess we would have little argument on this: The president must be a role model of civility and of citizenship.

If he is able to make the transition to this unwritten but nonetheless genuine ethical code, he will ineluctably raise the level of civility in the public square and contribute immeasurably to what the ancient Romans called “civilitas,” meaning “we are all citizens together.” It is this word, after all, from which we get the word “civilization.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) has been teaching Western Civilization and World History for twenty years at the high school and college level.

 

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