I was watching news coverage the other day of demonstrators in Hong Kong waving American flags in the faces of their heavily armed wardens who march and quash on orders from Beijing.
It was stirring to be reminded that the world's oppressed still see the United States as an exemplar, a nation willing to sacrifice its blood and treasure in the cause of freedom. They likely recall, more than some Americans, that U.S. leadership and sacrifice played the major role in saving civilization from fascism and communism (the twin offspring of socialism) three times in the 20th Century.
As I watched this, I thought about a letter-to-the-editor of the Gazette-Packet that I had read a few days before. In his letter, which was aimed at sinking Christopher Columbus and the holiday dedicated to him, Mr. Alex Howe took pains to remind us that American values, in fact, are "invasion, exploitation, and slaughter for economic gain." It is unquestionable that these things happened in our nation's history. But Mr. Howe seems to see them as the central narrative of the American experience. In fact, "invasion, enslavement and genocide" were the normal state of life in the world in Columbus's time and, unfortunately, long thereafter.
In 15th Century Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas, tribal resentments and cultural and religious differences resulted in constant wars, slaughter, slavery and poverty. Around the time Columbus sailed, the Mings and Mongols were killing one another in Asia. In Africa, tribal leaders had already found it lucrative to sell their prisoners of war to Europeans as slaves. And in Europe, more circumstances and acts of religious, ethnic and political war and oppression existed than can possibly be counted. To top it all off, the Europe-Asia-Africa triad fueled religious conflicts and tribal animosities in one great cycle of conflict that continues in similar forms to today. I'll let others defend Columbus, but I'll say that he definitely was not a 21st Century guy.
Contrary to what the letter states, European colonization was not instrumental in "initiating a centuries long cycle of invasion, enslavement, and genocide all along the shores of the Americas." Of course it would have been preferable had the Europeans, who were themselves escaping from the nightmares of the Old World, sought permission to enter and expand, or had they even decided to be neighborly. That was not what they did. Theirs was the world of the 15th through 18th Centuries. Colonists came here and, seeing a land with no boundaries, took it. That's not an excuse. It's a fact.
What the colonists did do, however, that was unquestionably good was to form an agreement in which individuals would rule themselves and focus their cooperative energies on building their view of a better society. This has been a long and slow process with a lot of hypocrisy and failures along the way. We need to do more and better; Native Americans still suffer from the European invasion. But our process has been ongoing and enjoyed some success--even helping and inspiring much of the rest of the world along the way. And the rest of the world has taken notice. Including Hong Kong.
Can we do better? Of course. Every one of us. Every day. That is the opportunity that America affords us. If our values were "invasion, exploitation and slaughter for economic gain," this would hardly be the case.