Monday, May 25, 2020

INHERITED BIRTHRIGHT

I belong to the generation of patriots that fought World War II. On the occasion of Winston Churchill's death in 1965, I wrote (in Cornell's student newspaper) that those who came after us could not fully understand why we, who remember the great and terrible events of 1940-1941, should be so moved by his death; that they could not appreciate him as we did; that to them he was merely a name or, at most, a legendary figure, whereas to us he was, among other things, the embodiment of the greatest cause in our lives: the preservation of government of, by, and for the people at a time when it was most imperiled. We thought it altogether fitting and proper that (on April 9, 1963) he was made an honorary citizen of the United States. 

Britain had, of course, been fighting for more than two years by the time we went to war, and it is not to belittle her contribution to final victory to say that the war could not have been won without us; Churchill knew this and acknowledged it. We were "the arsenal of democracy"; more than that, we were, as Abraham Lincoln said-not boastfully but as a fact-"the last, best hope of earth." 


This was true in 1862 when Lincoln said it, as well as in 1941, and it is more obviously true today. Like it or not-and it is something of a burden, certainly a responsibility-America is to modern history as Rome was to ancient, and not only because we are the one remaining superpower. Modern politics began three hundred-plus years ago with the discovery or pronouncement of new principles, universal and revolutionary principles, respecting the rights of man. In 1776 we declared our right to form a new nation by appealing to these principles. Because we were the first to do so, it fell to us to be their champions, first by setting an example-this was Lincoln's point-and subsequently by defending them against their latter-day enemies, the Nazis and fascists in World War II and the communists in the cold war. Our lot is to be the one essential country, "the last, best hope of earth," and this ought to be acknowledged, beginning in our schools and universities, for it is only then that we can come to accept the responsibilities attending it. 


Our unique place in the world is recognized elsewhere, sometimes grudgingly or inadvertently. In 1987, the bicentenary of our Constitution, I was in Brazil, where the people had recently overthrown a military dictatorship and had begun the process of writing a democratic constitution. I had been invited to lecture on constitutionalism. At one place, a university in Recife, after I had finished my prepared remarks, someone got up and denounced, not me, but the local official who had who had sponsored my appearance. "Why," he shouted, "did you invite an American? What can they tell us about constitutions? They've had only one. Why didn't you invite a Bolivian? They've had a hundred!
I have enjoyed telling this story to students here, expecting them to appreciate it and hoping that they might even learn something from it. My hope is that they and their elders might learn something from this book, specifically, why this country deserves citizens who love and honor it, and are prepared to defend it. Political scientist Sheldon Wolin had this in mind when he pointed out that we are citizens not only in the formal or legal sense, but because we share a birthright "inherited from our fathers," a birthright to be cared for, improved, and passed on to future generations.

Walter Berns. Making Patriots (Kindle Locations 27-31). Kindle Edition.

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