Every form of greatness has its beginning, and the making of a great nation is no different. The rallying cry “Make America Great” is a catchphrase used by more than one presidential contender. But when used with the adverb “again” at the end of the cry, “Make America Great Again,” it implies a vision of a past history that was greater than the present. But this rallying cry of today says nothing about what America has lost or when. It never named a time when America was greater than now nor identified what made America great in the past and lost in the present history. In my search for this lost American greatness, I asked:
- Was America great when human beings were sold into slavery from its beginning in 1619 until 1865?
- Was it great when women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920?
- Was it great when segregation was systematic and legal until 1954?
- Was it great during World War II when 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps?
- Was it in the post-World War II decade when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy produced a series of accusations and investigations of treason to expose a supposed communist infiltration in the U.S. government, and many have been blacklisted without evidence and lost their jobs?
- Was it great when Native Americans were displaced from their homelands to Indian territory to open 25 million acres for settlement by European Americans in 1830?
Oh, wait a minute! Those American settlers were Europeans? This begs the next question: What is an American?
In my previous article, “The fellowship of Language and Culture,” I discuss how language and culture are intertwined. With that in mind, I began my search with the origin of the American language.
Shucks! I found no such thing as “American Language.” What Americans speak is a language called English, a composite of borrowed languages broken in the following manner:
- 26 % Germanic
- 29% French
- 29% Latin
- 6% Greek
- 10% from other languages
Altogether, French and Latin (both European Romance languages) account for 58% of the vocabulary used in today’s English. So many seeds, sturdy seeds blown by many winds, adapt to wherever they land, and they become Americans without a language to call their own! Yet, they have a strong identity with an existence called “American” that does not speak a language native to that territory.
This gets curioser and curioser.
To answer my first question, when was America greater than now, I conclude that the fundamental ingredient is its people. Americans are a conglomerate of immigrants who have learned from each other, exchanged ideas, absorbed different cultures, and continue to do so with the new immigrants arriving from new corners of the world each day. They bring the panoply of their culture with them and decorate the American fabric. They learn to speak a form of English called American English and absorb the American culture, bedecked and bemixed with ideas of their old world and the new world.
America’s demographic is in flux, becoming American, always making it richer. This is what makes America great not ethnocentrism, for that would be cultural ignorance. It is sharing, promoting, and making progress that makes America great. It is moving forward and not turning back the clock as the word “again” implies.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center website features a page titled “A Nation Built by Immigrants” and subtitled “America is strengthened by the contributions made by immigrants. For the U.S. Economy to flourish to its full potential, outdated immigration policy must be modernized.” In it, significant contributions by immigrants are illustrated and immigration myths are debunked.
I urge everyone to browse through this website and learn how far this country has come from the days when we dispossessed the Native Americans from their homes and 4,000 Cherokee people died, when we enslaved our fellow man for profit, when we subjugated women to second class citizens, when we segregated our society into white and black lives, when we interned Japanese American citizens, and one in every ten died. No, that was not when America was great. That time is now and it will be tomorrow, always evolving to greater greatness as long as we allow diversity into the nation and open our minds to new cultures, new ideas, and new discoveries.