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Letters from Downunder

Forging Greatness

Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

"America is great because America is good.
When America ceases being good, America ceases being great."
Alexis de Tocqueville,, Democracy in America, 1835-40

(6/2013) Greatness is the product of a just and compassionate society, and the attainment of that is always forged through the fire of great and compassionate minds.

Is America great? At the time De Tocqueville wrote the words quoted above, American was not a military power - yet 150 years later we have come to equate greatness with military might, which is something he would have deplored. He knew only too well that such power is not part of a great society, merely part of one that puts self-interest and conquest above the lives of its citizens. He would, however, have been both distressed and heartened by the events which were to take place some quarter century later, which involved the worst kind of war, immense sacrifice of life, intense and unrelieved heartbreak, and all for the cause of justness and compassion.

How can that be? When the cream of society's landed gentry wish to cling to their way of life unchallenged, to follow that which they have come to believe is the right and natural order, and refuse to admit that they are made of the same flesh and blood as all humans, indeed that it is normal to exploit, kill and treat humans as cattle - and then are prepared to scheme their way to laws and stratagems that will allow them to continue - why then they debase the land, the culture, and the good.

When they are challenged on these points, yet are still prepared to take up arms against their fellow citizens, it is the worst wrong of all. Slavery had been abolished in England and much of the world, a growing sway of anti-slavery endeavour had been established in the North, but conflict was the answer from the South. And it took a very great man to steer the resolution of this conflict toward a just and good conclusion.

On the first of July it will be the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the battle that is marked as the turning point in this conflict. It took place around Gettysburg, close to you in so many ways, and an event that will be marked by re-enactments, remembrances and resolutions. You, the good citizens of Emmitsburg, are privileged as few are to be so close to this historic place. And the celebration of one of the great and most compassionate of minds in history is linked forever to this defining moments in history, for the world saw greatness and goodness springing from a country that had shed its colonial past, and the world was heartened and strengthened by that example.

Yet Alexis de Tocqueville used two words in the phrase above whose meaning has been lost in the rise of ignorance: Great and Good


Today, America is seen by many as neither great nor good except as a trading partner, supplier of arms, home of non-restraint, ludicrous political squabbling, and savage reprisal. The words are still there, but have become good - as in times, and great- as in deals, but the meaning Lincoln brought to them has been lost. How could that happen, and does it matter?

De Tocqueville put his finger on the cause, because it was apparent to him even back then:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.

In other words, the light of greatness has been capped and the worth of goodness has been trivialised by a majority who corral opinion. This phenomenon is difficult to appreciate from within, because when you are in you cannot see out, and the fear of what might be out these makes the 'in' seem safe and solid - but this is exactly the same as the south 150 years ago - except that it is now a nation-wide occurrence. No one planned it that way, to be sure, but looking at the tangled mass of governance today, the loss of real goodness and greatness is painfully obvious from the outside and seemingly ignored from within. It is estimated that only 13% of the population have an appreciation of the problem, that 7% do not want change, and the rest are indifferent, ignorant, or both.

Yet the cry goes up: "Why are we not the great nation we once were?" And the answer, sad to say, is that you are not the good nation you once were. Goodness has nothing to do with religion, faith, hope, or good intentions. Indeed, these are the very enemies of goodness, because no amount of prayer or beseeching will bring it about, for they are in the end excuses for passing the buck. And another Lincoln will not arise without the cry and support, not of 13%, but of at least 50% of the population; in fact the cause of greatness is in the hands of the majority, the same who are indifferent and prepared to sacrifice nothing to achieve it.

So how may it be brought about? Why, as Lincoln would have said, that is up to those who can see the problem, who are reviled by it, who will sacrifice and work towards the recharging the goodness so lacking today. This goodness comes not from indulgence, but from self-sacrifice, from causing others to be moved out of their comfort and to face the reality of their lassitude. Having a job is not enough - the southerners had jobs, and closed their eyes to the immorality around them, and saw it as normal. The economy may right itself, but greatness will continue to be the chimera it is.

Goodness is not easy. It requires passion, clear-headedness, a view of the past century and the one to come, and above all the unshakable belief that it is humanity that matters, not production, not enemies, armies or oil, not pets or polemic, but your neighbour - the one you despise as well as the one you regard - your willingness to be truly good, in other words.

This is the message of the battle of Gettysburg, which would not have even been fought had the president of the day given in to the wrongs he faced and which tore his heart. This must surely be the message that your representatives are getting - that the will of the people is for goodness. If your country espouses a government of the people by the people and for the people then work to let it be true again. It is not that at present.

Greatness demands goodness.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker