A few weeks ago, I read Ambassador Daniel Fried’s valedictory speech upon retiring after 40 years with the Foreign Service of the US State Department, where he served under Presidents Bush (both of them), Clinton and Obama. It was both a tribute and a warning. His speech inspired me to write this piece:
We are American.
Beliefs are susceptible to neither bullet nor bow, neither despot nor demagogue. This is how and why we endure. As Ambassador Fried explained, when we say "we hold these truths to be self-evident", this means that we Americans believe these concepts to be so universally acknowledged, so profoundly and unequivocally true, that they are the foundation stones upon which our country is built.
These beliefs lie at the core of our citizenship, one of the most sought-after and valuable in the world. When you come to America we ask not for fealty to an individual, or a religion, or a race. We require only that you believe and uphold our concepts of life, liberty, freedom, justice, civility, equality, and fair play.
These beliefs are so important that we took our first steps as a nation by uttering - nay, by declaring - these words. Indeed, it was because our erstwhile king did not consider these truths to be self-evident that we were thus compelled to so exclaim.
There the great American experiment began - and it endures. Our country has hewn fast to these beliefs even when we have not lived up to them. So African-American people like myself fight for our civil rights because these rights are unalienable. We cannot and will not be separated from them, nor they from us. Our governing documents, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Bill of Rights have declared this to be so, and we believe it. Women agitate for equal pay, equal treatment and control of our bodies - we persist - because our rights to these things are and have always been ours, wholly and completely, as established in our citizenship.
These truths are at the core of our vigorous, muscular and vital democracy. When we take actions based upon these beliefs, as we must, we rejuvenate these old, battle-scarred and precious words for which so much blood has been shed.
Our American birthright is obtained not by blood or by birth but instead by belief. These truths are our heritage and the lifeblood of our American family. They link us, like DNA, to Americans of the past and to Americans of the future. No matter where you came from and no matter how you got here, if you believe in these ideals, you become an American. Every person who shares these (not uniquely but quintessentially) American beliefs, whether documented or undocumented, breathes new life into our world, reanimating and powering the beating heart of our democracy.
And so America endures. We endure because these beliefs will survive insular and inward-focused administrations. These truths will always be true, even when truth threatens to become "spin". These beliefs will outlast the spittle-filled death rattle of the once full-throated bigot/misogynist/homophobe/xenophobe. These truths have withstood the rise and fall of foreign empires, US administrations, global alliances and international unions. American exceptionalism is rooted not in our military might but in our dedication to these ideals.
We are American. As such, we must uphold these self-evident truths, vigilantly enforcing the promises made in our governing documents. We must support those allies who believe in our causes and who stand with us, both home and abroad. We must remember that American-ness is not conditioned upon the bathroom you use, who you love, where you came from, who you worship or the color of your skin. Our American heritage consists of our common belief in our shared ideals. This is how we become Americans. This is how we endure.
Carí Jackson Lewis is a J.D. / LLM (Taxation) Candidate, May 2017 at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.
Writer’s Note: For more information about Ambassador’s Fried’s speech, see: https://diplopundit.net/2017/02/27/after-40-years-of-service-to-america-ambassador-daniel-fried-delivers-parting-shot/