A Conversation About America

Ken del Rossi

OnNmy first visit to New York City several years ago, I bought a handful of kitschy souvenirs, including an entirely tasteless 4-inch Statue of Liberty. It seemed like the perfect gift for my stepdaughter, whose school projects were providing her first civics lessons. When I handed it to her, she turned it around and around as if looking for a secret compartment where money or something truly useful might be concealed. Then, satisfied that the statue was her actual gift, she shrugged politely in the manner of a 10-year-old who expected something colorful and squishy and got a Statue of Liberty instead.

I guess she didn’t appreciate its cultural significance.

I could have explained that the torchbearer in New York Harbor is a revered symbol of freedom and hope, a beacon for generations of immigrants. It represents much that is good about the United States. Or, I could have pointed out that the several thousand miniature, hard-plastic Lady Liberty statues lining Manhattan store shelves exemplify a different America—greedy and exploitive, its heritage perfectly mirrored by a $4 bauble made in China.

The mythology of America is infatuating, and I’m as susceptible as anybody, particularly when cheesy souvenirs are involved. I like the fact that our country embraces both the Grand Canyon and the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, and that highway billboards directing motorists to them are equally enthusiastic. I also like Disneyland, burger joints and the World Series, especially when the Yankees aren’t in it. I suppose that makes me a Typical American, and I happily accept the designation.

But I’m also skeptical of patriotism worn on one’s sleeve, or lapel, as seems to be the fashion for politicians. If being a patriot requires a dutiful evangelism of U.S. superiority, the country begins to look and sound like the one the rest of the world complains about. Even if you agree that the United States is “the greatest country in the world,” it’s worthwhile acknowledging that American ideals are subject to different interpretations—like those Statue of Liberty souvenirs.

We thought it might be interesting to hear what a group of faculty had to say on the subject of this country’s values, and the intersection of foreign policy with national character. Their conversation (“America and the Paradox of Power”) drew a few conclusions, and produced a lot of probing questions. Will the United States emerge in coming months as rogue or redeemer, and how do we determine which is which?

We live in a divisive, rancorous time, electrified by a profound sense of vulnerability. It was reassuring to listen as these Stanford scholars offered some context about America’s place in the world and a guarded optimism about the country’s prospects for international leadership. The more debate like this we hear, the better. Such dialogue distinguishes a free, pluralistic society from the insular, absolutist mindset that produces blind devotion, not to mention suicide bombers.

At times like these, universities become more than centers of learning—they foster the intellectual exchange that helps shape national consciousness. Stanford’s influence in Washington policy circles is important, but perhaps no more important than its robust exercise of that most American ideal—civic discourse.

Education is the engine of U.S. influence, and it has plenty of fuel left. Perhaps that will be our ultimate weapon in the battle for the world’s hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, I will go on admiring the Statue of Liberty and all that it stands for—but maybe not the plastic, 4-inch version.