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When We Were Great

Thoughts on seeking shelter in the past.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

When were we ever great? Was it when we beat the Soviets to the moon and opened up an entirely new frontier? When we helped a continent win a war against history’s greatest villain and ended a genocide? Could it be when we arrived on that same continent decades earlier and extinguished another all-consuming conflict on that aged, troubled soil so rife with powerful nations unable to be driven into extinction?

Whenever it was, I’m not sure what it means to go back there.

When we won the race to the moon, we did so in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. When we helped end the Second World War, we deployed those weapons and came to understand that more than simple masters of our domain we were and are the endgame, the destroyers of all life. When we helped end the First World War, we did so under the auspices of peace, not arms. However the resulting chaos in our own country prompted soaring unemployment and horrific race riots. And in the aftermath on those faraway shores, another great war brewed.

Could it be our singular moment of greatness was when the founding fathers cast off tyranny and declared this a land “of the people, by the people, and for the people”? Is that the era we should strive to be made great and whole by?

When exactly were we great and why must we go backward, be made so “again”, to get there?

Yesterday I spoke to a man, a veteran. An elderly stranger, we talked about how things used to be. How cars were armored beasts which didn’t shatter on impact and had long, spacious interiors and matching wingspans, their solid steel doors inviting the burliest of men inside with little trouble. Their chrome grills chewing up the air and bugs as pistons hammered unrestrained, analog rhythms beneath the hood.

Neither of us mentioned the gas crises of the seventies. We didn’t talk about crumple zones or airbags. Not a word said about bodies tossed through windshields or the sheer physics of thousands of pounds of solid steel colliding at highway speeds. No talk of how traffic fatalities had been on a steep decline for over seventy years.

Why is anytime but the present the best time?

Once, when we were great, we opened our doors to the huddled masses. Once when we were great, we fought wars to help others. Once when we were great, we founded a country where all men could be free.

All this is true.

But the path was messy. Men and women only slowly realized that promised freedom as time wore on. Many have yet to truly reap the rewards. Nowhere in our history was a time when we were “more free” or “more great” than the next moment and the next.

If we’ve fallen from lofty heights, assailing foreign economies with tariffs after the hat orders have been filled won’t elevate us. Locking away families and children to sleep huddled beneath foil blankets on concrete slabs won’t make us more safe. Freedom won’t be secured through “zero tolerance” or privatization of every institution designed to hold our natural avarice and greed at bay.

We will be great again when we accept to live in the here and now. We will be free when we stop chasing immortality from behind the barrel of a gun or a barbed wire fence. We will be united when we can stand together and stare into the future, not the past, for “again” can never be made to happen. That’s for the best.