This Is What Actually Makes America Great

By David Jenison on July 10, 2018

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly promised to make America great again, but the media failed to ask the most important question: What makes America great?

Heads might explode imagining Trump's take on American greatness, and the public definition certainly differs along the political and spiritual lines that readers know all too well. Some see greatness in having more freedoms, others in having fewer, and many misconstrue military might as greatness, which would suggest America wasn't great until the World War II buildup. There is another view worth considering, however, that's rooted in the country's very DNA.

America achieved greatness by being a mosaic of different cultures.

To better understand America, one must spend considerable time outside the country, and that's exactly what I did in 2009. I had saved up enough money for a down payment on an NYC apartment, yet I made parents around the world cringe when I opted to travel the globe instead. The down payment was for a place in Queens—not Tribeca—which meant I had to travel by bus and stay in hostels, but this afforded me the opportunity to interact extensively with other travelers and locals. From major cities like Berlin, Rio and Bangkok to far-flung places like Crimea, Antarctica and the Venezuelan Amazon, I immersed myself in the world and soaked up its diversity like a sponge.

After three years on the road, I returned to New York in 2012 and saw the city in an entirely new light. The singular pieces I saw in other countries fit together as a collective in NYC, and I realized the major role that diversity plays in making NYC one of the greatest cities in the world. The same can be said of the diversity in America. As with NYC, this country of Native Americans and immigrants who came from around the world (albeit some involuntarily) absorbs elements of different cultures to create a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.

Like any great team, a Great America is an assorted collection of skills, strengths and experiences that make for a more complete country… or to quote the Constitution, "a more perfect Union." Malcolm Forbes (of Forbes magazine fame) described diversity as "the art of thinking independently together," in contrast to a dependence on everyone thinking the same way. It's like the difference between having a football team with players in every position and a team featuring nothing but quarterbacks. The ball slinger might be the most popular position, but an all-QB team is gonna get blown out.

Every country has its share of immigrants, but my experience in traveling led me to believe that immigrants in other countries often feel more compelled to self-segregate, and this type of cultural separation can foster unhealthy social behavior. Pre-1776 America evolved from an immigrant surge that, while predominantly "white," came from all over Europe with cultures that were more distinct than they are now. U.S. regions once included Russian America, New France, New Sweden, New Netherland, New Spain, New England, Germanic populations in the mid-Atlantic and Ulster Scots in the Appalachians, among others. While Europe seemed to be in a constant state of war through the 1940s, once-isolated cultures in the U.S. gradually merged into the greater fabric of American culture over centuries.

Does the U.S. still need a lot of work? Definitely, starting with the White House, and the extent of the work needed will vary with each city, neighborhood and block. Still, the places empowered by multiculturalism help elevate America as a whole and make sure there's an inclusive place for everyone.

At an NYC bar in 1996, Huey Morgan of the Fun Lovin' Criminals told me about the Butterscotch Theory, i.e., the idea that cultures will interact so much over the next thousand years that the human race will only have one color, butterscotch, and that racism will finally subside. This idea recalls America's characterization as a "melting pot," a term made famous by a 1908 play by the same name. America's greatness, however, is tied to its construct as a mosaic, not a melting pot.

While butterscotch might be what the distant future has in store, greatness is celebrating the beauty of the mosaic, not a world in which everyone melts into the same skin color. And that diverse color palette is what gave America its edge over more monochromatic countries. The U.S. could be compared to a Jackson Pollock—i.e., chaotic but colorful and beautiful—while other countries often appear constrained and static like a Rothko. Both NYC abstract expressionists created masterful works, but Pollock embodied an energy and vibrancy reminiscent of American culture itself. 

Just as an artist can only go so far with one color, a country can only go so far with one singular culture. True greatness comes from adding different ethnic experiences into the American collective as it has for centuries. And more good will come as we continue to recognize the differences, respect them equally and then add these elements to our iconic mosaic of thought, culture and experience.

This is what truly makes America great, and embracing it helps make us great Americans.

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