Imagine a place where people from a wide range of ethnicity, subject in the past to the political designs of other countries, yet whose national identity has stubbornly refused to be driven from the popular imagination. Its people are very aware of their diverse bloodlines, and celebrate them. Its government encourages the flourishing of diverse ethnic identities and the cultivation of their languages. Its national identity seems bound up more in a unshakeable self-determination than in any of the many ethnic and religious identities which have intersected within its borders.
It all sounds very American... but it predates the American experiment by hundreds of years. We are witnessing in the heart of Europe the rebirth of a fundamental human instinct. It is this instinct for freedom and self-determination that flowered into the American idea of freedom of religion as the Pilgrims fled the tyranny of the English Crown.. It is flowering again in the heart and minds of the beautiful people of the Ukraine, and in their historic cities which are the home of an ancient baroque architecture.
I have come to write this post by way of a statistical curiosity. I track the visits to this blog, and am able to see where the audience comes from. A while back I started noticing hits from the Ukraine. When I go back over the stats, it looks like it started after I wrote my post on what "American Excpetionalism" means. And this month, for the first time, I am starting to get more hits from the Ukraine than from the United States. (Hits for today, as of this writing, are 27 to 9 in favor of the Ukraine). Something must have struck a chord and has left me wondering... So I started to Google and read up on Ukrainian history and culture.
I think I am starting to understand.
In a YouTube video available here, various Ukrainian people explain their bloodlines. Some are speaking in Russian, others in Ukrainian, but they show that they are both aware and proud of their ethnic heritage. But they are Ukrainian. There must be something about their national identity which transcends their ethnicity and religion. They have translated their national anthem into English (and by meter and rhyme, have done so admirably well) and they sing it for the video.
In recent days Russian leaders have taken to the podium to denounce the idea that America is exceptional. Vladimir Putin himself published a letter in the New York Times in which he wrote:
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
And in a speech to the United Nations, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov leveled the following charge:
Insouciant Americans are told that as they are the exceptional, indispensable people, their government has a right to be unaccountable to law. Law is what Washington imposes on others. Washington’s hegemony over others is the right of the “exceptional nation.” No other country counts or has any rights.
One of two things seems to be happening here. Either the folks at the highest level of the Russian government have a gravely distorted understanding of exactly what we Americans believe when we claim to be exceptional, or they know full well what we mean... and realize the people of the Ukraine are exceptional in exactly the same way.
Russia's national identity is bound up in their ethnicity, their language, and their religion. This is the story of the history of the human race. Until recently, I thought our Founding Fathers were the first to conceive of a national identity of ideas that purposefully created a maximum amount of room for the flourishing of ethnicities, their religions and their languages.
It is an immense pleasure to discover that I was wrong.
This instinct of human freedom predates us. But it has been suppressed over the centuries among the people of the Ukraine by the designs of others who would promote national identities of ethnicity and religion at their expense. But it is now flowering again where it once appeared in times past.
I suspect Russia understands well the ramifications of a national identity of ideas flowering again in the Ukraine. They seek a return to Cold War "spheres of influence," the Ukraine being the strategic fulcrum of their designs. Armies can fight, and one can beat another. Putin claims to be able to capture Kiev in two weeks. As for territory, I don't doubt him. As for the hearts of the people of the Ukraine - who are discovering their own exceptionalism exactly as we Americans have - Putin doesn't stand a chance. There is no army which can conquer the human instinct toward freedom.
This leaves me wanting to say something to two distinct audiences. (I also see a decent number of hits on this blog from Russia.) To my Russian readers:
When we say America is exceptional, we are not saying we - conceived in terms of our ethnicity or religion (I am of German stock, from the Roman Catholic parts of Germany, but am now an Evangelical Protestant) - are better than anyone else. We are just as subject to the tyranny of the mob or of the oligarch as any society. This is why we have a Constitution - it circumscribes the power of the majority that the natural rights of the minorities in our midst would be protected. We still struggle with this... but we struggle openly and freely, hopefully more aware with each passing generation of the obligations our national creed places upon us.
You misunderstand us because being Russian means being ethnically Russian, speaking the Russian language, and perhaps to a large extent being part of the Russian Orthodox Church. Being American means none of these things, as they might otherwise appear here in the United States. It means committing ourselves to always defending the rights of those who do not speak our language, who do not go to our church, or do not share our bloodline. The degree to which you can imagine a national identity of ideas rather than of ethnicity and religion is the degree to which you can understand us.
To my Ukrainian readers, let me begin here: Ukraine Has Not Perished!
But to sing this, I believe you to sing of the idea of the Ukraine. Where people of all bloodlines can live freely, celebrate and nurture their languages, their cultures and their religions. As you yearn for this exceptional life, though, please take note of the history around you.
To your west you should see that a sweet life of government-provided benefits will only end in bankruptcy and disaster. The government which is big enough to provide everything you need will be powerful enough to take everything you have. (On account of your history, you know this much better than we.)
When you step outside your home and see something in your neighborhood which needs fixing, do not wait for the government to come and fix it! Own it yourselves! What you own, you take responsibility for. And as you take responsibility for your own communities you will discover your neighbors with that same sense of pride. You will form a dynamic civil society which will always be superior to political society when it comes to meeting your needs and promoting a prosperous future. And then those who are in need of social services will enjoy the dignity of being lifted up by someone who knows their name.
Do not let anyone deceive you about wealth. It is created by improving things. And improving things requires failure. If you are to be free to succeed, you must also be free to fail. Almost every story here in America of a successful business person is a story of failure: they tried something, and it failed. They pulled themselves together and tried something new. And they kept at it until they succeeded. We are struggling here in America to remind ourselves of this. You need not look to natural resources - or their lack - for the wealth of the future. You will find that in the hearts of your people when they strike out to innovate, change and improve things - but you must let them fail.
Lastly, about your peril. You live in a historic and tragic land. You know deprivation and famine like nothing we can imagine here in the U.S. The words of a journalist from the Philippines who survived the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos still strike me as powerfully today as they did when I first read them in 2003:
I pray that through all the imperfections and confusions of our tenuous democracy, those who are too free to be intimidated outnumber those too timid to be free.
The Ukraine has not perished because its people are too free to be intimidated.