Like millions of other Americans, I spent last Sunday night watching the U.S. Women’s Soccer team show Japan — and the rest of the world — how it’s done. Our talented, gutsy women trounced Japan in the World Cup Final, 5-2, with superstar Carli Lloyd scoring an unbelievable three goals in the first 16 minutes. As the clock wound down, I was literally off my couch, jumping with pride as I watched our team hoist high the American flag in celebration. The women radiated pure joy, which was so contagious I could feel it in my living room.
As the two teams shook hands, something struck me. The last names of Team Japan were all Japanese — Fukumoto, Ariyoshi, Ohno, Sawa, Miyama, Ogimi. But the last names of the U.S. team were colorfully diverse: Solo, Lloyd, Klingenberg, O’Hara, Rodriguez, Holiday, Krieger, Leroux, Rapinoe, Wambach, Sauerbrunn.
This American team, like all American teams, symbolizes the unique idea on which this nation was built. “E pluribus unum”: out of many, one. In fact, the slogan for the team is “One Nation. One Team. Twenty-three stories.”
That’s America, in a nutshell.
This is the only nation in the history of mankind to which you can arrive — legally — from anywhere and become its very essence. The dynamism of the “melting pot” — now a banned phrase at the University of California for its potential to “trigger” someone who doesn’t feel like assimilating — is what helped to give America its great power. As the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Of course, that was a different time, when immigration laws actually served the national interest and were enforced, and the legal immigrants who arrived were processed in an orderly way. There were very few illegal immigrants sneaking into the country, and little chaos associated with the system.
But Lazarus’ poem encapsulated a special promise: If you came here — legally — and assimilated, you became part of the unique American fabric and culture. You became American. Ms. Lloyd could not go to Japan and become ethnically Japanese, but Ms. Ohno could come to the United States and become American. In no other nation on earth is that even vaguely possible.
The parade of names on the backs of the women who won the World Cup shows the power of the American ideal. Their ancestors came from all over the world — legally — for a better life. They worked hard, played by the rules and strove to become fully American, a status they cherished and honored.
That dynamic is a miracle, and it’s being lost in the dysfunction of our current immigration mess. So is the reality of American exceptionalism.
Each member of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team recognized and seized the chances their athletic gifts opened for them. They knew that great risks could be met with great rewards. They also understood that great risks could be met with great failure, that there were consequences to risk and chance, to decisions and gambles, to sacrifices.
And still, they chose to hone their talents, work hard and persevere until they had achieved their wildest dreams. After all, wasn’t that what America was all about in the first place? The wide open space to succeed or fail? The land of opportunity, where government was small so individual ambitions could be big? The country in which there was no such thing as dreams too wild to pursue?
America cleared the path. Whether you succeeded or failed was up to you. The one thing this country would never prevent you from doing is trying.
And yet, during the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama referred to his biracial background and itinerant childhood and said, “In no other country on earth is my story even possible .” True. But then in 2009, while attending the G-20 summit in Europe, he was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism. He replied haltingly, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism .”
My guess is that not one of the members of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team would have given that reply.
American exceptionalism became such a given that we often take it for granted. Then we see something like that World Cup victory. And for one long memorable moment, we are reminded yet again of the wondrous American exceptionalism that made all of our stories possible. We were also reminded that like any living thing, it needs care and attention if it’s going to survive.
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