Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, those words were adopted as part of the Declaration of Independence. Even though our nation has fought a civil war over the concept of equality and has continually struggled to implement that phrase, at least it has tried.
Until recently, that is, when it became profitable and very politically correct to set one group of Americans above all others.
Begun by Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, it is now de rigueur to proclaim the segment of our society that grew up during the Depression and fought in World War II as the best there ever was, anywhere.
In his best-selling book, Brokaw unabashedly writes, "This is the greatest generation any society has produced." That might simply be linguistic exaggeration, which is good for sales and television ratings, but it's hogwash.
While in the past I've not been overly upset by this kind of popular pandering, the brown-nosing of this one group of Americans did hit home a few weeks ago. To honor this generation, first Congress overwhelmingly approved and then the president quickly signed a bill allowing the construction of a World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. to proceed. This law will make the project immune to further review procedures or legal action.
My outrage at this action has nothing to do with the bunker-like design of the memorial, which many people have called totally inappropriate, or the fact that one of the contractors selected for the job has ties to a German company that used slave labor during the war. Instead, it is the location picked for the structure that has me furious.
To be sited right on the mall between the monuments honoring Washington and Lincoln, the World War II memorial is sending a clear message. It allows its backers to self-proclaim that their effort was equal to those of two of the greatest presidents in this country's history. It cries out, "We saved the world from tyranny, so to recognize us, our monument, unlike those for all other wars in this nation's history, must be front and center."
They certainly helped to win the war, but at the same time the new monument will ignore the part our allies played in the struggle. It will conveniently forget the estimated 20 million citizens and soldiers of the Soviet Union who lost their lives in the war, and the role that our friend "Uncle" Joe Stalin had in conquering German fascism. It will overlook the pivotal help that Chairman Mao and the Chinese people had in defeating the Japanese.
But loudly shouting from the rooftops "We're Number One" while ignoring or being ignorant of world history isn't anything new for Americans. We as a society take pride in our lack of knowledge of global events. We rejoice in not knowing what is going on around the world.
It was members of the "Greatest Generation," after all, who so little understood past events in southeast Asia that they sent their own children off to fight a war in Vietnam to stop the unfounded and foolish "Domino Theory" of the spread of Communism.
It was also members of this generation that pushed for the creation of a welfare state in order to provide government support for themselves while in their later years complaining about federal assistance for others. In response, politicians in Washington started turning over bigger and bigger chunks of the federal budget to aid these people as they ignored many other problems. Seeking votes, the politicians transformed the Social Security program into a heavily subsidized retirement plan balanced on the backs of future generations.
At the same time, state and local governments kowtowed to these people by adopting laws that permit age-restricted communities to exist, on the condition that they only exclude the young. Anyone who tried to discriminate against the elderly that way would quickly find themselves in front of a judge.
The private sector got involved by offering senior-citizen discounts, ignoring the economic reality that this generation of Americans is the wealthiest group of people the world has ever seen. Despite that, rich older people often insist on their discounts--paid for, naturally, at the expense of everyone else.
We shouldn't forget certain other things that members of the "Greatest Generation" did that will also be part of their legacy. They often turned and looked the other way when it came to securing civil rights for minorities or women. They failed to address the problems of America's inner cities as they fled to the tax-supported suburbs. And they too often publicly patted themselves on the back for what a great job they had done with things.
At one time, this type of self-congratulation was not an American trait. But that's no longer true. Promotion and self-praise have become our expected behavior. When it comes to putting that practice into concrete, as the World War II Memorial will do, though, it has gone to far.
To their credit, many members of the "Greatest Generation" adamantly oppose the location of the new monument and are embarrassed by its design. They understand that 50 years from now, a new generation of Americans will look at the structure and ask, "Why did they put it there, and why is it so ugly?"
Meanwhile, off to one side of the mall will sit the Vietnam Wall, a quietly beautiful and moving tribute to a generation that Americans like to blame for many of its major problems.
Racism, sexism and classism characterize any society, and our country has tried to address those issues. But that doesn't mean we should honor those who are about to leave us by starting a new "ism," the tongue-twisting term generationalism. Instead, we should look at them as individuals, many good, some bad.
The "Greatest Generation" wasn't that; it was just a group of people who did their jobs like almost anyone else would have done under the same circumstances. For that they should be respected, not sainted.