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While American exceptionalism is a lightning rod issue, we may be able to find some common ground asking simply, "what makes America great?"

The US Naval Academy class of 2002 was the first class to graduate from that institution following 9-11. They've recently published a book which Tom Brokaw has says is a "must read for all Americans"

The title of the book, "In the Shadow of Greatness", alludes to several ideas:

1. The Greatest Generation and American veterans who have gone before us have cast a great shadow. We continue to be inspired by them, honor them and remember them. We endeavor to live up to their example, to stand on their shoulders and do great things for our own generation and the next.

2. The events of 9-11 brought the cause of our generation into focus - a war on terror - but this proved to be a shadowy war, unlike the black and white distinctions of World War II. We've been struggling to act heroically in the face of uncertainty. The stories in "The Shadow of Greatness" capture this hope and will inspire others to do likewise.

3. When we headed off to college, we shrugged off the generalizations about Gen X and Millennials having ambivalent attitudes and short attention spans. We wanted to cast our own shadow. We have, and you have.

Now that the book is complete, the class would like to encourage a serious dialogue about the enduring qualities that make America great.

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    Sep 7 2012: May I suggest you can increase the validity of the question by changing the verb to past tense?
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    Sep 16 2012: In my view, America is an ideal that allows it citizens to exist in independence. The ideal is the goal. It is undertaking the journey that is exceptional. It will be an exceptional feat to exist in independence, as many are dependent upon America to lift them up and help them on their own journey.

    As an American, living below the median ($16,000), the ability to take that journey is sometimes taken for granted as we struggle to keep moving along its path. Our nation spreads the ideal of independence around the world. The world now has the technology to implement the ideals of independence globally.

    It will be an exceptional feat to do so. It may take every last one of our 7 billion to make it happen.
  • Sep 15 2012: I think it's unhealthy for any nation to believe it's exceptional, especially when they have no facts to back that assertion up. All it does is set people up for disappointment and blaming foreigners for everything.
    • Sep 15 2012: Perhaps you are right if we take the word "exceptional" to mean superior in all or most aspects - but that is not the crux of this conversation. The initial question was about particular great qualities in America and does not require those qualities to be exclusive. Let's assume for a minute that all countries in the world are great because they have achieved national sovereignty - a worthy achievement, and a great baseline for acknowledging the great qualities of any nation. Beyond sovereignty, what great contributions do various countries bring to the world as members of our global community? While America may be weak in many areas, the question at hand is about America's strengths. If you were to say simply that America is a "great" exporter of entertainment, that might be one example, but would obviously shine a light on the fact that our entertainment often casts us in the worst possible light. So then the question is partially, what are the highest and best functions of America in the global community? We give the most out of any other country to UN Peacekeeping - some would call this a great thing.
      • Sep 16 2012: "So then the question is partially, what are the highest and best functions of America in the global community?"

        The only thing I can think of is that American freedom of speech is one of the few versions that truly protects freedom of speech with no subjective exceptions. But that's about it, on all other fronts (even freedoms) there are always at least 10 countries doing better than America. That's not to be taken as anti-Americanism, America is just an average performer globally, not the worst but also far from the best and arguably one of the worst performers of the first world countries.
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    Sep 13 2012: Nothing....please dont play games in the fundamentalism trend....America is greater than US. America is a whole continent with a lot of countries and cultures. US is no more than one decadent pseudocivilization.
  • Sep 7 2012: Was the concept of American Exceptionalism really co plementary. Everyone thinks that to some degree. Perhaps , it is a criticism of an inability to look outside and beyond oneself. Unfortunately, the exceptional Americans were the founding fathers who created a small, out-of -the mainstream country, were often relatively uneducated, and were very humble in their understanding of what they had to offer. If there were exceptional Americans, these were them, and their greatest strengths would involvecuriousity, willingness to learn, openness, and humility. This then highlights the greatest weekness of many current leaders. Mark Twain, Cotton Mather, or even Ben Franklin would go inside and look at the inner and outer person if they had been BOOED in London as recently happened to an American Presidential Candidate in London. Has that Happened? Who knows?
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    Sep 6 2012: Americans should be in a position to feel their country is great. The Swiss should feel the same about their country, and the Indonesians should feel the same about theirs.

    Every country has facets of its character that make it great and can be used as the basis for making it better.

    In my view, the primary trait I view as making America great is that of self-criticism and rapid change. Nobody is harder on America than Americans, and we are a people that have become adept at identifying our faults and creating movements to correct those faults.

    Are all successful? No. Are all even well-considered? No.

    In general, however, most things being said about America from the outside are also being said by someone inside, and although change never happens fast enough for those that crave it most, it happens here faster than many other places.

    We're a nation never satisfied with its own current state. That's what I think makes us great.
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    Sep 6 2012: Is america great?

    In what ways?

    Military strength - Yes
    Economy - Yes
    Individual liberties - Yes

    Income distribution - No
    Murders - No
    Education - No
    Health system - No
    Homeless and income distribution - No
    Superstition - No
    Treatment of indigenous people - No

    Race relations - so so


    Pretty good constitution, in fact great for its time.

    It is a place of extremes.

    Nowhere is perfect.

    I find the navel gazing about how great the US is or was self indulgent.

    However, it is one of the places I wouldn't mind being born in alongside Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, if born into a family with enough money to get a decent education, and not in some backwater, evangelical, racist, tea party, gun toting area.

    Suggest not all was great with the depression and WW2 generation. Had to wait till the 60's to lose some of the legislated racial segregation etc. But not as greedy as the baby boomers.
  • Sep 6 2012: Robert, TED Lover, Fritzie,

    Thanks for engaging the question. I am one of the editors and contributors for the book, and I suggested the title. To answer TED Lover's question, we would love to hear feedback from a pacifist. You might even find even find a resonant voice in the book.

    What do you guys think of this video clip from HBO?

    The Greatest Generation is a label that was given to that generation as an honor, in addition to other labels that were not quite so flattering. It is hyperbole, no doubt, as most honorifics are. The concept that I am trying to grapple with in this thread with your noble minds in company, is specifically what qualities that generation had which were great, and whether those same qualities endure in America.

    The Greatest Generation, as some call them, exhibited bravery, resolve, strategic skill, and a certain moral code. When they returned from war, many educated themselves and became leading members of local communities. Both of my grandfathers are in this group. Both of my grandmothers were war brides, married at 16. Both couples, in my personal story, cast a long shadow despite and personal failings they might have had.

    A different issue, but an interesting one, is the valuation of certain national pride exports. Should we say that the thing that makes Belgium great is its waffles or beer? Should America be the great exporter of fast food and Hollywood? Some would argue that these exports are a great aspect of every country, and that the relative greatness of a country is related to the greatness of their products. We are a nation of innovators, and despite falling metrics in so many fields, we continue to score high in patents. Does this say something about the American spirit and future?

    The website for the book is
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      Sep 6 2012: Graham,

      Great clip! I'm a big fan of the series!
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    Sep 5 2012: Your question is interesting, because we have a culture, I think, of focusing entirely on mistakes and the distance yet to go and seldom as a matter of course consider the positives. It is a good exercise to consider, occasionally, an alternative view.

    One strength is freedom of speech, of the press, of religious observance, and of assembly within the boundaries that protect the rights of others, as Robert writes below.

    Another is universal public education, as complex as that work is. There is continuous effort to adjust those systems to serve kids better, within the constraints of other also important uses of public funds to support, for example, infrastructure

    The continuous effort to offer equal protection of the laws to those accused of crimes is another strength.

    These systems are highly imperfect, of course, but the continuous effort to promote these ideals and the ready identification of failings in the system are worthy.

    There are other countries too that share these values, efforts, and ideals.
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    Gail .

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    Sep 5 2012: What makes America great? The same thing that makes any other country great.

    However, if you look at all of the indices, you will see that from any vantage point other than emotional, America is not THAT great. In fact, for most of the general population, it is at or near the tail end of the pack (globally)

    But as to the U S Naval Academy book, would they be willing to hear from a pacifist? And will an instinctive desire to not hear what a pacifist has to say color any understandings they would offer?

    I did find the related video insightful.
  • Sep 5 2012: America is great for many reasons. However, I think it is the balance between the general truths about our society and how these general truths map to the needs of the masses to be successful and survive with a reasonable quality of life that makes us great. I think the belief in, or pursuit of, absolutes in our country leads to much disharmony.

    It is generally true that if you work hard you can survive and have a reasonable quality of life in our country, and if you do not work hard you will struggle to survive and your quality of life is reflective of your efforts. It is generally true that you can pick your religion and worship (or not) as you please, within the boundaries of laws set in place to protect the rights of others. It is generally true that you will not be persecuted or imprisoned for your religious, political, philosophical, artistic choices, your sex, or your ethnic race. It is generally true that you will be provided personal safety from domestic or foreign enemies, use of public services and facilities, and a chance to make your own happiness.

    Relative to the prior generation being "the greatest generation", I believe such a claim is a bit arrogant. Not to take away from their accomplishments, but someone in the future should be making such a claim, not someone in the present. Similarly, I am not sure how you equate the magnitude, intuitive leaps,or quantity of discoveries. Without some of the discoveries, choices, sacrifices, and knowledge management decisions made by preceding generations, the success of the greatest generation might have been reduced. The struggles of the generation prior to the greatest generation, and preceding generations, were faced more independently and were equally severe. Similarly, the next generation is forced to live with many of the environmental, financial, educational, and political choices made by this generation. Were these choices the greatest of all time made by one generation? Only time will tell.