A Shining City on a Hill
I was in junior high school in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran his presidential campaign around the theme of America’s place as “a shining city on a hill.”
I may have a more tarnished view of American exceptionalism now that I’m middle aged, but at the time it struck a chord. My father had just fled Iran; he’d been visiting family there when revolutionary factions took more than 50 U.S. citizens hostage at the American embassy in Tehran.
It had taken months for my dad to escape. The U.S. seemed like a pretty good place in comparison.
My dad loved Iran but he also loved his adopted home. I grew up hearing his stories about coming to America and what living here meant to him. And whenever he traveled, he was always eager to come back home.
He passed away last year, but I can still hear my dad’s voice saying the full name: the United States of America. Each word meant something.
My dad was sent abroad by his father in the 1950s to study engineering, joining a friend for college in Hannibal, Missouri. He told me how he clutched a silver dollar during the long PanAm flight over here, dreaming of skyscrapers and cowboys. All of a sudden a stewardess woke him up, handed him back the coin from where it had dropped on the floor, and said: “welcome to America.”
He eventually left Missouri for Washington, D.C., switched from engineering to political science, and married my American mother, to my grandfather’s dismay. The plan had been for dad to go back to Iran and marry someone else. My dad loved Iran but chafed against its restrictions.
In short: my father came for the opportunity. But he stayed for the freedom.
If you know your own family’s immigration history — whether it was last year or 200 years ago — my father’s story is not exceptional.
I travel constantly for work and always ask every immigrant I meet why they came to the United States. Though the details differ on how they got to Houston or Indianapolis or Minneapolis, the theme is always the same. America holds a special place in their imagination for its freedom.
That vision of America as a beacon of hope may be tempered by a clearer-eyed look at the U.S. human rights record at home and abroad. But the image of America as a land of freedom and opportunity has nurtured dreams around the world for hundreds of years, including in my family.
Here’s how President Reagan described it:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans…with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
President Reagan’s words may be empty campaign promises to you. And let’s be clear, I’m not a big Reagan fan, from his secret deals during his campaign to prevent the release of American hostages to his handling of the AIDS crisis.
But Reagan’s description of America as a place open to everyone seeking freedom still resonates with me. And it’s a narrative that means something to most Americans, too.
There’s a reason freedom is used to sell everything from political candidates to hot dogs. It’s a core American value we all share, even “hyphenated” Americans like me. It’s a belief that at its best, this country stands for something noble. And that nobility gained the United States a lot of friends and admirers around the world, nations willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us on many issues.
What does America stand for today? It’s a question that’s getting harder for me to answer.
I’m not naive; I’m well aware that the U.S. has at times done terrible things to advance its interests. Just look at America’s history in Iran. But in my lifetime, I can’t remember a time when this country has so brazenly embraced dictators and despots, and turned its back on human rights.
What does it mean when President Trump shrugs off the news that Saudi Arabia killed a U.S.-based journalist visiting Turkey? Or downplays Russian President Putin’s involvement in assassinating a dissident living in England? Or praises North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who has executed so many thousands of his people?
To me, it means an erosion of America’s special standing in the world. The loss of America’s great promise.
“America is great because she is good,” Alexis de Tocqueville supposedly said. “If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
But I haven’t lost hope yet. And neither should you.