Myth America by Kermit Roosevelt


TEDxTalk Video Transcript

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what makes us who we are as a country as a people
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what makes us Americans its question I asked myself a lot it’s the big question
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my professional life and the answer is obvious we have no single ethnicity no
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shared religion we come from all different parts of the world with all
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different backgrounds but there’s one thing we all have in common
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it’s what i teach about its the Constitution and that’s the answer
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the Constitution is what makes us Americans it’s what creates us what
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constitutes us as a nation and it’s more than that the Constitution you could say
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is our sacred texts
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it’s the basis of our civic religion we have no official religion the
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Constitution actually says we can’t have one but we have something very close to
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it the Constitution says there can be no religious test for public office but
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requires officials to swear allegiance to something itself every official must
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take an oath to support the Constitution the Constitution is our central
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organizing document it’s what we build our society around it gives us our
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values
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it tells us what’s worth fighting for it tells us who we are and there’s a story
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that we like to tell ourselves about the Constitution and our relationship to it
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the story says that a long time ago back in 1776 some great men wrote down some
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wonderful principles in the Declaration of Independence they called these
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self-evident truths all men are created equal
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they have inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness and
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our founders fought a war for those principles and they built a nation
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around them and the Constitution with their vehicle for carrying those
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principles and execution and for more than 200 years our Constitution has
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served as well because of the wisdom of our founders our task as Americans is to
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respect their wisdom and live up to the principal’s they adopted
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the principles for which they fought and died if we do that we’ll enjoy a fair
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and just society where everyone can thrive
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that’s what I’m going to call the standard story the founders were wise we
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need to be faithful to their principles American history starts on a high note
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and we’re trying to sustain it
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that’s what I used to teach my constitutional law students it’s what
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we’re all taught what I was taught and I didn’t know any better but one day some
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of my students came to me some of my african-american students and they said
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you know that’s not how American history started for us we’re not included in the
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Declaration we’re not included in the founders Constitution and my immediate
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reaction to that was another part of the standard story which is that the
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Declaration sets out aspirations
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yes the founders talked about liberty and equality while owning slaves but
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they knew that was wrong and in the Declaration they set out principles that
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they couldn’t live up to but that they hoped might be fully realized in the
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future we can fulfill their aspirations and prove ourselves worthy of them but
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my students didn’t just accept that they said prove ourselves worthy of Thomas
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Jefferson fulfill his aspirations really the man owns seven hundred slaves and
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the only ones he freed when he died for his children
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that’s true so that made me think about it some more and it occurred to me are
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standard story really isn’t that inspiring after all it tells us american
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history starts with ally tells us the declaration of independence is a
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statement of principles dishonored by the men who announced them self-evident
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truths that actually weren’t worth paying attention to
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that’s what the standard story amounts to but what I realized in the past few
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years is the standard story isn’t true after all
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that’s not who are founders were pious hypocrites people announcing things they
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didn’t believe them they were both better and worse than that they
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announced principles they believed in principles they honored
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and principles that justified their revolution they just aren’t the
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principles we follow today so the standard story which tries to draw a
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line from the declaration of independence in the past to us in the
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present that story is it best to death at worst its ally and what I want to do
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in this talk is to tell you the truth I’m going to tell you where the line
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that you draw from the Declaration really goes i’m going to tell you the
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truth about the principles America was founded on the principles Americans
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fought for in 1776 and more recently and the truth about what our duty as
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Americans really is the truth about fundamentally who we are
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this is a more complicated story than the one we usually like to tell
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ourselves it’s sadder in some ways but I think in the end it’s more hopeful too
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and it has more faith in the potential and the fundamental goodness of We the
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People
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so here we go
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the first thing we need to do is to see the Declaration of Independence clearly
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our standard story tells us it announced broad principles of liberty and equality
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principles that were inconsistent with the slavery practice by its signers and
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i’m here to tell you that’s wrong
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the declaration announced narrow principles that are fully consistent
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with slavery to see this we need to think about why the declaration says
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what it does about liberty equality and what exactly it means the declaration of
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independence is not Thomas Jefferson’s moral philosophy term paper
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it’s not his general ideas about how people should treat each other in some
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abstract context the declaration is written by people who are trying to
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justify a revolution and it’s about one thing only
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which is when people have a duty to obey their government and when they have a
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right to repeal that’s what those principles relate to all men are created
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equal that means there are no kings it means no one can justify authority by
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saying i was born to rule you people have inalienable rights again this is
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about justifying authority
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it means that the ruler can’t foreclose rebellion by saying no matter what i do
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you gave up your rights to me you surrendered your freedom
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that’s what it means to say those rights are inalienable so if you think about
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these principles in their context in terms of the work they’re supposed to do
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in justifying rebellion we can see they’re much more limited than people
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think now it is the declarations concept of equality means there are no kings its
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concept of inalienable Liberty means that people can’t surrender their
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freedom but slave owners never claimed to be kings just masters they never
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claimed that slaves had voluntarily surrendered their freedom just that it
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had been taken
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they never claimed that slaves had a political duty to obey just that they
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would be punished if they didn’t so the argument of the Declaration which is
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about when that political duty to obey the government exists has no effect on
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slavery but you might say having the Declaration of Principles blossomed over
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time
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haven’t they inspired successive generations people like Abraham Lincoln
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and Martin Luther King yes some good people have quoted the words but what
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I’ve just said to you is that the substance of the Declaration doesn’t
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actually support lincoln and king in the way that they claimed if you want to
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look for people who really stood up for the principles the decoration you can
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find them in American history but you won’t find them in the civil rights
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movement you find them in the confederate states of america the rebel
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South you don’t hear this so much but the southern states overwhelmingly
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invoked the declaration of independence in their secession letters and they were
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right to the fundamental theory of the decoration is that people create
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government to protect certain rights and if the government’s threaten those
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rights people can repel the southern states joined the revolution and later
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the union to protect some rights they valued and high on that list was the
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right to own slaves they might will fear the British would take
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right away from them and when they started to fear the federal government
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would take it away
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they left the Union just as they had left the Empire they started the second
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American Revolution this second American Revolution was of course the Civil War
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but this time the rebels lost that revolution was put down and we are the
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heirs politically constitutionally we are the air is not of those second
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revolutionaries but of the people who stop them
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what does that mean for who we are
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it means three things first American identity doesn’t come from the
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declaration of independence if you draw a line from the Declaration of
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Independence it doesn’t go to us it goes to the rebel south and it stops there
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the central ideal of the declaration is the right of rebellion that died at
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Gettysburg when pickett’s charge failed to break the Union line on Cemetery
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Ridge the central idea of the declaration is dead and we’re the ones
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who killed it
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yes us who won the Civil War the answer is not the north
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the answer is we the people of the United States second our American
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identity doesn’t come from the founders constitution that document written in
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Philadelphia the hot summer of 1787 the founders Constitution tells you its
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goals in the preamble to form a more perfect union to insure domestic
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tranquility to secure the blessings of liberty
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how did that work out not even 80 years later state war against state brother
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against brother Americans killed Americans three-quarters of a million
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the founders Constitution was a failure
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we don’t like to say this we talked about the success of our Constitution
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how it served as well for over 200 years we do this often without even mentioning
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the Civil War apart from that mrs. Lincoln how did you like the play
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so it’s not the Declaration and it’s not the founders where does our identity
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comes from what tells us who we are
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here’s the third . i said the Civil War is the end of the ideals of the
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Declaration and it’s the end of the founders Constitution but it’s not the
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end of America we get a new constitution we get the Reconstruction Amendments the
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13th to 15th and most important the fourteenth and these give us a totally
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new political structure it’s the 14th amendment that protects individuals from
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States not just the federal government the Fourteenth Amendment gives us the
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right to equality and it’s the 14th amendment that gives us our most famous
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supreme court cases the decisions that define constitutional law for us
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nowadays cases about racial segregation brown Board of Education about
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interracial marriage loving against Virginia about the rights of criminal
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defendants Miranda and Gideon about the rights of gays and lesbians lawrence v
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texas obergefell against Hodges those decisions don’t exist in the founders
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world they’re part of a different America the new birth of freedom that
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Lincoln promised to Gettysburg Address we live under the reconstruction
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Constitution not the founders Constitution it’s the reconstruction
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constitution that tells us there are no slaves here it’s the reconstruction
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constitution that promises a quality to all people
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it’s the reconstruction constitution that tells us who we are
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so what does all this mean for us today
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one thing it means is that in our civic religion of the Constitution we should
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pay less attention to the founder and more to reconstruction we should
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generate Thomas Jefferson less and Abraham Lincoln more we should honor not
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just the men who fought at Lexington and yorktown but those who fought at Shiloh
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and Antigua those men the Union soldiers are the ones who gave us our rights but
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more important it means something about the story of who we are
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it means the story of America is not a story of success not a smooth glide into
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the future
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propelled by the wisdom of the past its failure after failure crisis after
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crisis that probably doesn’t sound so encouraging
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i’m here to tell you the story of us is a story of failure not so upbeat on the
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surface but if you think about it it is and here’s why
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look around you in America today do you think things are going well do you think
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we’re on the right path
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most Americans don’t and they’ve got reasons things are a mass our government
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is dysfunctional our republic tatars and if you thought that the founders gave us
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all the answers and things have been great up until now you’d probably think
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we’re in serious trouble
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we must have strayed from the wisdom of the founders we must have wandered off
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the right path
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maybe for the first time in our history
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we’re headed for disaster but what I’ve told you today is that this is how
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things have always been over and over again struggle and prices are not new
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even failure is not new this is the same road we’ve always been on it’s a long
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road and it’s not a straight one but in the end it will take us where we are
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going now I admit I’ve had my doubts years ago almost 10 years now i was
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asked to be a constitutional law consultant on Guantanamo case and I went
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to Guantanamo and I stood in the interrogation rooms and I learned all
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the things the government had done to keep me safe all the things my
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government had done in my name and I shed some tears over that I was standing
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there looking at the guard tower is draped with American flags because
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that’s one of the striking things about Guantanamo it’s just covered in flags
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and I found myself wondering is this America is this really who we are
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I kept thinking about that question after i went back home
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I wanted to learn more about what we do in times of fear how America response to
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that I understand things a lot in terms of stories i think most people do so i
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started writing a novel about world war two and the detention of
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japanese-americans and here’s a story i learned about once there was a little
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girl japanese american girl she was born in california in about nineteen
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thirty-five when she was still very young
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her parents entered Japan to be educated a lot of the Japanese American families
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did that but this little girl didn’t like it there
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she missed her white friends so her parents brought her back home and this
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was about nineteen forty 1941 so you know what happens then Japan attacked
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Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt issues executive order 9066 innocent japanese
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americans are taken from their homes and placed in camps in the interior of the
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country and this little girl again is separated from her white friends
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surrounded by ethnic Japanese and she thinks she’s back in Japan she says to
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her mother over and over I want to go home I want to go back to America her
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mother says this is America but the girl doesn’t believe her and her mother is
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searching for a way to convince her
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so what does she do she points to the flags and the guard towers the American
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flags see the flags my daughter this is America and I had a reaction when i read
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that the same feeling I had standing there in Guantanamo I wanted to say no
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that’s not America that’s not who we are America starts with noble ideals and
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America means preserving them over time I wanted to tell myself what I’ve been
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calling the standard story but what I’ve tried to tell you today is that standard
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story is not the true story of America the truth is we start with some bad
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stuff in our history is actually full of it are stories of struggle and there is
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blood and death and suffering there is injustice and there’s evil their slave
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ships for kidnapped African
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and desert camps for japanese americans and interrogation rooms for the secret
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prisoners at Guantanamo Bay but there’s also hope there’s Abraham Lincoln and
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there’s Martin Luther King and there’s always hope
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when things are going wrong we all look around and think decision America and
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the answer is this is only America if you let it be because America is what
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you make it
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our stories of struggle yes but more fundamentally it’s a story of survival
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and the story of improvement we get better we become more who we are meant
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to be we get closer to our best selves America is a progress and to the point
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that all this leads to is it the true America the end of the road we travel
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the city on the hill is not something that’s given to us by founding fathers
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it’s something we make something we find inside ourselves the true America is not
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handed down from the past but created a new by each generation created a little
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better and what we can give the future is the opportunity to get just a little
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closer than we did ourselves that is the promise we make when we take that oath
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to support the Constitution that is the Covenant that runs from generation to
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generation and binds us into one people it is the promise we will be better in
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the future the promise we can always be renewed