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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Washington diary: Land of ideas
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

US flag and statue of liberty model
How many ideas has the US allowed to flourish that would otherwise have withered on the vine?

I am happy to report to you that the Oxford Union, in its infinite wisdom, has allowed America to continue existing.

After a raucous debate in front of a packed house, the motion - "this House regrets the Founding of America" - was overwhelmingly squashed.

My colleague Jonah Goldberg, from the National Review, made a witty and punchy case for the birthright of America, lambasting the Union for a motion that "sounded like a bad joke".

Peter Rodman, a former US assistant secretary of defence, entered the fray with patrician aplomb and, for what it's worth, this was some of my contribution to joust for the country where I keep my toothbrush and pay my taxes:

It is very easy to find Americans who disagree with its current direction. But you'll be hard pressed to come across those who regret its very existence in a fit of collective self-annihilation. The confusion of one with the other strikes me as the fundamental flaw of this motion.

Let's say you didn't need to regret the founding of America, because it had never been founded. How different might our lives look? We would not be listening to George Bush's fluent Texan. We would never have had the benefit of Donald Rumsfeld one-liners or clogged our arteries on a Big Mac.

But what music would we be listening to on our iPods? Would it be German marching songs or Russian ballads? Would we even have an iPod?

Yes, the beloved iPod was designed by a British citizen, Jonathan Ive, a son of Chingford, Essex. But would his design have changed the world of music if it hadn't been for Apple, an American company, based in Cupertino, California?

Freedom to dream

So much for iPods... what about ideas? How different would the world be without the Bill of Rights? What about Thomas Jefferson?

The Sopranos
It's hard to imagine life without TV series like the Sopranos

The Declaration of Independence was the quintessential treatise of self-determination. If America had never been founded it would have remained unwritten. And who can imagine life without the Dumb Waiter, another Jefferson innovation?

The list goes on and on (and I apologise for any omissions): Thomas Edison, who had 1,093 patents for inventions in his name; Henry Ford; the Wright brothers; Bill Gates; the Boeing corporation; Desperate Housewives; The Sopranos and, of course, SpongeBob SquarePants.

As a TV correspondent, I would be out of a job. The television was invented over decades by a German, a Brit and a Russian but their ideas all came together in the middle of Middle America.

The United States created an environment in which inventive minds had access to easy credit, a willing market and the freedom to dream and create without fear of prosecution or recrimination.

As the writer and poet John Ciardi put it: "The Constitution gives every American the inalienable right to make a damn fool of himself"!

Europe's offspring

If we regret the founding of the US we regret a thoroughly European creation. If George III hadn't been as mad as a hatter, if the Redcoats had been more in touch with the feelings of His Majesty's subjects in the colonies, the English colony of Jamestown might never have given way to Yorktown, where 174 years later the English crown was finally defeated in the War of Independence.

Bill Clinton
There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America
Bill Clinton

To be against the founding of America is not to be original but to continue a long line of misguided bigots who always resented the birth of the US. In the late 18th Century, the eminent Dutch scientist Cornelius De Pauw wrote that everything from America was "either degenerate or monstrous". He was considered the foremost expert on the New World of his time and, like many critics of America, he never went there once.

Then there's the Oscar Wilde quip, plagiarised by former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau: "America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation". Anti-Americanism is as old as America and it continues to miss the point.

America did not come from nowhere. It was an offspring of Europe, the step-child of a corrupt, moribund post-feudal system. America encapsulated the principles of the Enlightenment - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - wrapped them in the pursuit of happiness, underpinned them with an inalienable right and turned an IDEA into a country.

It took the missteps of the French and the English revolutions and it made them work.

Yes, there were terrible mistakes - the gross hypocrisy of slavery, segregation and McCarthyism, to name a few. But America found and keeps finding the solutions to its mistakes. It is a giant, rolling social experiment in constant pursuit of self-correction. As Bill Clinton once said: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."

In America the idea was ragged, rough and imperfect but it kept growing, it kept evolving and, if this isn't a vote of confidence, it kept attracting people, millions of them - Dutch pilgrims, Russian Jews, persecuted Egyptians, hungry Mexicans, uprooted Kurds, homeless Armenians, unloved and underpaid British film stars, now luxuriating in Hollywood. Ask them if they regret the founding of America!

Real promise

The US is a nation built not on ethnicity, not on religion, not even on history but on an idea.

Barbed wire at Guantanamo Bay
Many Americans see Guantanamo detentions as a big mistake

Not only does this make America different, I would argue it also makes it ideally suited for the 21st Century. We live in a globalised world in which national boundaries are less and less relevant and the citizenship of ideas is more and more defining.

Al-Qaeda also strives for a world without borders, a trans-national entity based on ideas, which a majority of Muslims find as unpalatable as we do. So, ask yourself and be honest: where would you rather live - the Caliphate or California?

We Europeans created America and to regret this is to engage in a colossal act of self-denial verging on self-mutilation. We have a stake in its survival and its success and we ought to nurture it, not bring it to its knees or delight in its misfortunes. We can criticise its leaders without regretting its existence.

The reality of America may be vexing, frustrating, infuriating and puzzling but its promise is no less real and, given the right voice, should be no less inspiring.

Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and yes, so many aspects of the war in Iraq, were big mistakes. But these are aspects of current foreign policy, not part of the nation's DNA. They are lamented as much inside the US as outside. And that too speaks for America!

To quote the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington: "America is not a lie; it is a disappointment." But what is worse than being disappointed? It is not even to know what you're missing.


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