Representative Tom Lantos has decided to retire because of an esophageal cancer diagnosis. I believe him, although the impending challenge by former state Senator Jackie Speier, who has been an effective legislator and deserves support, might also have had something to do with it.
I have long liked Lantos, who is a Holocaust survivor, and despite his hawkishness, a generally progressive figure. But his retirement statement reflects a real American disease of self-congratulation. Lantos said:
“It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress,” Lantos said in a press release. “I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”
Only in the United States? Really? Tell that to Leon Blum. Or Bruno Kreisky. Both of these men survived the Holocaust (Blum, at Buchenwald; Kreisky, as a refugee), and later became Prime Minister of their countries. (Kreisky’s anti-Zionism hardly endeared him to the Jewish community or me, but the point remains.).
This reminds me of Joe Lieberman’s self-congratulatory acceptance speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention, where he also said that his story could happen “only in America.” That’s just wrong.
American congratulates itself on its openness, and its ability to serve as an inspiration for other countries, but how much of this is merely public relations? The United States is hardly a world leader in measures of social mobility.
The United States Constitution is nowhere close to the most enlightened or the most progressive in the world; American academics routinely go to other countries to show them how democracy is done, and are just routinely laughed at–not because of the impossibility of democracy, but because of our arrogance that we are somehow in the democratic vanguard. We’re not.
And maybe our foreign policy would be a little more effective if we realized that now and then.