By Sanford J. Ungar

From The Baltimore Sun, July 23, 2006

The following is excerpted from a commencement address to graduating seniors at Roland Park Country School on June 13.

There is much rumination in these times on "the imagining of America." Where does this imagination about ourselves come from, and how do we express it? How credible is our rhetoric, and does it correspond to the way the United States is viewed in the larger world? If there is a disconnect, what are the implications?

Most people know something about the legacy of "American exceptionalism." Indeed, some of us were steeped in that legacy as we grew up. The idea was - and is - that the best human stock came to our shores, brought the best ideas along with their work ethic and created, simply, the best country on earth, a place of unparalleled opportunity and excellence.

Most of those who arrived from overseas bought into this - certainly including my parents, both immigrants from Central Europe in the early 20th century. The economic security - and the freedom from fear - that they and others achieved here was unprecedented and unequaled. It is something to cherish, even today.

That the United States stepped in and more or less saved Western civilization during World War II didn't exactly hurt our reputation or our self-esteem as a people. Nor did the Cold War. Notwithstanding the rather embarrassing excesses of McCarthyism on the home front, we were on the good side of a struggle between good and evil, and when the worldwide tournament finals arrived, we won the trophy, lock, stock and barrel.

Vietnam? Watergate? The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980? Trivial disruptions of the grand theme of our greatness and our status, it would seem. Stalemates or lost wars, large and small - well, never mind. Political outcomes, after all, endorsed those who stood tall on behalf of the country - most notably, Ronald Reagan - and demeaned those who tried to advance a more modest interpretation of American power.

If anything, the tragedy and humiliation of Sept. 11, 2001, only exacerbated our hubris. President Bush said it best the next Saturday morning: "This is still the greatest country in the world."

Reassuring, at that time and in that context? Certainly. Never mind that it might not have been such a good idea to brag so insecurely and indiscreetly just as we were trying to recruit allies for the new "war on terror."

Yet that has been the theme ever since. Not only are we the greatest, but we hold ownership - a kind of copyright - on the best system ever devised by women and men to govern and inspire themselves. We will sell it, promote it, push it and even impose it, this American brand of democracy, wherever and whenever we can. Some American officials, when they encounter difficult questions during their travels in potentially hostile territory, resort to passing out books about American presidents.

But how is America perceived out there? Can we think that no one notices the metaphorical crawl at the bottom of our screen, underneath the pictures we project of that perfect system? People around the world no longer depend on our government or our media to tell them what they should think of us and our political and economic system.

They have heard about executives being convicted in recent corporate scandals. They might have read reports that a growing number of Americans have trouble earning enough to feed themselves and their families - that about 25 million people in this wealthy country turned to food banks or soup kitchens or shelters for meals last year, a 9 percent increase since 2001, and that 36 percent of these people come from households where at least one person has a job.

They have watched the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. They have learned, perhaps, that more than 90 percent of the members of Congress typically get re-elected every two years in elections with low voter turnout, or that some of the dialogue in the Congressional Record is completely fake and never actually occurred.

Along with us, they have heard the recent allegations of torture, secret prisons overseas and widespread violations of our privacy - all in the name of making us safer. Are these really the signs of a vibrant democracy worthy of imitation around the world?

There is a vast and disappointing gap between the America we have imagined and the America that is so widely perceived abroad. You, as college-bound high school graduates, have an opportunity to do something about this.

You will, I hope, use your education to make a difference in your community, your country and the broader world. I feel confident that you will recognize the drawbacks of being self-satisfied, of telling ourselves so often that we are the greatest; you will understand how hard we have to work to fulfill our promises to ourselves and how much we have to learn by watching and listening to others.

I have a simple wish: that you travel far and wide, that in the next phase of your education, each of you chooses a part of the world to know and understand. Learn its language and meet its people on their terms. Trust me: You will gain a greater awareness of your own community and your own country by viewing it from a distance.

It is humbling to appreciate that others have so many things to teach us - about health and literacy and human dignity, about urban housing and transportation, about the real family values involved in the respect and care of our elders. And when you return, I hope you will tell each other what you have seen and learned and how you are going to spread the word.

If enough of us do this and keep doing it all our lives and teach our children and persuade our friends to do the same, we will get a good start on the reimagining of America into an even greater place that lives more comfortably in the larger world.