This editorial answers the question, "What is the American Experience?" It is part of a series from the junior AP Language and Composition classes at Oakton High School in Northern Virginia, and was selected by a panel of student judges for publication on HuffPost Teen.
The spirit of America: land of the free. Home of the brave. Land of opportunity. Equality. Rights. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Progress. Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Emancipation Proclamation. Liberty and justice for all. Jeffersonian democracy. George Washington. Benjamin Franklin. Abraham Lincoln. Republic. Innocent until proven guilty. Due process of law. Melting pot. American dream. City on a hill. Constitution. Bill of rights. Declaration of independence. Pursuit of happiness.
We as Americans arrogantly view ourselves as protectors of freedom, hoping to spread our visions of liberty and equality. We claim to embody the values of the American spirit. Yet all too often, our actions claim otherwise.
The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees "freedom of speech, or of the press." America prides itself on the guarantee of democratic freedoms, passionately claiming to support these rights of expression. In accordance with these beliefs, the United States government has long criticized the Chinese for controlling censorship of newspapers, television programming and the Internet. Similarly, the American media attacks these same practices, portraying them as abuses against humanity. President Obama, during a recent meeting with Chinese military second-in-command Xi Jinping, vocalized the wholly American belief that powerful nations have a responsibility in "recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."
Yet despite all this criticism against censorship, Congress recently attempted to pass the SOPA and PIPA bills, which would bring this same type of censorship to America, allowing the government to control the public's exposure to Internet media. Although supporters such as Rep. Lamar Smith, the primary sponsor of the bill, had good intentions and claimed that online piracy "continues to threaten American technology, products, and jobs," in reality this type of legislation would bring the same censorship that we criticize other nations for embracing to our own shores. The mere fact that this type of legislation was even considered in a nation that prides itself on openness is absurd and an attack on the freedoms of the people.
Clearly the disconnect between American ideals and actions has reached a truly troublesome threshold at which our legislation no longer reflects our core principles as a democratic society. Though we claim to embody the American spirit, in times of struggle we do not rise up to embrace our ideals, but rather, settle for the lowly path that proves most advantageous to our situation and goal. And that has made all the difference.
Our history is riddled with glaring inconsistencies as our actions fail to reflect the supposed "American spirit." Even Abraham Lincoln, considered the greatest president, was not exempt from this hypocrisy. During the Civil War, Lincoln utilized the Habeus Corpus Suspension Act in order to illegally detain citizens, denying them their democratic freedoms in order to eliminate opposition to the war. A society that was truly "of the people, by the people, for the people" would not indiscriminately take away rights. A government which chooses to deliberately deny citizens their due rights is not a dignified democracy, but rather a disgraceful dictatorship. Though Lincoln is known for fighting for the furtherance of the union, his actions themselves led to the direct destruction of democracy.
After over a century to progress, we still fall victim to this recurrent hypocrisy as we are willing to sacrifice our ideals if doing so yields a more advantageous situation. Nowadays, the hypocrisy is increasingly driven by financial incentives, as SuperPACs throughout the nation raise millions and millions of dollars for federal elections, endorsing candidates who support their platforms. With increasingly expensive campaigns for office, politicians sacrifice their values in order to ensure another term in office. With this willingness to "sell" their vote, United States Representatives fail to act on their civic duty to represent the people's will. As such, both Democrats and Republicans alike ultimately forsake democracy, embracing a government that is truly "of the money, by the money, for the money."
When faced with real adversity, when given an opportunity to actually apply our beliefs, and when it is time to act on our claims, we all too often revoke our "higher ideals," betraying the American spirit. And we do this quite simply because it works. Countless individuals throughout history have taken this same road, deceitfully using abstract ideals in order to garner support and gain power; yet when granted this power, we succumb to personal greed, choosing the easier path with perhaps the better claim.