Today is the Fourth of July, the glorious Fourth, to be marked with fireworks and celebration. One of my strongest memories from childhood is my grandfather taking me a block or two from our home on the floodplain of the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh to get a better look at Mount Washington and to see the annual illumination.
This has always been a special day for all of us, celebrating the courageous men who launched a flawed but noble experiment in self-governance. No student of American history would deny that American reality has fallen short of American ideals, but the awareness of the gap and the urge to close it has been the story of the American people.
This brings me to this Fourth and a nation less confident in itself and in its future than at any other point in my lifetime, and I was an adult for both Vietnam and Watergate. The nation is seemingly at war with itself, vacating the center of dialogue and figuratively, at least, arming itself behind the barricades of deeply held but dramatically divergent beliefs.
I always pictured myself as someone trying to bend the conversation back to the center — looking for positive things to say about a president, for example, with whom I have deep disagreements — but I must confess to an edgy tweet two weeks ago (complete with an image of the rail siding at Birkenau) reminding folks that other governments have separated children from their parents. It seemed an appropriate response to unconscionable and, frankly, incompetent behavior.
Still, I have routinely tried to just be a “fact witness.” Reality should make a difference. I recall a dinner conversation several months ago when I was confronted with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE’s alleged crimes in “Uranium One,” a staple of talk radio and alt-right media that claims the former secretary of State shipped uranium to the Russians. Talk about collusion!
That never happened, of course. It’s a complex story of a Canadian company with mines in the United States and Kazakhstan being bought by a Russian firm but, as secretary of State, Clinton alone could not approve the deal — that was the job of an interagency committee — and no uranium has left or ever will leave America. I didn’t vote for Secretary Clinton for president, but I didn’t need a fairy tale to convince me.
In the face of rapidly accumulating untruths, though, it’s getting harder to be a “fact witness” without appearing to be “the opposition” or even “the resistance.” That was driven home to me by a note from a dear friend, to whom I had sent a copy of my recent book on the current fate of truth. He (gently and respectfully, as we’re still friends) mentioned “Trump bashing,” the “D.C. bubble,” “flyover country” and a general disgust with American governance today. I get the disgust part.
But that’s because our tribal loyalties, and an overly quick urge to label those with whom we disagree, routinely overwhelm our facts and our tolerance. So let me outline what I believe to be facts and invite debate on them, rather than on personalities or personal identities.
Immigration, on balance, is a great national advantage. It makes us younger, more energetic, and more entrepreneurial that we otherwise would be. There is no crisis at the southern border. Crossings are a fraction of what they have been previously.
Our alliances are far more of a national advantage than a burden. They are the envy of China and Russia, who have no friends worth talking about. Publicly taunting the Germans and the Canadians is inherently a bad idea.
Global trade is an American competitive advantage. Arrangements like the rejected Trans Pacific Partnership could have helped shape commerce in ways consistent with our values and supportive of U.S. products.
Expertise and competence matter. The rollout and explanation of the original “Muslim ban” and, more recently, the separation of families at the border give new meaning to the old World War II expression, “fubar.”
Truth has to be the departure point for policy. Russia did interfere in the 2016 elections. North Korea is not giving up its nuclear weapons. We actually do have a positive balance of payments with Canada.
An imperfect but free press is not the enemy of the people. Disagreeable news and fake news are different things. Most importantly, we are a creedal nation, not a nation defined by blood and soil or even shared history, but defined by what we believe, defined by the document and the ideas we celebrate on the July Fourth. Or, at least, we have been.
Some may think me wrong on any or all of the above, and I may be. But if I am it’s not because I live in Washington, or because I want the president to fail, or because I’ve forgotten my roots in the Ohio River Valley. I’m happy to be shown my errors, so let’s talk. In the meantime, I should take my grandkids to the fireworks to celebrate the glorious Fourth.
Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”