Suzanne Fields

Democracy is more than a word. The protesting Egyptians and the watching world are learning that between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood stand a lot to overcome. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got one thing right: "It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy, not faux democracy."

Hope and change are not the same thing. Big talk and big deeds are not the same thing, either, as our own experienced taught. Not everyone believed the great Philadelphia experiment of 1776 would succeed, an experiment born of hope not experience. Not everyone believes now that what was wrought then will endure.

Despite all the high hopes that brought Barack Obama to the White House, a lot of people here and elsewhere think he's presiding over a weakened and dispirited America. Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" has become, for these doubters, late afternoon.

To take advantage of his invoking a cliched Sputnik moment, certain hard choices lie ahead. Federal spending must be cut -- "slashed" may be a better word -- and the private sector must be unleashed to get things moving again. This goes athwart Obama's instincts, but government must be put on a crash diet (something not included in Michelle's anti-obesity crusade).

The president observed, accurately, in his State of the Union addressthat American competitiveness depends on better-educated workers and a stronger incentive to succeed. This can only happen when bad teachers with the seniority that makes them fireproof are dispatched to wherever bad teachers go. The president's new emphasis on the decline of learning comes with a new study that reveals that two-thirds of fourth-graders fail to show proficiency in science; six of 10 eighth and 12th graders perform poorly in science. They're not doing well in history, either.

How we change this for the better requires a debate, and whether it's civil or passionate isn't as important as getting the debate started. The question is whether we have the stuff and imagination to transcend what divides us, and that depends on how we assess who we are.

Claude Fischer, for 40 years a liberal sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, takes note in his new book that the American character has been forged by the pride Americans take in themselves and their accomplishments. "There is an American cultural center; it's assimilative pull is powerful; and it is distinctive or 'exceptional,'" he writes in "Made America: A Social History of American Culture and Character."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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