The first is by actually being great, doing great things, winning victories, achieving big goals.
That’s the hard way.
The second path is to be great by pretending to be great, insisting you’re great now and always have been, while ignoring or denying all the stuff about you that isn’t so great.
The easy path.
Look at Communist China.
Much about China is truly great: a civilization nearly 5,000 years old. Culture. Cuisine. More than a billion citizens. Proud, strong, rising.
Not great enough, apparently, for its totalitarian leadership. They demand that everything be considered great, and banish all that is controversial, complicated or embarrassing.
In April, China’s cyber censors set up hotlines that allows citizens to denounce each other, turning in those who “defame national heroes.” Questioning the party’s version of the past is branded “historical nihilism.” People go to prison for quips about history.
This is not great, but petty. Not strength, but weakness. There is a reason our nation’s First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
The idea was that dictating what religion to practice, or what citizens can say or not say, is the work of tyrants. The reason we broke away from England is because we were sick of that. And because permitting all kinds of speech is like permitting free scientific inquiry: it allows ideas to compete, and the best to rise to the top. It fosters greatness.
Or at least it did, before social media put its thumb on the scales, and encouraged Americans to isolate themselves in their own personal echo chambers.
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