SORRENTO, Italy — “We were there first. London was our colony. We were there before the Anglo-Saxons, before William the Conqueror and the Normans.”
This outburst of pride in the Roman Empire of 2,000 years ago came from an Italian with whom we had struck up a conversation during lunch on the breathtakingly beautiful Bay of Naples below the majestic cliff where picturesque Sorrento sits.
A three-week vacation in Italy focused on the glories of Michelangelo, the wonders of the Renaissance in Florence, the ruins of the ancient Forum in Rome and the fascinating remains of a city killed by a volcano at Pompeii doesn’t yield much insight into the attitudes of modern Italy.
Yet I couldn’t help but be struck, while traveling the Boot from Venice to Sorrento, how often you saw the Italian flag flying on the streets and from commercial buildings, individual homes and balcony after balcony on mid-rise and high-rise.
Maybe the flag waving only reflected hopes for the World Cup, though in the end fans of the nation’s team suffered bitter disappointment.
However representative the flags and the boasting about Rome of the Caesars from one Italian may be, the history on display across the country gives Italians plenty of cause for healthy national self-esteem.
The Italian Renaissance marked the birth of the modern world and, eventually, led to the birth of America, whose independence we’ve been celebrating this weekend.
The spirit of the age was for searching, seeking and learning, and Christopher Columbus embodied all that in his quest for a new route to the East, a voyage that discovered America. And “discovered” is the right word, not “encountered” as leftist revisionist historians sometimes like to say. America sat outside world history before Columbus. Five hundred years earlier, the Vikings had happened upon North America, but their adventure brought no change to the new or the old world.
The voyage of Columbus produced changes too numerous to list but none greater than the United States, a country with a unique history of freedom, liberty and economic progress that is the envy of the world. Why else do immigrants still clamor, and sometimes risk all, to come here?
Like Italians, Americans have a lot to be proud of. A Pew Research Center poll finds that 58 percent of Americans think the United States “is one of the greatest countries in the world, along with some others.” Yet faith in U.S. exceptionalism is declining. The percentage who think the nation “stands above all other countries in the world” has declined 10 points since 2011 to 28 percent.
Hopefully this is a short-term issue, reflecting current economic and political woes. Thursday’s good news that the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent in June couldn’t hide the reality that the recovery from the Great Recession has been the worst in modern history, that job growth is concentrated in low-paying and part-time work, that millions have dropped out of the job market and that wage growth is stagnant.
Our politics seem hopelessly polarized. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the opposing party as “a threat to the nation’s well being,” according to another Pew poll.
That polarization has been fed by two presidents — George W. Bush with unpopular wars and Barack Obama with a hyper-partisan agenda to transform America and a disdain to work with Republicans.
Yet, our temporary economic and political worries shouldn’t detract us from the glorious record of U.S. history. Count me among the 28 percent who see U.S. exceptionalism.