The term “American exceptionalism” was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 upon his first visit to the United States, noting that the new nation was different, based less upon history or ethnicity than shared common beliefs. Those beliefs, in turn, were expressly set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.
Some have employed American exceptionalism a a political screen to deny and ignore glaring faults and shortcomings that tend to give lie to that ideal. Recently, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) railed against the award of the Pulitzer Prize to The New York Times for the publication of the 1619 Project, which demonstrated the destructive reliance of the United States upon slavery. Cruz offered no substantive evidence of characterization of “propaganda” by the Times other than claiming the article sought to “reframe American history.”
Of course, when it comes to reframing history, readers are reminded to consider Cruz’s criticisms of P45 during the 2016 campaign, compared with his present outlook. Nonetheless, VoxFairfax wishes to share an excerpted tale from the Washington Post (July 18, 2020) that echoes and emphasizes de Tocqueville’s observation of the endurance of American exceptionalism.
In Westbrook, a city of 19,000 on the banks of the Presumpscot River in southeast Maine, the textile industry had all but dried up when Ben Waxman moved back to his home state in early 2013. He had spent years as a top official with the AFL-CIO in Washington and dreamed of following his mother, Dory, who ran a woolen goods company, into the textile business.
Waxman said the skilled labor that disappeared with the textile mills was difficult to find, and he and co-owner, his wife, Whitney, could not have opened his company two years later without immigrants eager to learn how to stitch. Immigrants are now 80 percent of the staff.
“If this isn’t what America is all about, I don’t know what is,” he said.
A naturalized citizen from Iraq is the union president. Other employees hail from Congo, Ethiopia and Vietnam. They have a prayer room for Muslims. Many of the company’s employees weathered unspeakable violence and war before they guided the Waxmans through the roller-coaster ride of owning a business.
The Waxmans faced financial ruin in 2018 after a big order of sweatshirts disintegrated in the wash. Lutina, the head stitcher, prodded the couple to keep going, telling the Waxmans their company would one day be bigger than L.L. Bean, whose headquarters are about 30 minutes from American Roots.
“We will get through this,” Lutina said. American Roots did.
“That really resonated with me,” Waxman said. “They walked out of war-torn countries with the clothes on their backs…. If they could get through something horrible, why couldn’t Whitney and I lead the company through something horrible?”
Now the crisis is the coronavirus. American Roots had fewer than 30 employees when the virus hit. Once the company switched to making masks, the staff expanded to more than 100, creating jobs for immigrants and native-born Americans alike.
“I’m scared,” said Ragad Abo Al Jaaz, a 35-year-old floor supervisor and refugee from Iraq who came to the United States with her family in 2011. They were fleeing threats because her husband had worked for the U.S. Embassy. But, she said, “it’s what I do. These masks can help a lot people in America.”
Waxman said he has tried to keep everyone safe. Everyone’s temperatures are checked before each shift, sewing machines are spaced six feet apart, and the factory is cleaned daily.
But last week, Waxman learned that one worker had tested positive for the coronavirus. Then a second. They shut down the factory for sanitizing and testing, and discovered that 11 employees in all had the virus, although Waxman said none had symptoms of covid-19.
The stitchers and cutters who did not have the virus had to decide once more whether to come back to work. They started Friday.
Sen. Ted Cruz was born in 1970, six years before publication of Alex Haley’s novel Roots, and seven years before the first broadcast of the television miniseries of the same name. Whether Cruz ever read the book or watched any episodes is unknown. The resonance of the name of the Maine factory — American Root — is impossible to ignore.