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“We saw the world as it was and we made it better.”

With those words, Arizona’s Sen. John McCain concluded an op-ed that challenged America to remember the importance of being a strong voice for human rights in the world. It was an eloquent and personal response to remarks by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the Trump Administration’s America First approach.

Tillerson said it could create “obstacles” to our foreign policy goals to make it a condition “that others must adopt” our values.

Giving the oppressed a voice, a beacon

McCain responded by recalling a speech by Natan Sharansky, “the human rights icon,” who talked about the strength he and fellow Soviet Union refuseniks took from comments by President Ronald Reagan on their behalf.

The senior senator from Arizona also used his personal experience as a prisoner of war to make his point about “how much it had meant to my fellow POWs and me when we heard . . . that Mr. Reagan, then the governor of California, had often defended our cause, demanded our humane treatment and encouraged Americans not to forget us.”

It gave them hope, he said.

“To view foreign policy as simply transactional is more dangerous than its proponents realize,” he wrote. “Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in.”

The inexperienced can benefit from his insights

McCain’s experience makes his words authentic and compelling.

His insights into the evil human beings can do have informed his opinions on torture, which he spoke out against during the Bush Administration, and they now give him a perspective on the importance of what America says to the world.

Those who are new to foreign policy — those whose experience is not as deep as that of a former POW — would be wise to listen and try to learn.

In fact, the value of life experience to our country is not limited to foreign policy.

We are a nation built of many different pieces — a nation of immigrants and Native Americans whose contributions come together to make us greater than the sum of all our parts.

The importance of remembering what unites us

That is America’s story, and it is one reason our shared values resonate around the globe.

It is important to remember that now — when there is so much anger, so much emphasis on what divides us.

The tendency to ignore, dismiss or prejudge each other’s life experience is not exclusive to one political party. It spans the ideological spectrum.

Critics of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to name an all-male working group to write the Senate’s health-care reform bill were accused of indulging in “identity politics.” Which is just silly.

The fact is that women have different health care needs than men. Excluding their life experiences impoverishes the discussion.

The silly partisan antics need to stop

And then there is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ experience at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college, in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Invited to give a commencement speech, she was met with boos and shouts. Students turned their backs as she tried to speak above the noise.

DeVos said she was going to visit the historic home of university founder Mary McLeod Bethune, and the crowd reacted with anger, according to The Atlantic. A student told the Washington Post that DeVos had a “nerve” to mention Bethune: “What does she know about that?”

Maybe she wanted to learn. Maybe she had something to teach.

DeVos’ speech was about sharing ideas.

“We must first listen, then speak with humility to genuinely hear the perspectives of those with whom we don’t immediately or instinctively agree,” according to her prepared presentation.

Different experiences shape our democracy

Diversity has become a buzzword that is used as a cudgel by one side and denigrated as “political correctness” by the other. But diversity is really about life experience. We all have something to share.

McCain’s call to remember the importance of America’s values is not just a reminder of the importance of our words around the globe.

It is a reminder of the importance of the personal life experiences individual Americans bring to our collective experiment in self-governance.

Learning from those experiences and holding true to our values is how we continue to take our country and the world as it is — and make it better.

— The Arizona Republic

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