I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. - Albert Schweitzer

The day will come when you will trust you more than you do now, and you will trust me more than you do now. And we can trust each other. ... I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous – and people are not yet willing to pay it. - James Baldwin

Monday, July 5, 2010

Independence Day

It is a day to celebrate, to remember, to reflect.

We all like to feel that we are noble and nothing makes us feel more noble than invoking high-minded ideals. It is always a trap. None of us are ever as noble as our aspirations, but our aspirations protect us from self-examination better than they protect our fellows from our own critical eye.

Today we celebrate the declaration of our liberty by a man who felt himself at liberty to enslave others and enrich himself from their labor. I do not mean that as an attack on Jefferson's character. In his time, Frederick Douglass would write quite eloquently about how, even as a child, he was aware of the terrible effects of the institution of slavery on the mind and soul of the slaveholder. But I wish to use the fact of Jefferson's slave holdings as a point of departure for thinking about the Declaration of Independence and its present value for us.

1776 is impossibly remote for us. We can read all of the history that we like, but it is not really possible for us to comprehend the reality of a world in which a slaveholder could publicly champion universal human rights and be taken seriously. It was a world where women could not own property and had few civil rights. Travel and communication were glacial. My point is that when we idealize our founding moment we strip away much of the utility that it holds for us. It is easy to imagine some bright shining moment in our past when we were clearer of purpose and more visionary. If only we could recapture the spirit of that moment, all of our troubles would find solutions. No such moment has ever existed. It is only because those times are so remote from our own that we can imagine that it did. We are a nation founded as much on contradiction as on principle and both have shaped our history.

I find it enormously freeing to remember that our present times are not so different from our past. It is easy to imagine Thomas Jefferson, cloistered in a sweaty garret in Philadelphia, struggling to find the words to express the intentions of the Congress and the broader aspirations of the citizenry. We all know the words. They form a litany in our heads, but they roll far too easily off of the tongue. The words have become a convenient semaphore for our core beliefs, whatever those core beliefs may be, but we no longer struggle to find our own words or to get to the heart of every matter for ourselves. Those men were committing treason against the most powerful nation on earth. In so doing, they ceded to themselves the authority to live by their own lights. They recognized that claiming that authority was, by its very nature, a sober and sobering business. Whatever their flaws, they were serious about their business, and as their heirs, we do well to remember and honor them.

But as we struggle to live the freedoms they struggled to establish, we are heirs also to the sober business they took upon themselves. It is a mistake to rely too heavily on their guidance. We also must live by our own lights. They cannot see for us the world in which we must live. They cannot identify the opportunities before us nor evaluate the perils that we face. We can, however, remember what they taught us: It is up to us find our way. It is our right and our responsibility.

Only those things which cannot be changed are beyond the bounds of our judgment. We cannot abolish gravity or mortality and we cannot change any of the immutable failings of our nature. But what is immutable in the human character? If you consider the variety and range of human society across the globe through all of history, you would be hard pressed to define a constant more in evidence than our seemingly unlimited adaptability. What are the limits of humans to create a set of social arrangements which support Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness? It is too soon to tell. It may always be too soon to tell, but there is no rule of political or economic life to which we are bound by any force stronger than our own reason. Let us not be too quick to accept the notion that experience defines the natural limits of the possible. Things which make no sense are not our masters.

Contradiction hides too easily behind principle. Standing on principle has become very fashionable, but it degrades our internal dialog as a nation. If you believe that smaller government, lower taxes, and market forces will solve all our problems, you don't need to think seriously about the problems left unsolved or exacerbated by lower taxes, smaller government, and market forces. Believing that we should use the government to achieve universal health care, alternative energy, and the eradication of poverty does not resolve the issues of waste and misdirected resource inherent in the administration of huge powerful bureaucracies nor does it account for how the required resources will be produced. There is no magic formula for establishing a prosperous, harmonious civil society. Like a good marriage it is the product of constant effort, honesty, compromise, and commitment.

The government is not merely a particular set of institutions chartered by particular documents. It is all of the forms by which power is distributed and controlled in our society. It is law and it is convention. It is the power of monopoly and the power of wealth. It is the power of intimidation and the tyranny of misinformation. All of these forces govern our lives and we can never escape the pull of them, yet the Declaration reminds us that they are all subject to our consent and our judgment. We are the sovereigns here. We have the power to act wisely and the power to be foolish, to succeed or to fail. It is up to us, but we are working without a net.

I am not such a fool as to think that there are easy answers to our present difficulties. If there is an end to human history it will not be a pleasant or triumphal one. But there are things that are worth believing in even if they are not true1. I choose to believe that we can do this. Everything else is negotiable.

Stolen shamelessly from “Secondhand Lions”

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite movies, Peter, and a good and sound sentiment, I think.

    I've had the privilege to be in Philadelphia and in Boston in the past year. At Independence Hall last summer (on July 4, no less) I was moved to tears as I considered what that group of men (and I like to think their wives, who manned the home fires) gave us. This July 4 was spent near Gettysburg, where I am always moved to tears for both sides equally, but this year more for the Union that seems to be at risk once more. And this year as always I found myself wishing for a nation of Joshua Chamberlains: educated, eloquent, thoughtful and courageous. I daresay he wasn't perfect, but what an inspiration.