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Sunday, July 03, 2022

A July 4th like no other

Dozens of commentators have awakened to the disastrous state of American politics and society and the apparent impossibility of unity in a common cause.  We can find plenty of milestones down this road in recent history, starting with the election of Donald Trump and continuing with the Supreme Court's revolutionary decisions and the repudiation American traditions on the left, but longer-term causes have made much more difference.  To understand how low we have sunk we need to go back to the beginning.

Some quotes, for me, never get old.  I customarily mark the Fourth of July with Thomas Jefferson's very last letter, written in the spring of 1826, when both he and John Adams were clinging desperately to life in an effort to see the 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration that they had both helped to draft.  Three signatories then survived, and a committee in Washington invited them to participate in a commemorative ceremony on the Fourth.  Jefferson wrote a reply for the ages.

"MONTICELLO, June 24, 1826.

"Respected Sir —The kind invitation I received from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day, but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally, with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us, on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission and the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others—for ourselves let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

"I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachment.


These words, to begin with, rebut the now-fashionable accusation that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were white supremacists who never dreamed that the rights they proclaimed could extend either to nonwhites or women.  They used universal language in the founding documents because they believed in universal principles, however long it might take for those principles to take effect around the globe.  The black Americans who angrily claim that the Fourth of July has nothing to do with them are wrong, as Frederick Douglas confirmed in his famous address on July 4, 1852, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro."  While he told his Rochester, New York audience that he was "not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary," he recognized it as a world-altering event nonetheless, he also railed against the myth (popular once again today) that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. "In that instrument," he said, "I hold there is neither warrant, license or sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document." Jefferson had already told his old friend Lafayette a year or two earlier that he expected the slaves someday to gain freedom.  In this last letter he confidently predicted that the whole world would eventually secure the blessings of liberty as well.

While I do not believe that liberty today is threatened with disappearance around the world, no one can deny that the tide is running against it.  The dream of 1989 is essentially dead and autocracy and oligarchy rule Russia and China.  Authoritarian leaders rule important nations like Turkey and Brazil, and nationalist authoritarian movements have gained strength in Europe and North America.  As I write, the president of Tunisia--the only nation that seemed to have derived genuine political benefit from the Arab Spring--is pushing through constitutional changes that will make him almost all-powerful.  Here in the United States, Jefferson's letter hints at the problems that are crippling our democracy. "The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. . . . The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."  196 years later, the "unbounded exercise of reason" has become less and less fashionable, superseded by tribal and other emotional commitments, or by powerful economic interests who refuse to admit, for instance, that climate change is a serious threat to humanity.  The printed word plays much less of a role in American life today than it did then, and books, while much more numerous, present far lesser intellectual challenges and do much less to develop general knowledge or a sense of our place in the history of the world.  The moving images of television and computer screens do more to excite the senses but much less to instruct the mind.  And our appetite for novelty seems so insatiable that even the war in Ukraine has faded from the front pages and the public consciousness.  

In the twentieth century, the idea of democracy expanded to give the government a critical role in promoting economic prosperity and coping with economic crisis.  The government's economic role dominated public discussion from 1933 until 1981, and presidents accept the role of steward of the economy.  Then Ronald Reagan announced that government was the problem, not the solution, and by 1996 Democrat Bill Clinton was publicly agreeing with him that "the era of big government is over."  In the great crisis of 2008-9 the elected leadership left the heavy lifting to the Federal Reserve Board, which provided trillions in new liquidity to save major financial institutions as millions of Americans lost their homes.  Something similar, it is emerging, happened in the last two years of the pandemic.  And today, a Democratic administration obviously has no idea how to cope with a very big new round of inflation and a threatened recession, because both parties have adopted the idea that the economy will take care of itself.  Unlike FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and even Reagan, President Biden has not devoted a single major address to our economic problems and what we might do about them--even though they seem likely to cost him the control of at least one house of Congress.  All over the first world, governments have ceded effective economic power and the political power that goes with it to financial institutions and new economic aristocracies.  Russia and China appear to be exceptions, insofar as their governments sometimes use political power to keep economic oligarchs in line.  That may give them an edge in international competition.

To use reason to solve society's problems, we need faith in reason and training in how to apply it.  From Jefferson's time until our parents, we had that faith, and such training became more and more available.  Now, with universities repudiating their enlightenment heritage in many ways, we are going backwards, just as the late Roman empire did under the influence of Christianity.  Here is these posts, and in occasional Facebook comments, I am now simply trying to keep my head while so many around me are losing theirs.


Energyflow said...

Everyone has a different rationale dependent on culture.

Ed Ciliberti said...

I like your Kipling nod. "If" is very high on my favorites list.

Ed Ciliberti

Unknown said...

We saw three prongs of the assault on American democracy: Trump's incendiary speech, right-wing crazies storming the Capitol, and the scheme to establish "alternative slates" of electors from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. Any one of those was ludicrous in itself, but together, they form a trident... and a trident puts together three prongs that create greater force together.

The prongs of a trident are not lethal in themselves, but the shaft behind them make the prongs so deadly.