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No words committed to paper have ever had greater impact than those we celebrate this Saturday, on Independence Day:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That clarion cry of the sovereign rights of the individual sounded the death knell for the rule of kings in the 19th Century and stood in defiance of totalitarian tyranny across the 20th Century.
The fact that those words were written by a slaveholding Virginian, a man committed to the expansion of an “Empire of Liberty” across the continent (pushing aside, absorbing or destroying the indigenous inhabitants of that continent) reflects an ugly and brutal paradox that continues to haunt America.
On April 3, 1968, just hours before his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, in what has come to be called the “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop Speech.” Amid his eloquent evocation of a vision of the Promised Land, earned in a toilsome climb up a steep and rugged slope, he made a simple plea:
“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
King was speaking specifically of the guarantees of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America — but his words cut fundamentally down to the bedrock profession of the American faith: that all men are created equal.
We must not forget that have come a long way toward fulfilling the promise of those words: A birthright that was, in 1776, confined to white men of property (almost exclusively Protestant Christian in creed) has been expanded — in fits and starts — to include women as well as men, people of all colors and creeds.
Those who seek to portray the America of 2020 as a fundamentally racist nation and society are as dishonest as those who would prefer to pretend that it never was. The United States is not the same nation it was even 50 years ago; legally, culturally and economically we are a far more just and equitable place than we were on April 4, 1968, when King was slain.
We remain an imperfect work-in-progress. We will probably always carry the burden of the twin original sins into which our nation was born; we cannot erase or elide a heritage of slavery and conquest that clashes so profoundly with our founding principles. But neither can we abase ourselves in expiation of those sins, not without destroying the civic faith that has allowed the United States of America — for all of its flaws — to be a beacon of liberty and opportunity in an often dark world for the past 244 years.
Our task is not to fundamentally transform the United States of America. It is something far simpler, more profound — and more challenging — than that:
It is to be true to what we put down on paper.
I’m not sure what the people who want to “fundamentally transform” America think they are going to do. Bring about some sort of Utopia? Humans being flawed at best and monster at worse are incapable of Utopia. In fact most attempts at Utopia have ended disastrously.
Keith West says
Well said, sir. And while we may never completely live up to those words, being human, we will certainly come closer if we strive to do so than if we never tried.
Ugly Hombre says
Happy 4th of July everyone! Freedom Day.!
***“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”***
This.. To me America is not and never has been a racist country, do we have racists in the country yes sadly we do, just like every other country in the world- lived in four countries overseas and can tell you that proportionate we have less than many countries in my experience.
As for the horror of slavery, America was guilty all of America, Black, Red, and White.
A simple web search reveals the truth of the matter. We fought a bloody civil war to free them and rectified our horrific mistake with blood.
America is the best country in the world bar none we learn from our mistakes.
God bless our Republic! Happy Forth Of July!!
Rick Schwertfeger says
I am pondering, thinking hard on this essay. The term “to transform” seems to be central to the point. The assertion seems to be that we can be true to what we put down on paper without transforming fundamental components of our society — how we live; educate; work; police; determine justice; enable equal opportunity to be real; develop the energy resources necessary to power everything; how our transportation system works and what it runs on; how we protect our lands, water, and air; how we use our natural resources in sustainable ways. At least those things.
Well, this reader is sitting here thinking, “Okay, if not by transforming, what is the correct operant term that best describes how we will do those things.?” Because many of the powerful institutions of our nation and the forces they marshall on their behalf worked to put us in the shape we’re in right now. And many of those core institutions and components of our society want things to remain as they are. Somehow the whole purposes for why they exist must be different, and they need to function differently — and have different outcomes. How do we accomplish that?
I tend to think this way because in my career I was a middle manager for most of the time. I was responsible for getting things done. And therefore I had to work with others to determine “how” to accomplish the mission. Far from trying to be argumentative, I’m really interested in to read what folks may have to say about just how we proceed to “be true to what we put down on paper.”
he thing about it is that it’s not “to transform” but “to FUNDAMENTALLY transform.” That adverb is very important. For one, if you want “FUNDAMENTALLY transform” something you don’t love it. You can’t love you wife and want her to “FUNDAMENTALLY transform” her. You may want her to loose a few pounds but you don’t want her to FUNDAMENTALLY change. What you need maybe is pruning than hacking away at the roots hoping something better will replace it. Now I’m not saying you specifically want to “FUNDAMENTALLY transform” America but that’s what I think a lot of protestors do.
The other thing is transform (FUNDAMENTALLY or not) into WHAT. History is replete with examples of attempts to make a better society that made it worse: The French Revolution; the Soviet Union; hell, even Nazi Germany. They all made society worse. Now, I don’t doubt a lot of people have good intentions, but the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is around for a reason. For example: the whole nation building attempt in Iraq had good intentions behind it (I my self originally supported it because I thought it had good intentions behind it) but it was disaster. (And yes there were probably some people eyeing the oilfields, but not everyone.)
Now, I think there are things we need to do. For one, get rid of police unions. The bad cop who killed George Floyd had previous complaints, but the union protected him. I believe GOVERNMENT unions have been disastrous. (They can be a necessary evil in the private sector, though.) They make hard if not impossible to fire bad employees like bad cops; the bureaucrats who ran the VA; hell, there are even pedophiles who can’t be fired from their teaching job. (Years ago, there was a bill to unionize the police and fire force here in Colorado. A narcotics cop at the church I attended at the time argued quite persuasively against it.) There are probably other things we need to do, but I don’t think they mean FUNDAMENTALLY transforming society.
Craig Rullman says
“The bad cop who killed George Floyd had previous complaints, but the union protected him.” Be very careful with any reasoning you draw from the mere fact of having complaints in his jacket. To begin with you don’t know the nature of the complaints. Merely having a complaint lodged against you, or many complaints, doesn’t make you guilty of the complaint. Nor does having no complaints in your jacket mean that you are a good cop. It might mean that you sit in your car and do nothing. It is virtually impossible to be a police officer in modern America without receiving complaints, by the way — not if you actually get out of your car and confront criminals, many of whom are violent beyond belief, and all of whom are deeply schooled in various forms of utter shitbaggery. Police unions do far more good than they do harm. In most cases they exist solely to lobby on behalf of wage and benefits packages, which any worker would reasonably want. In California, where peace officers work under (thank God) a peace officer’s bill of rights, they are virtually powerless when it comes to an officer’s disciplinary hearings, except that they pay for legal counsel to represent the officer in an internal investigation, which can be very important since many internal investigations are political farces having almost nothing to do with law and policy — and almost everything to do with politics and optics. Some very good officers have been railroaded by very bad administrations, as I’m sure you understand. Kamala Harris, who was the chief law enforcement officer of the state when I was working at a major narcotics task force, took great pride in her continual undermining of law enforcement officers at every turn. The point is, be careful you don’t stray too far from your lane of expertise when making larger claims about what police unions do or don’t do, or making claims on the relevance of complaints in an officers file–whose details you don’t know. Or, do whatever you want. There are now a hundred million policing experts in America, the vast majority of whom have never spent one day behind a shield, who think they know what they are talking about when it comes to every facet of a very complicated and difficult profession — from parking tickets to arrest and control techniques to homicide investigations, the know-nothings know it all. Except that almost without exception — they don’t know shit.
I may have gone outside my expertise here. If so I apologize.
I had an earlier post but it seems not to have gotten through. Basically, I apologize if I went outside my expertise.
Todd Johnson says
My oldest son’s wrestling mentor (he was a senior when the kid was a freshman) was a two tribe American Indian. Rough upbringing, experienced and wise beyond his years. He told my son in essence, “Look, we were warring with each other long before the first Spaniard, catholic priest or European arrived. It’s what men do. You guys just did it better and then crapped in everybody’s nest.”
Critical critique of our systems is good and everybody seems to need something, or someone to be mad at these days. A bad cop doesn’t justify damning to entire lot of them any more than a criminal agitator indicts an otherwise peaceful protest. Go ahead and defund the police, take away qualified immunity and while you’re at it the union. See what’s left and what your communities look like in a few years. Murder rates are through the roof again in our inner cities and the suspects / victims aren’t “cops”. It has been an impossibly job for the last ten years at least and it’s a bit more layered than that, especially if you have never spent one year on the job.
We are failing as a society at individual accountability. Not political sacrifice, but facts based accountability to the individual involved. Schools, parents, coaches, businesses and government entities cannot, or will not for fear of financial, professional or social repercussion hold anyone accountable. That is of course unless politics, or the mob demands it. Opinions are cool and so is the freedom to have them, however I try not to speak on things I have no personal experience with. If I do, I qualify my statement as one not based upon first hand experience. That is not directed at anyone’s comments either.
The wrong folks are getting the press which by the way, will never focus any significant portion of the good humans do every single day. Until we can make eye contact, talk without assaulting one another, or burning our cities down, the evening news which is a business designed to make money — will look the same. We get played daily by the press and social media.
Much of my life as a believer has been a walk of faith and I’m pretty sure it was divine intervention that kept me alive through a less than ideal childhood and twenty six years of carrying a gun for a living. Faith aside, folks seem less interested in facts, science and explaining your actions than ever. It is a beautiful fallen world and for the most part, you get what you put into it. I’m not interested in Team Hate America.
None of us are immune or exonerated from our own humanity and a little grace in addition to keeping our mouth shut long enough to listen, is always a good idea. My goal for now as I transition into retirement, is to try to raise good humans in my children for this world.
Great read Sir and some great contributions
Jim Cornelius says
X‑ring. More later, but I was just talking with my wife about an experience student teaching (this would be back in 1992) with a 13-year-old Black kid who was a disruptive fuckup — and any effort to hold him accountable he responded to with cries of “racism.” That’s how he was trained to react. That mentality was doing the kid no favors. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t really function in a classroom at all. His dad showed up stoned to a parent-teacher conference. The kid didn’t have a chance in hell, but his problems weren’t societal.
Breakdown of the nuclear family is almost championed at this point. How’s that working out for us?
My classmates were never murdered wholesale by fellow students and I grew up in the latch-key; parental “me time” over sexed 80’s where most of our parents were divorced.
Lots of problems mind you, but it seemed like fewer of us were sad, medicated, obese, or confused about our pronouns. I’m not suggesting you should, nor am raising my own the same, but we figured stuff out then and our marauding group of boys ran 3–6 deep almost every gathering. No phones.…?
The potential and ability of these young powerful minds, coupled with the positive aspects of really cool technology are ingredients to what can be powerful young adults. I was reminded of this after my hike a couple days ago with a 23 year old young man, fresh out of Infantry; self taught three language history buff; volunteers in his church and looks like Captain America.
My 17 year old talked viking history / lore and the trials of Alexander the Great with him all the way down the mountain. Almost brought tears to my eyes (could have also been my knee pain).
A whole other topic and like your struggling young man, some of these children didn’t ask to be born into such terrible conditions.