I'm deep into the writing of The Fear Within, which regular readers of this blog know is my narrative retelling of the 1949 trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, a trial that helped usher in the McCarthy Era. So I've been thinking a lot lately about the promise of America, and the reality of America. And no, this is not some anti-patriotic rant. This is a great country, but that greatness does not mean it can't -- and shouldn't -- be improved. But to do so, we need to step beyond our societal predisposition to embrace myth and engage honestly with our history.
The Los Angeles Times has an interesting, albeit short, op-ed piece today by Peter de Bolla, author of The Fourth of July and the Founding of America, which delves into the popular and cultural misperceptions surrounding the Declaration of Independence, including how July 4 came to be the celebrated day.
Of course, our little "experiment in democracy" is built on the U.S. Constitution, which didn't come into being until more than a decade after the Declaration, and five years after the Treaty of Paris that ceded the colonies to the colonists (we'll leave the whole Native American issue for another time). Within that arc, the Declaration was the act of treason (from the British perspective) that cemented the rebellion. It established nothing -- other than a spirit and a sense of promise, and a defining sense of national identity. It can still stir, centuries later:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.Powerful stuff, that.
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 to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Countless others have pointed out that the Constitution didn't quite deliver on the ambitions of the Declaration, Most notably, women and blacks were not included in the "men created equal" concept. Those have since been redressed, legally if not culturally, but other civil rights remain bound up. Gay marriage, for instance. In the 1967 Loving case striking down anti-miscegenation laws, marriage was held to be "one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival."
"To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."Yet here we are, infringing away (on the basis of gender rather than race), state after state.
And we still, in times of stress, tend to flout the basic civil rights that lie at the heart of the nation's founding. The post 9/11 USA Patriot Act, which gives the government indefensible access to our homes and personal records, is only the most recent, and joins a long line of repressive governmental acts, from the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare to the Japanese-American internments to the second Red Scare to the FBI and local police infiltrations of various civil rights, peace and anti-nuclear organizations.
So I guess today is a good time to sit back and think about what we are as a nation, how we can become better as a society, and what we can do here in our national adulthood to fulfill a little more of that promise from our youth.
Happy birthday, everyone.