Toward a more perfect union
Philadelphia, 1787 – Benjamin Franklin, age 81, rose to address the Constitutional Convention. ”When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom” he began, “you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.”
“Democracy is messy, and it’s hard,” Robert Kennedy said two centuries later. “It’s never easy.” I remember all too well that horrible night, June 6, 1968, as I watched his murder on live television, minutes after he was declared winner in the South Dakota and California presidential primaries – two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, and five and a half years after his brother’s murder, Nov. 11, 1963. I think of all this as I consider the political scene today.
Soon after the Convention, Franklin took part in a political discussion hosted by Elizabeth Powel, a trusted advisor to George Washington, who asked, “So, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” His reply has become legendary: “A republic – if you can keep it.” This admonishment is the crux of today’s dilemma.
Democracy is at best dynamic, and never at rest – with differing opinions reflecting different needs of different people at different times. Monarchies, on the other hand, intend to be static – although, as Shakespeare had it in Henry IV Part Two, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The self-righteous anger of white supremacists rises from their fear of retribution, as they begin to recognize their own vulnerability as a minority.
As I suggested in last month’s article, our forefathers declared themselves free from the rule of royalty by forming a society in which every man is to become the ruler of his own household – his home is declared his castle, and the members of his family his subjects. As that great American philosopher Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
In a remarkable experiment in government that reached back two thousand years to Greek and Roman views of governance, our forefathers wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Setting aside the notion that only men of their particular affinity deserved these unalienable rights, it is significant that “all men” have a right to the pursuit of happiness, not its achievement.
I have to say here that the slogan “all lives matter” as a rebuttal to “black lives matter” may at best be aspirational, but usually it is simply disingenuous. It would be good if all lives mattered, but throughout the history of our country the word “all” – heard in such statements as “all men are created equal” and “with liberty and justice for all” – has been quite narrow, and never really included everyone. You know what I mean.
The apocryphal Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” has never been more relevant. These are chaotic times, as were my undergraduate years at Berkeley. The reaction of authorities to the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the student movement culminated in the shootings at Kent State, and Reagan’s stealthy manipulation of the Iran hostage situation, defeating Jimmy Carter to become president Nov. 4, 1980, and starting the dismantling of a government of, by, and for the people.
You may well note my bitterness here – I date the dreadful situation today back to that right wing coup. This was precisely when the pendulum began to swing away from the needs of the people, as they had been recognized and addressed by FDR’s New Deal, toward the demands of corporate interests with deregulation and the swindle of Reaganomics. This is not what our forefathers wanted – they didn’t even want political parties for that matter, which evolved when cliques of people with common interests began thinking in terms of competition rather than collaboration, establishing party platforms based upon contending agendas.
Among these are the contrasting ideas of capitalism and socialism, largely misunderstood economic philosophies that seem to have deteriorated these days to rallying cries and pejoratives, amplified in social media to shrill tirades that make intelligent discussion impossible. These two ideas are at play in the relationship between the accumulation of ownership and the distribution of opportunity – as with homeowners and the homeless.
I believe the two need not struggle with one another, as they now seem to, but work the way two valves labeled hot and cold feed into one kitchen faucet. We adjust the temperature according to our needs: warmer for washing dishes, and cooler for drinking the water. However, this takes a deliberate attention, from which polemic tirades only distract us.
Interesting times call for deliberate attention, and thoughtful communication – listening to hear, and speaking to inform. We know all too well that the election in November will be very important, but what takes place between now and November may prove more decisive – and more important.