Some Month-Old Thoughts on Politics and Patriotism

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America picture 2A month ago today, our country celebrated the 241st anniversary of the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. As is fitting, I spent much of the day contemplating the meaning of patriotism, the quintessentially American rhetoric about liberty and freedom, and the relationship that those concepts have with morality in general. (Does patriotism make you a good person? If someone loves America, does that make them complicit with the shortcomings and injustices that exist in our society? Can an individual be proud of their country but yet dislike their government?) This is why I take ridiculously long showers, y’all. I had intended to blog about that topic later in the day and had even mentally formulated much of the content of that blog post. It would have been long, philosophical, and maybe a little bit boring. So I never got around to finishing it. But now, upon opening the Word document containing the very beginning of a very rough draft, I’d like to go back and use some of that content. What follows is a slightly edited version of what I wrote a month ago.

In the grand scheme of history, 241 years is an extremely short period of time. But since it is significantly longer than the human lifespan, every twenty-first century American views the Declaration of Independence as distant history and takes for granted (to some extent) the ideas it expressed.

Of course, those ideas weren’t completely new and original even at the time. The founding fathers were inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, perhaps most notably the writings of John Locke. And the quintessentially American emphasis on rights traces its roots to the Magna Carta of 1215. But 800 years is still only a small fraction of the millennia that organized government has existed. Besides, the Magna Carta was only about the relationship between the monarchy and the nobility, not the rights of the common people. And until the eighteenth-century, the concepts of equality and human rights didn’t play a large role in politics.

I think that we modern Americans don’t often think about just how new our “unalienable” rights are. It is certainly a beneficial thing that we have things like anti-discrimination laws, the freedoms laid out in the Bill of Rights, and the opportunity to vote for our leaders, but none of those things are universal throughout human history. That’s why we’ve made a holiday of the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As Americans, we’re proud that our national identity is all about freedom, equality, and democracy.

Or is it? Take a look on social media or the news, and you’ll see lots of complaints about rights being denied, demographic groups being marginalized, voices not being heard, and needs not being met. Some of it may be petty or even inaccurate, but much of it will be valid. Despite our rhetoric about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the United States of America is not a utopian nation. At any given time, few if any American citizens are satisfied with the government, and most politically-informed Americans have feelings of animosity against fellow Americans with different political opinions. It certainly seems as if Americans hate America.

I would argue that this is a side effect of a democratic government. Because we elect our leaders and thereby have some degree of influence in our government, we pay much closer attention to politics than the average person in, say, medieval Europe. Most of us are more informed than we probably would be if we didn’t have any voice in our political system. All of us who make an effort to be well-informed are qualified to form and express stances on at least a couple specific issues, and many of us are to some extent emotionally invested in those issues. That’s not because we’re jerks who like to argue, it’s because the outcome could affect us or our family, friends, and neighbors. If I’m strongly against a particular proposed bill, or I actively dislike a certain candidate, it’s probably because I anticipate a negative impact on my day-to-day life, the life of someone I care about, or society as a whole. So when others support that bill or that candidate, it’s going to bother me. Personally, I try very hard not to be judgmental, but it’s hard not to question others’ morals or intelligence when they’re “wrong” about politics.

I believe that, in general, most political debates are far more complex than we tend to think, and that our opinions are less about right versus wrong than about assumptions that we don’t even realize aren’t shared. A lot of it comes down to the fact that, when our political ideology promises us all such broad rights and freedoms, there will be situations where there’s a conflict between one person’s rights and another’s. For instance, where does “freedom of speech” go too far and become discrimination or hate speech? At what point is “self-defense” too preemptive to be justified and lawful? Is it better to regulate immigration as much as possible to avoid letting dangerous, “un-American” people into our country, or do our American values dictate that we should welcome newcomers without discrimination and gladly grant them those rights we’re so proud to have?

And more broadly, what does the government owe citizens? Is education a right? And if so, how much can the government reasonably do to ensure the quality of public education? Is quality, affordable health care a right? And if so, what can the government reasonably do to ensure the quality and affordability of health care? To what extent does the government owe us financial assistance if we need it? And is it a good or bad thing if the government cuts funding to public services, financial aid for education, welfare programs, scientific research and the arts, etc. in order to lower taxes and/or decrease debt?

These are some of the questions that create partisan divisions and turn us against our fellow citizens. They are examples of the issues that cause us to dislike particular leaders and fear for the future of our nation. And all of these questions ultimately come down to our interpretations of freedom and rights. So how does patriotism fit into the picture? How can we love America if we can’t even agree on what exactly our American values are?

The initial plan was for this blog post to actually answer that question. I was going to have a lot to say about the history and ideologies of nationalism, populism, and globalization. It was going to touch upon the difference between cultural identities and officially delineated countries. It was going to include a tangent on separation church and state, as well as a very long and involved tangent about the relationship between church and state. It may have discussed topics relating to American superiority, ranging from the “city on a hill” rhetoric of very early colonial days to the controversies about current American military presence in other countries.

And it was somehow going to come to a nice, neat conclusion that would tie all of those threads into a surprisingly small and pretty little knot. I don’t know exactly how that would have happened, but it would have had something to do with the idea that both patriotic fervor and political vitriol are often motivated by goodwill for people in the society around us. Thus, it’s all good. No one is in the wrong except Hitler. It’s going to take a few more generations before it’s socially acceptable to include Hitler in any overarching statements about human goodness.

(By the way, the answer is no, if I could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, I wouldn’t. Instead, I would go back in time and tell teenage Hitler what a great painter he is and how important it is that he never, ever give up his art. Don’t let the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna crush your dreams, Adolf. Just keep painting and the world will thank you.)

But that would have taken much more time than I had available and much more research than I was prepared to do, not to mention that it would have been far too long for a single blog post. Maybe I’ll come back to some of those topics later. But probably not. Those long showers of mine mean that I will always have more blogging ideas than blogging time.

Thoughts on the Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of IndependenceOnce upon a time, on July 4, 1776, in the city of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress officially finalized the final draft of the document known as the Declaration of Independence. This document, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the continental congress, stated that the United Colonies were “free and independent” and “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown,” on the basis of the accusations that the British government was oppressive. The words of this declaration are famous and familiar, especially the first sentence of the second paragraph, and they have often been quoted as the quintessential statement of American ideology. It is perhaps worth noting that the ideas expressed in this document are not original, and the Declaration of Independence is reminiscent of the Magna Carta in several ways. Technically, the Magna Carta is the more historically significant of the two documents. Even within the story of the birth of our country, there are other occasions that held more significance than the writing and signing of the Declaration. Other important dates include the official beginning of the Revolutionary War, (April 19, 1775) the end of the war (in October 1781) the Treaty of Paris formalizing the end of the war, (signed on September 3, 1783, and finalized when the ratified documents were exchanged on May 12, 1784) and the signing of the constitution which we still use. (September 17, 1787) But it is the Declaration of Independence that we remember as the true beginning of the United States of America.

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

A screenshot from the very end of the musical 1776

And this raises the question: What if the Declaration of Independence had never existed? The historical comedy musical 1776 (which is a pretty reliable source, right?) gives the impression that the suggestion of writing such a declaration was made in order to put off the vote and win over more delegates who weren’t so enthusiastic about the issue of independency. If the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been written, if the colonies had declared independence only by waging war and not by writing a famous statement justifying it, what would the historical effect have been?

Would the constitution perhaps have been different if it hadn’t had the precedent of the Declaration of Independence? In particular, would the Bill of Rights have been necessary in order for the constitution to be ratified? Would things such as the freedom of religion, (Amendment I) the right to bear arms, (Amendment II) or the various rights concerning law enforcement trial, have needed to have a place in the constitution if the Declaration of Independence hadn’t been all about the existence and importance of rights? And if not, how long would it have taken for those rights to be officially included in the law, and what repercussions would that delay have had on subsequent historical events and cultural mindsets?

What about the Civil War? Would the South have tried to secede over the issue of states’ rights if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were only doing what their ancestors had done less than a century previously? (After all, in both cases, the conflict largely had to do with the geographical distance and cultural chasm been the governing authorities and the relevant sector of the population.) And would the abolishment of slavery perhaps taken a few more decades to bring about if slavery hadn’t been contrary to an important American historical document? After all, the Jim Crow laws existed until close to a century after the end of slavery. I think we can all agree that it’s good that slavery ended in our country a long time ago, but I think we can also agree that the end of slavery was not equivalent to the end of extreme racism, and that the Civil War did little to solve the latter of those two problems. If it hadn’t been for the precedents and principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, could the Civil War have been avoided? And if so, would the Confederacy be a separate country or would it have remained part of the Union, but also retained its culture, including slavery, for a longer time?

Or was the Declaration of Independence simply a formality, and would the original American ideology have been exactly the same even without the document that first defined and explained it? Is the Declaration of Independence just a famous piece of paper that technically has no more influence than any of the older documents and writings that say much the same things? Was July 4, 1776 really one of the most important landmarks in American history, or was it just a regular day that we arbitrarily selected to observe as the birthday of our country? I guess there’s no way to know for sure, unless we went back in time and somehow prevented the Declaration of Independence from coming into existence. And I, for one, would like to highly discourage that course of action, because I’m in favor of the Declaration of Independence regardless of whether it was historically monumental or ultimately insignificant.

Why We Celebrate the Fourth of July

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Today is the Fourth of July, the day when being a patriotic American has nothing to do with politics or with acts of public service. The Fourth of July is all about what you’re eating, what music you’re listening to, what you’re wearing, and how much you’re enjoying watching colored explosions in the sky.  That may sound like cynical sarcasm, but I don’t mean it that way. Yes, Independence Day is a good time to be grateful and appreciative to members of the armed forces (although we should be grateful and appreciative to them all the time, just sayin’) and to remember all of the historical politicians who have done great things for America, but in general, the Fourth of July is kind of a generic patriotic holiday for people to celebrate and enjoy being Americans. Unfortunately, sometimes Memorial Day is also treated that way, if it’s even treated as a patriotic holiday at all, and Veterans’ Day isn’t observed as fully as it should be, but that’s something for me to lament in another blog post someday; it’s not part of my point here.

The reason that we celebrate this holiday on July 4th, of course, is because the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. (Actually, that’s not entirely true, but I have just deleted the lengthy section I wrote about that because it seemed to be an unnecessary rambling tangent) In a way, it seems strange that we celebrate the anniversary of the document rather than the war. After all, the Declaration didn’t set anyone free. King George III didn’t read it and say, “You know what, they’re right. Let’s just end this war now and tell them that they’re free; congratulations and good luck setting up the new government.” They still had to fight a real war, and people really died.  The Declaration of Independence wasn’t even a unique historical document in terms of the ideas it expressed; Thomas Jefferson drew heavily from John Locke (who was British) and from the Magna Carta. (Also British) He was merely applying accepted concepts of freedom and liberty to the issues concerning the American colonies. Still, the Declaration of Independence acts as a better commemorative event than the war because it put specific complaints in general terms, making those ideas permanently relevant, and establishing them as principles of the American ideology.

In some ways, the American Revolution itself was kind of petty. It’s true that the American people were being subjugated by the British government, but the situation wasn’t quite as intolerable as they made it sound. It’s not like the British were kidnapping American children to feed them to extraterrestrial dragons who would then fly through the colonial skies, breathing fire upon the defenseless houses and villages they happened to see, then departing into another dimension where they were safe from any pitiful attack that the feeble and weak Americans might attempt. It’s not like the British were enslaving Americans and sticking them in dangerously rickety time machines, sending them back to perilous prehistoric times to mine American soil for the mineral wealth that Europeans hadn’t found yet for the simple reason that Europeans didn’t know at the time that there was any such thing as America.

In fact, the American colonists weren’t in any danger of dragons or enforced prehistoric labor or anything of the sort. Their problem was mostly taxes. That, and the fact that they didn’t like King George. They didn’t believe that someone who lived far away and lived a completely different lifestyle had any right to make decisions that affected their everyday lives. So they fought a war about it, and ever since then, America has been a land of freedom where the government is completely in touch with everyone’s lifestyles and personal needs, and nobody ever has to pay taxes that they don’t want to pay. Oh, wait, not really.

The fact of the matter is that any government has its imperfections, and some things are unavoidable. Unless you’re going for anarchy, you have to accept the facts that the government can’t do everything you want it to, that politicians can’t recognize and meet the needs and desires of each and every individual person, and that some taxes are necessary.  The founding fathers came up with a pretty good system that has worked decently for us for well over two centuries, and it was inevitable that most people would still be unhappy with a lot of the specific events and governmental decisions that have occurred. I’m not trying to justify everything that happens in American politics; I strongly disagree with a lot of it, but I recognize that it isn’t because the system itself is hopelessly flawed. Despite the fact that many conditions are the same as they were at the time of the Revolutionary War, I hope that not many people actually want to fight a war about it. If there ever is another American Revolution, I very much doubt that the new government will be better than the current government.

But political issues, as important as they are, have nothing to do with what we celebrate when we celebrate being Americans. The reason that we observe Independence Day on July 4th, rather than on the anniversary of the end of the Revolutionary War or the Boston Tea Party, is that it’s the principles in the Declaration that define American patriotism. Really, we aren’t even celebrating the merits of democracy, either. We’re celebrating because it’s lots of fun to celebrate a holiday, and if we think that July 4th is a good day to have one, we might as well say that our celebrations are patriotic. I think that’s perfectly valid.