Shit, that got a little long, didn't it? It could have been a lot longer, too. I even edited and cut some stuff. You don't even want to get me going. I'll ramble forever if provoked and permitted. I hope it's at least somewhat coherent, and interesting to others, though I sometimes tend to doubt it :]
by Jared Dunn on 7/13/2001 05:52:34 AM | bang on |

A little late perhaps, but here goes nothing...

We do have some things to be quite proud of, and equally many if not more to stand ashamed of. We must be doing some things right, obviously. People regularly risk their lives just to get here. And, cynical though I may be, I can't allow myself to think that it's solely for the purpose of economic gain, either. It takes more than that to make most people risk life and limb. They're led here by something greater, perhaps largely of mythic origins, but as many such things, based on a kernel of Truth. They're after the same few things that I would lay down my own life for. Largely, these consist of the freedoms and rights guaranteed by our constitution. Most of all, I'm proud of that very document. I'm amazed that it has withstood the ravages of time and change so well. Our world today, increased millionfolds in complexity and scope, would be almost unrecognizable to its writers, and yet it still works remarkably well. Sure, there are plenty of grey areas and kinks to work out, and plenty of threats to undermine it; there always have been and likely always will be; human nature and entropy dictate that; and yet it still survives and thrives, meeting every new challenge with remarkable aplomb. Its perfect simplicity and built-in error correcting machinery have served us well, and weathered many storms, from the Alien and Sedition Acts to McCarthy to Watergate, relatively unscathed. Above and through all, we still have that Bill of Rights and those Checks and Balances, and that's quite an accomplishment, imnsho.

I'm proud of our founding fathers as well. It amazes me that so many eminently talented and freethinking men just happened to converge at the same crucial time and place. Washington for his ability to inspire men, and to know how to use that power sparingly, and when to step aside gracefully. Franklin for his all-around genius and diplomatic wit. Hamilton for his economic wizardry. Adams and Madison, the unsung workers who were responsible for much of the real intellectual and popular labor required to forge a union from such disparate parts. Patrick Henry for his huge brass gonads. But, most of all, Jefferson and Paine.

The two Toms. I think they best represent the conflict of the great American experiment. Both men of genius and grand ideas, but one very much a man of his times, and the other a man well ahead of his. One a pragmatist, the other an idealist. Paine, of course, is best known for writing "Common Sense," and stirring up revolutionary fervor. After that, though, he kind of drops off the radar. Why? Because he dared to take the ideas of freedom and equality to their logical conclusion. He spoke out against slavery, and in favor of women's rights. He criticized the hypocrises of organized religion while still claiming to be a strong believer in a supreme Deity. He opposed the hypocritical actions of his former allies, the newly empowered revolutionaries in France. He lived unswervingly for his ideals and for Truth, pointing out hypocrises and lies wherever he saw them,. And what did it get him? Almost universal revulsion and hatred. He was imprisoned in and eventually driven from both England and France, and returned to the US where he died a penniless outcast. He lived the America he wished for, and for that his fellows ostracized and imprisoned him.

Jefferson professed to believe in most of the same ideals as Paine, and yet his path proved to be widely divergent from that of his compatriot. Jefferson was a man of many faces and hats... a politician, a pragmatist, a scientist, a philosopher, a farmer, and most of all a man of his times. Methinks that he cannot be much faulted for that, and that he also did extremely much more good than ill in his life. I cannot criticize too strongly a man who said
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of Reason than that of blindfolded fear.
However, he also said
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...
with a straight face while still owning slaves, among other things. Still, if I'm making a list of great lives lived, Jefferson goes at or near the top of it. Obviously, he wasn't perfect. But, he more than any other, took the ideas of Paine(well, and the rest of the Enlightenment thinkers) and tried to put them into practice as best as he could manage on a large scale and in a chaotic and quarrelsome time and place. This required compromising, getting his hands dirty, and perhaps besmirching his legacy in the process, but he took on the unenviable task, and he did it to the best of his considerable abilities. He perhaps accomplished more personally, in more diverse fields, and contributed more to making America what it is today, than any other man. And, for that, I commend and revere him, despite his all-too-human foibles. Paine may not have been a hypocrite, but he also didn't do nearly as much good for the human race as a whole as Jefferson either. His results, well, they speak for themselves. America today, the majority of the time, lives up to the words above, at least regarding her own citizens. In this country, I, and anyone else, can legally burn the flag, or burn the president in effigy, or even try to incite a revolution against the government, among other things. When you get down to it, individuals in this country still have more guaranteed rights and better opportunities to pursue Life, Liberty, and Happiness than they would anywhere else. That's the real reason people are literally dying to come here. But, of course, one could argue(and I would agree) that they shouldn't have to.

Whichever one we emulate, there is still greatness to be found. The Jeffersonian, flawed America of today is doubtless still great... the most powerful and prosperous country in perhaps all of human history. From a purely Utilitarian standpoint, simply as a result of our largesse, and regardless of our often selfish motives, we probably still do more measurable good for the world than any other nation ever has. We feed and medicate much of the world. Our economy drives much of the world's commerce, with accompanying increases in standard of living, technology, and lifespan.

But, that all comes at a price, both morally and materially. We are largely responsible for wrecking the environment, and thus endangering all life on Earth. We have and continue to help keep tyrants and dictators in power when it is to our economic and military advantage. Our largely soulless consumer culture spreads like a virus, laying waste to any local traditions and values in its path. And, of course, we could be doing so much more good than we currently do. It is within our power to virtually eliminate starvation, tyranny, ignorance, and the ravages of many diseases from this world altogether, but we fail to do so, even within our own borders. How can we claim to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and yet act in such a cowardly and greedy manner towards the rest of the world? Like Jefferson, we are hypocrites. But, like Jefferson, we are also products of our times, and of compromise. And our era is one marked by unprecedentedly rapid change and increase in our knowledge of the world and ourselves. Perhaps we can still manage to become more like the America that Paine envisioned. There is stll much to be hopeful about, and much worth fighting for. I intend to do everything that I can to make that America happen. So, what does that involve? Having the bravery to stand up and speak out... to point out hypocrisies and lies, to work for change, to defend the rights we already have against their gradual erosion due to apathy and blind conformity. To constantly stand guard against wolves of oppression clothed in the colors of the Flag, for...
In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary, 'patriotism' is defined as the last resort of the scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first. - Ambrose Bierce "The Devil's Dictionary"
I have a real love-hate relationship with this Godforsaken country of mine. I love her for those Painean ideals and grand promises, and hate her for her failures to fulfill them and her sometimes outright dismissal of them. I love her, but I don't like being told how I should demonstrate my feelings. I don't like feeling compelled to stand for the National Anthem, salute the flag, or pledge allegiance, because the America I stand for doesn't require such gestures. That America is based on the idea of personal freedom of choice. Government by consent of the governed. Freedom to dissent against or even renounce said government if you feel that it no longer represents you. My America is not "One Nation Under God," and I won't pledge allegiance to her as such. My America is that of "E Pluribus Unum" (from many... one)My founding fathers were a diverse mix of Deists, Agnostics, Protestants, Catholics and Freethinkers, not the pious Puritanical Christian soldiers-in-lockstep that they've somehow been repackaged as. I'm of the opinion that the true Patriots are those who support the rights of people to burn flags, spew racist hate, incite rebellion, and otherwise abuse and disrupt the very institutions that guarantee them their rights. Not because I often agree with such things, mind you, but because I know that if they're protected despite their repugnance and extremism, then everyone else is bound to be as well. And also because I fear that someday they might be in charge, in which case I would find it necessary to burn the flag, among other acts of civil disobediance. Because...
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
I sincerely hope that it never comes to that, but I do like knowing that such contingencies are planned for and according rights are given, regardless. It's perhaps the one thing that I'm most proud of about this country. That unpopular, repugnant and even at times treasonous views and acts are still protected. Because the world changes, and you just never know when the tables might be turned. After all, the ideas of democracy and equality were generally thought of as extremist and repugnant in the late 18th century. Look at what happened to poor Paine when he tried to live them out fully.

Unfortunately, I'd say my views are in the vast minority of my countrymen as a whole. Most Americans seem to want the government to look out for their ideas and interests alone. Freedom to speak, and act as long as you agree with Us. Equal protections and rights for all, as long as it doesn't cut into the Bottom Line. Rights for you, as long as I don't have to sacrifice anything in return. The conformity, laziness, ignorance, and greed of this nation confounds me. But still, I am a part of her, and born of her, for better or worse. I won't give up on her. I will voice my dissent and work to make her better in whatever ways I can, for as Robert Maynard Hutchings said
The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.
And even Jefferson himself, despite his public faults, knew that...
I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power
That's where you and I, and everyone who values these lofty ideals that America is supposed to stand for, come in. It's our job to fight the ignorance and the apathy, to nourish our growing young Democracy as well as discipline her when she inevitably misbehaves. I criticize my country and my government because I love them. Because I want them to fulfill their promise. And so should you. We've come a long way. Today, Tom Paine wouldn't likely meet with such an unfortunate fate. However, he wouldn't be greatly admired, either. There's still very far to go. Still many battles, large and small, ideological and practical, to be fought. America has yet to live up to her Promise, but the great experiment is also far from over. I'm glad of being a part of it, and I wish I could stick around to see how the next 225 years pan out.
by Jared Dunn on 7/13/2001 05:08:26 AM | bang on |

so, fourth of july, independence day, all that. 225 years. something to be proud of?
by rabi on 7/4/2001 03:51:49 PM | bang on |