Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Week 21: Independence Day: Canceled
This past Saturday was the Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day. It marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document that was informed by Enlightenment concepts and that was written in the spirit of the Magna Carta. It declares the intention of the British colonies to become separated from Great Britain, and it lists the reasons that prompted the separation.
The Declaration of Independence started the United States down the path of freedom. As the Founders knew full well, they and the fledgling nation they were to form were far from perfect. The birth of this nation was based on high ideals that, out of political necessity due to the political conditions of the time, were compromised, namely the inherent freedom of all people. 
Thirteen years later, the Constitution was ratified. Among its purposes is the intent to form a “more perfect Union.” The Founders knew that governments, like the people who form them, are imperfect, but they had a view of the long game. They created a document that would enable the people of the United States to improve themselves and their government over time. 
Students of Aristotle, they realized, that “happiness requires not only excellence or virtue, but also a full term of years for its exercise.”
What a testament to the virtues of Righteous Indignation, Truthfulness, Proper Ambition, Liberality and Courage would it have been had the Founders all agreed that equality and freedom were the inherent rights of all human beings, regardless of race or gender. Sadly, this was not to have been the case. Compromise, or perhaps capitulations, set for our nation a hurdle over which to come in our pursuit of that more perfect Union. It was a hurdle that we are still striving to overcome today.
Let us take a step back, though, for a moment. Ours has become a “cancel culture,” and I think it is important to know what we are canceling, lest we throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included the following, which was stricken from the approved version by way of unfortunate compromises, among those in the Continental Congress, to secure its passage.
“He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
This is in no way intended to excuse Jefferson or any others of that time for the purchase, possession, breeding, sale and murder of enslaved persons. His commentary on persons of African descent, specifically enslaved Black people, describe opinions and beliefs that were likely not uncommon to White people of the day, especially those in the South. This commentary is made clear in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” In mentioning this, it is only intended to show that Jefferson and others of his day were not one-dimensional characters. They knew that slavery was indeed an evil institution, and Jefferson himself sought to expose it and call for its end in his original draft of the Declaration.
Will today’s society “cancel” Thomas Jefferson? Perhaps. But I hope they take into account the full measure of his ideas before doing so.
Abolitionists of the day, such as British author Thomas Day, wrote about the inherent contradiction in the document, which in one sentence declares that “all men are created equal,” and which silently gives consent to the practice of institutionalized inequality upon which slavery had its foundation. He wrote in 1776, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”
There is truth in Day’s statement. If you, kind reader, knew that Day also found fame (or infamy) for his “educational” project on wife training and that he adopted two girls, aged 11 and 12, from an orphanage, so that he would train them to become a perfect wife for himself (he adopted two, figuring that one of them must surely learn from his training), would you believe that his views on abolition should be canceled because of his repugnant, twisted and pedophilic practices on wife training?
Hopefully none of us has a sin as dastardly as slavery or misogynistic pedophilia. I can rightly presume, though, that none of us is without sin. Consequently, we should be mindful before casting stones, stones that might cancel the good a person may think or do, such as speaking out for human rights and for exposing hypocrisy. 
Let us return to Aristotle and his “Nicomachean Ethics” for a moment. He states that the pursuit of happiness or excellence in something requires knowledge of what is to be done, choosing to apply that knowledge, and acting on that knowledge.
In the Declaration of Independence, particularly that first draft, the Founders possessed the knowledge that slavery was wrong. Some applied that knowledge to prepare the words above, from that original draft. They failed to act on that knowledge in a way that was consistent with what they knew. To be sure, this was a missed opportunity of terrible proportions.
In spite of this tragedy, the Declaration contains principles around which, I believe, we can all rally and upon which we can build our more perfect Union. I invite you to explore these principles with me.
The term “life” comes from the Old English, meaning the period of a person’s existence from birth to death. This comes from a Proto-Germanic word that carries with it the notion of perseverance, and this has its root in a Proto-Indo-European word meaning adherence. While there is no dearth of challenging issues we face, perseverance is a national characteristic that we can leverage to progress toward a more perfect Union. If we adhere to the principles that we all share, those that define our shared humanity, we will find peace and harmony.
The term “liberty” comes from the Old French, meaning freedom and free will, as well as a freedom from the bondage of sin, which, in turn, has its origin in a Latin word meaning the condition of being free and an absence of restraint. Each of us has the authority exercise his or her free will to choose peace and harmony over hate and division. If we respect each individual’s right to exercise their will, insomuch as it does not impede others from doing the same, true freedom can be achieved.
The “pursuit of happiness,” has two key components. “Pursuit” comes from the Old French word for a search. Happiness comes from the Middle English and earlier the Old Norse, meaning favorable fortune or chance, which has its origins in the Proto-Indo-European word for suiting, fitting or succeeding. With respect for life and liberty, our chances to find success in our search for good fortune must be increased. As with Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the good fortune of each of us has a beneficial effect on the good fortune of society as a whole.
Since then end of the Civil War, we have looked to the government to implement programs to change the hearts and minds of all people. Such reliance, as we see today, fails to heal the deep wounds of the past. It appears, instead, to pick at the scarred tissue and re-infect the wound. In every part of life, save one, I am an eternal and unrepentant optimist. The exception may be summed up in the old adage, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Name any area of life in which the government today promotes Life. Abortion and the death penalty persist. The so-called Affordable Care Act has proven otherwise, with insurance costs exploding, making it less affordable for many than before the act was passed. When care is delivered, such as in our VA hospitals, it worsens with any increase in government involvement. Welfare policies put forth perverse incentives that discourage marriage, leaving children without the benefit of two parents, a condition of development that is proven to be favorable in life.
Name any way in which the government advances Liberty. On our public university campuses, we now have “safe spaces” to shield people from words they do not like, and we have so-called “free speech zones” that tolerate speech, as long as it “triggers” no one. And recall Voltaire’s exposure of toleration as an evil in that it connotes a notion of putting up with someone as opposed to engaging with them and understanding them and their perspectives and beliefs. Government spies on us and our associations with people and groups. They use us, and the record of history is clear on this, as guinea pigs in all sorts of experiments. Government’s purpose is no longer service to the people but control over them. 
Name any program that eases the Pursuit of Happiness. In some ways our tax system is progressive, reducing the capital of the wealthy and impeding their ability to innovate and grow the economy. In some ways it’s regressive, hurting the poor and their access to the basics of life. The government, through its Byzantine policies and programs, favors some ventures and discourages others. Take its stands on school choice and drugs. Quality education is the best way to assure one of success in his or her pursuit of happiness; however, the government does all it can to maintain as much of a monopoly on education as possible. It enables them to indoctrinate the young to their ways of thinking. And who suffers? The poor, who haven’t the means to choose a better option for their children than the ramshackle public schools can offer. Take drug restrictions. Some people, I am told, enjoy them. Has the government’s restrictions on drugs stopped their use? No. If anything, government has made the use of drugs more dangerous, and it has directly contributed to the prison population.
The point in all these examples is not to discard the principles of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. On the contrary, the point is that the time has come to stop abdicating our responsibility for these principles to the government. It is high time that we reclaim them as our own. 
Only by discussing these ideas with our fellow citizens, regardless of background, can we hope to heal our nation and to make progress on forming our more perfect Union. 
As we consider candidates for office, who will represent us, consider who will be true partner in the reclamation of our core principles. Who will, to paraphrase Thoreau, govern best by governing least?

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