Saturday, July 04, 2009

Independence Day

On this, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the usual diatribes by left and right have been launched. As for myself, I was raised with a fundamental faith in the Constitution, and it is this adherence that creates my political views. There are those that believe the United States is the best country on earth and that those who don't agree can go back where they came from so that we can bomb them. There are those that believe that the United States is a fundamentally flawed nation due to the myriad shortcomings of the (white, educated, propertied) Founding Fathers who implemented a system little different from the one they had overthrown.

The great truth of this day is the absolute revolution that occurred, and which has been so powerfully manifest in this country and all the countries around the world that it is now accepted as a basic reality, no matter how harsh regimes attempt to suppress it. That revolution was the radical change in thought that perceived human beings as having innate rights, not rights given to them by the grace of a power on high, either God or King. This belief in the dignity and value of the individual has leveled the tyrannies of the world and ensured that wherever petty tyrannies raise themselves up, they cannot long endure. While their regimes might seem interminably long to the living, they are the merest flicker of a page in the book of history.

The system built on the belief in the innate value of the human being was compromised and incomplete as established by our Founding Fathers, yet it contained within itself the seeds of its own improvement. Having once embraced the notion that human beings have rights, it was inevitable that more and more men, and eventually, women, should claim those rights. The liberation of white men of property lead to the enfranchisement of white men without property, which lead to the emancipation of the slaves, the affirmation of civil rights regardless of color, suffrage for women, the notion that people with disabilities ought to be able to participate in society the same as any one else, and most recently, the clamor for equal rights for gay people.

Some of these rights are more firmly established than others; who today expects to be faced with a literacy test at the ballot box? We have reached the point in our society that to even suggest such a thing is a preposterous impossibility, and would be taken as evidence that the proposer was a member of the lunatic fringe even more daffy than Flat Earthers. Other of these rights are poorly implemented: 70% of our adult citizens with disabilities remain without employment, while of those that have jobs, 50% are underemployed, working hours and positions less than their qualifications. Still others have not yet been established in any broad way; while states may grant the right for same sex couples to marry, federal law bars their recognition.

Once upon a time the notion that women should vote was a radical and gross offense that threatened the social order--why, if women could vote, they might want to work outside the home, too! Critics and fearmongers were right, women's rights DO change society. Repressive regimes understand perfectly well that women must be kept ignorant and at home in order to maintain their power; intelligent, educated women are not going to accept a system that dispossesses them, and are therefore a threat to the status quo that maintains their oppressors. It is no accident that women have played a major role in the civil protests in Iran. Why should Iranian women be conservative and support their government?

The real genius of the Founding Fathers was to create a method to harness social evolution constructively, without revolution, riot, and civil war. The notion that human beings ought to have rights was not truly new; democracy (usually limited to men of property) had been tried in a number of societies; the military republics of North Africa (the Barbary States) were fierce meritocracies in which ability raised a man up. The problem in each case was transition. How does the current regime hand over power to the new regime, which it inevitably must, because no politician is immortal? Even if he was, changing conditions would force a regime change sooner or later.

The US Constitution instituted a system which balanced its powers, provided a method to redress grievances, and to amend itself in response to change, while at the same time providing stability that would not be easily buffeted by the usual exigencies and cycles of political life. While it has manifest imperfections, what system in the world performs better? The most successful nations have incorporated its principles, modified in whatever way seems to fit their situation better. Not all attempts to implement representative government have been successful; but these failures do not invalidate the great success of the American Constitution.

Not all successful systems are modeled on the American one--on the surface. But consider even Communist China. Even if we look at the days of Mao when the system was at its most repressive we can find the American Principle at work: that people, not Gods and Kings, have rights. The Communist system is simply a different method to implement the underlying principle. It hasn't been around long enough to judge whether it has the staying power and can provide the necessary longevity, flexibility, and stability to be a truly successful state, but it has been around long enough to show that it works better than say, theocratic tyrannies.

Not all theocratic states are oppressive. Islam as taught by Mohammed was a liberating force that leveled barriers based on color, ethnicity, race, nationality, class, and other factors. All men are 'brothers in Islam' and a Muslim cannot own another Muslim as a slave. Implementation was imperfect; non-Muslims were second class citizens in Islamic states, but the vast majority of the population had greater rights and prosperity than what they had experienced under previous regimes. The Qu'ran, if followed faithfully, curbs excesses and creates improvement. The so-called 'Islamic states' of the modern world are not following the Qu'ran.

Not surprisingly, the energy needed to oppress their own people in 'Islamicist' states impairs economic and intellectual activity, causing them to fall behind the rest of the world. The same thing happened in the American South: slavery impoverished the entire region while enriching a very small elite. Why hire a free man if in the long run it is cheaper to own a slave? Slavery was a brake on the economic and intellectual activity of ordinary free people as well as slaves. Only slavelord prosper in such a system.

The American Principle, that people have innate value and are entitled to rights just because they are human, can be discerned when people are able to earn a wage sufficient for their needs. If people are not entitled to rights, there is no obligation to pay them wages necessary to support a dignified life. The Nazis moved Jews and others into concentration camps and exploited them as slave labor because they were subhuman; they were not entitled to the rights and dignity of human beings. Poverty is the condition of not having enough money to obtain the necessities of life: shelter, food, medical care, education. Thus, where poverty afflicts a large number of people, we can infer that they are considered to be subhuman by the powers that be.

In short, poverty is a CHOSEN condition, those in power CHOOSE to inflict it on those who do not have power. Those who do not have power cannot change it. They can only beg the powerful to change. Giving up power means giving up comfort, and few people are willing to do so. Therefore they have to justify their refusal. The simplest way is to say that they deserve what they have and other people don't. In short, to deny the equality and humanity of those they disadvantage.

Protestations of liberalism, of equality, of justice, of progress, mean nothing at all compared to the facts on the ground. Who has adequate shelter, food, medical care, and education? Who doesn't?

The American Revolution was motivated by economics. 'No taxation without representation' is an economic platform. The Americans were economically disavantaged by a wide variety of taxes and regulations that were intended to channel the profits of economic activity into the British homeland economy, not the colonial economy. Ships wishing to do business with American colonies had to touch at British ports and pay British duties -- no independent business between a British colony and any other country. The homeland had to get her cut. The Stamp Tax -- no business requiring paperwork could be conducted unless the homeland got a fee. Imagine trying to sell your house, but the sale could not go through unless you bought a stamp which accomplished nothing at all except to send your dollars to a faceless bureaucrat in England. There were many such provisions, which is why the opening protests of the American Revolution, such as the Boston Tea Party, were economic in nature.

Money is the counter that tells us who has rights and who doesn't.

There are those who argue that the obscenely rich have 'earned' their money. It is possible that certain noteworthy individuals have done so, but the average rich person has not. The scandals of Wall Street have revealed that a lot of people have made a lot of money by suckering other people. By exploiting people. By treating them as being less than human, not entitled to fair play and adequate information. Democracy does not guarantee equal outcomes, but it does guarantee a certain minimum standard, a standard which has not been met in this country. Only a few European countries can demonstrate the adequate care of all their citizens that affirms the innate worth and dignity of the people. This is called 'socialism' and is fiercely opposed in the United States.

Let's see. Everybody has adequate shelter, food, clothing, medical care, and education, and obtaining good jobs is more dependent upon your personal abilities and education and less dependent on having a rich and powerful family that can afford to send you to a fancy school. If disaster strikes, a safety net sees you through so that you do not go bankrupt.

Isn't this the ideal subsumed in the notion that all people are human beings endowed with certain innate rights? To say it is not is to say that some people deserve to live in poverty and hunger, that some people deserve a better education than others, and that it is only right that people with advantages get better jobs than those that don't.

On this Independence Day let us pledge ourselves to the radical notion that we are all human beings endowed with certain innate right and work for social justice. It's the American thing to do.


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